National daycare system will need more money to lower fees, expand spaces, Hussen says

Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen says reducing the fees parents pay is a key factor in the Liberals' plan for a national child-care system.
Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen says the federal government wants a national child care system that's both affordable and accessible. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal minister in charge of the government's push on child care says reducing the fees parents pay is a key factor in the Liberals' plan for a national system.

Equally as important, said Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen in an interview with The Canadian Press, is the goal of expanding the number of affordable daycare spaces across the country for parents who want them.

He said the two issues have come up in his conversations with his counterparts in countries that have created their own national child-care systems.

Hussen said that driving down fees and ramping up the number of spaces likely would require a sizeable influx of federal funds.

He added the government expects the already high demand for daycare spots to increase once the pandemic is finally over.

"We have to work hard together to decrease fees substantially, to make it more affordable for parents, but we also have to make sure that there is an increase in the number of spaces," Hussen said

"Otherwise, we'll have a situation where you make it more affordable, but only for those who can access it. And for those who just can't find a space, they're out of luck."

Businesses buy in

The Liberals pledged to create a universal child-care system in their September throne speech as a way to help more women return to and enter the workforce. The number of women in the workforce has dropped during the pandemic.

Along with longtime child care advocates, business groups also have become more vocal supporters of the idea — something Hussen and other Liberals now cite when discussing child care.

November's economic statement pledged money to help provinces and territories hire, train and retain early childhood educators, and to build the necessary government infrastructure to guide policy development.

"You can't talk about a national system, more affordability, more quality and an expansion of spaces without hiring more workers," Hussen said.

"Without increasing the number of early childhood educators, then you're not really delivering on those increased spaces."

The total earmarked for child care in the fall statement came to $585 million in new money, some of it spread over five years.

In their consultations with experts, the Liberals have been told that federal funding would be need to make spaces more affordable.

In some cities, a daycare space can cost more per month than rent or mortgage payments.

On the other side, covering the cost of spaces is also seen as a way to help child-care centres rely less on steep fees — which dried up when lockdowns forced them to close. Some centres closed for good, while others were pushed to the financial brink, because they run on tight margins.

To build the kind of system nationally that Quebec has provincially could cost Ottawa upwards of $11 billion annually once its fully in place, according to some estimates.

Child care is a provincial responsibility and a change in federal government could also shift priorities away from a plan that would take years to implement.

Hussen said the government will be looking to "generate early momentum" with provinces and Canadians to prove the Liberals are serious about the child-care promise.

He also said the government would bring "resources and political will" to the table in talks with provinces.

Hussen said similar efforts will take place with Indigenous groups to co-develop a daycare system that is culturally appropriate.

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