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Daycare during wartime

Daycare is now a fact of life for many Canadian families but for most of the past century it's been the subject of fierce debate. Turn-of-the-century day nurseries were considered little more than "child farms" by many, while politicians of the 1950s blamed juvenile delinquency on daycares and "crèches." More recently a debate has swirled around the merits of universal daycare versus traditional parenting. CBC Archives looks at the changing face of daycare, from its charitable beginnings more than a century ago to the ongoing fight for a federally funded system.

Since its beginning in the 1850s, Canadian Daycare was largely a haphazard venture, with churches and charities caring for poor children in substandard facilities. That all changed in 1939 when Canada joined the war effort.

With wives taking care of the domestic economy while their husbands were fighting overseas, the federal government quickly established a national system of "day nurseries" to care for the kids. This CBC Television documentary looks back at a forgotten chapter in Canadian Daycare history. 
. From 1942 to 1946 the Dominion-Provincial Wartime Agreement allowed for subsidized day nursery care for mothers working in essential wartime industries.
. Considered ahead of their time by child care advocates, these wartime day nurseries boasted organized play, regular outings and other features of what would soon be known as "early child education."

. The costs for these centres were shared 50-50 between the federal government and the participating provinces. These included Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Alberta opted out of the program, while Manitoba and British Columbia didn't have enough wartime workers to qualify.
. Women who qualified paid an estimated 35 cents a day for their first child aged two to six years old and 15 to 20 cents for additional children.

. Each provincial government had its own standards and regulations for day nurseries. As this clip recounts, Ontario's nurseries were considered to be among the best in the country.
. Ontario's laws stated each centre was to include at least 10 staff members, including a full-time cook and janitor in addition to workers trained in "nursery education."

. The wartime day nursery experience was a signal to some that society had changed.
. In a July 2, 1943, Globe and Mail article, an MP from North Battleford, Sask., named Dorise Neilsen said "The women of Canada do not want, after the war is over, any suggestion that the only place fit for them is in the home."
. In June 1946, with the war in Europe over, federal funding for day nurseries was pulled.


. While some municipal governments rushed to make up the shortfall, the majority of wartime day nurseries were soon closed.
. Protests from Ontario parents led to the continuation of day nurseries in the province. The costs were shared 50-50 between the province and the municipalities.


. A Toronto Daily Star editorial titled "Playing Politics With Children's Lives" from May 25, 1946, criticized Ottawa for backing out of the wartime agreement: "Instead of relaxing after the day's work," it said, "Many mothers have had to spend their energies trying to save the nurseries. They are having to plead for services which should be provided for their children. What a government!"


. In 1946 the provincial government passed the Ontario Day Nurseries Act, the first piece of government legislation to outline standards of service and training for day nurseries.
. While they were the first example of nationally funded Daycare, the wartime day nurseries were not without precedent. The first day nursery in Canada was established in Montreal in 1854 by Roman Catholic nuns.


. The Victoria Day Nursery - the first in Ontario - opened in 1890, with the West End Creche (a French word for crib) opening in 1909 in Toronto.
. According to an article in Good Daycare (1978), by 1933 there were a total of only 20 day nurseries across the country.

. These early Daycares were charitable and meant to care for the children of poor working mothers who could not afford to stay home. Apart from the pioneering West End Creche (which still exists), the standard of care in most nurseries was primitive.
. A typical nursery in 1909 housed about 50 infants and children and was supervised by a staff of three to five employees or volunteers.


. Writing in 1958, Margaret Hewitt said of early child care options that "to leave a tiny baby to the care of others was a hazardous business till well into the 20th century."
. As this clip depicts, working women without access to child care were often forced to take desperate measures. According to Good Daycare, women often resorted to tying their children to fences and bedposts in the morning.


. Others would place their children in orphanages, seeing them only on weekends.
. To hear what a 1948 Daycare was like go to the additional clip "How a nursery school is born."
Medium: Television
Program: The National Magazine
Broadcast Date: April 14, 1998
Guest(s): Martha Friendly, Lucille Pannebaker
Reporter: Jennifer Scott
Duration: 3:53
Photo: National Archives

Last updated: November 23, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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