A new report says child-care costs have increased across the country but parents in some regions — Toronto in particular — are feeling the pinch much more than most.

The study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tracks the price of child care across 27 Canadian cities and three age groups: infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Child-care fees were highest in Toronto across the board, with parents facing median costs of more than a $1,000 regardless of what age group their children fall in.

Quebec marks the other end of the spectrum, where government policies have capped child-care fees at $174 a month across all age groups.

The study also found that space in regulated child-care facilities was hard to come by in every city and lengthy waiting
lists were common.

The report by the CCPA — a think-tank that describes itself as a "progressive voice" in public policy debates — says the numbers suggest the need for all levels of government to get involved and invest in a more affordable child-care system nationwide.

'It's very much an accident of birth as to whether [parents] can find affordable child care or not.' - Economist and report co-author David Macdonald

Senior economist and report co-author David Macdonald said the variation among regions is both striking and concerning.

"It's very much an accident of birth as to whether they can find affordable child care or not," Macdonald said in a telephone interview.

"One of the starkest differences is in Ottawa ...You pay five times more for the same pre-school space one kilometre away in Gatineau compared to in Ottawa."

Cost variations are not always so starkly illustrated, but the centre's report suggests that fees cover a broad spectrum across the country.

Median costs for infant care in Toronto, which equal $1,736 a month, are noticeably higher than they are in second-place Newfoundland and Labrador which still charges a hefty $1,400. Variations also exist among cities that place limits on the prices parents must pay.

Quebec is not alone in capping child-care costs for families, as similar measures exist in Manitoba and Prince Edward Island.

While all cities in Quebec offer child care at $174 a month, however, parents in Winnipeg must shell out a median of $651 a month. The number rises to $738 in Charlottetown.

On average, child-care costs across the country rose five per cent over levels documented in 2014, the report said, adding much of the increase was tied to an adjustment of the provincial cap in Quebec.

Such an increase is no news to Jane Mercer, who's watched the upward trajectory of with rising alarm for more than two decades.

When her own children were enrolled in Toronto day cares 27 years ago, she paid $1,540 a month for an infant and $880 a month for a preschool-age child over the age of three.

Now, in her capacity as executive director for the Toronto Coalition for Better Child Care, she said she's watched the problem intensify and leave families struggling to stay afloat.

'A labour-intensive industry'

Mercer attributes the rising costs to the staffing-related challenges the industry faces.

She said most child-care centres spend nearly 85 per cent of their budgets on hiring the most qualified staff they can find and either staying within or exceeding provincially mandated child-to-adult ratios. This trend is unlikely to change, she said, since there is no substitute for qualified employees.

"It's a labour-intensive industry," Mercer said. "We can't automate it and reap those efficiencies. That is at the heart of the whole problem."

While budgets may be largely consumed by staff salaries, Macdonald said those workers are taking home unusually low wages.

The report pegged the average salary of an early childhood educator at $25,000, noting that many of them would be unable to afford to put their own children into the system.

Both Macdonald and Mercer agree that provincial and federal governments should take a more active role in reversing the trend. 

Macdonald is hopeful based on the focus child care received during the federal election. All three parties featured child-care benefit programs in their platforms, with the new Liberal government planning to earmark $22 billion to help families with their ballooning costs.

Macdonald said systems like Quebec's, in which parent fees are capped as governments make up the difference, offer a viable solution.

"That appears to be the most effective way in Canada to reduce fees for middle class families," he said. "If you have a system in where it's just in essence decided without government, you end up with situations like Toronto."