The Ontario government wants to modernize decades-old legislation surrounding child care, so that it can extend its enforcement powers and better protect children being cared for in unlicensed facilities.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said that she would be introducing legislation on Tuesday, which would replace the existing Day Nurseries Act that was first introduced in 1946 and last reviewed in 1983.
"Our proposed bill would not only enhance safety, but also foster the learning, development, health and well-being of children," Sandals said when speaking to reporters at a downtown Toronto Catholic school.
Under the proposed child care modernization act, the education ministry would gain the ability to directly impose fines of up to $100,000 on negligent child-care providers who have wilfully defied orders to comply with the law.
This differs from the current system, in which the ministry must take a provider to court in order to have a fine imposed.
Sandals said the government believes this particular change will "enable us to really crack down on those situations where people are deliberately working outside the law."
The ministry would also be able to immediately shut down a provider if a child is at risk.
The proposed legislation also seeks to increase the penalties for people who have been prosecuted in court to a maximum of $250,000.
Andrea Calver, of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, believes increasing fines would be a positive step, but there still is a key problem with the way the system works.
"The system is still complaints driven," she told CBC News in an interview on Tuesday.
"If you’re a neighbour, or if you pull your children from an unlicensed home child-care [facility] report it."
Other aspects of the proposed child-care modernization act are aimed at clarifying the rules on what programs or activities require licences.
Certain arrangements, such as when nannies, babysitters or relatives are looking after a child, would not require a licence. Camps providing programs for school-age children would also be exempt.
Informal child-care arrangements, in which providers are caring for no more than five children would be exempt as well. Sandals said these types of scenarios are common, generally occurring when a parent ends up looking after a neighbour’s children.
"That is then by definition, unlicensed child care," she said.
More licensed home child-care spaces
The government would also like to increase the number of licensed home child-care spaces, by allowing providers to provide care for up to six children, rather than the current limit of five.
"If all current licensed home child-care providers took on one additional space, they would create approximately 6,000 new child-care spaces, by just simply that one change in the regulation," Sandals said.
The proposed legislation comes after several deaths of children at unlicensed facilities in Ontario in recent years.
In a recent case involving a two-year-old girl who died at an unlicensed daycare in Vaughan, Ont., just north of Toronto, her family launched a $3.5-million lawsuit against the operator and the Ministry of Education.
Asked if those deaths had spurred the ministry to make legislative changes quickly, Sandals said staff have been working diligently.
"I wouldn’t say it has been rushed, but I would say that my staff at the Ministry of Education has been working very hard," Sandals said, noting that they had identified a need to deal with cases of non-compliance more forcefully.
The education minister said they had worked through more than three-dozen drafts of the legislation before its present form.
Sandals also said the ministry has also had to consider how the implementation of full-day kindergarten in Ontario has affected the way that childcare operates in the province.
The Liberals hold a minority position in the legislature, which means they would need the help of either the Progressive Conservatives or the New Democrats to get their legislation passed.
Sandals said she believed that the proposed legislation would appeal to both opposition parties.
At present, the Liberals hold just 49 of the 107 seats in the Ontario legislature, putting them ahead of the Progressive Conservatives (37) and the New Democrats (20).
One seat remains vacant following the resignation of Liberal MPP Kim Craitor in late September. The byelection in his Niagara Falls riding has yet to take place.