Some provinces not ready to embrace Liberal pledge to build a national child care system

Provincial governments have reacted with a mixture of skepticism and openness to the Liberal government's pledge to build a universal and affordable child-care system.

Federal budget offers record investment to reduce cost of early learning and child care

The Liberal government announced its intention to invest up to $30 billion to build a national child care and early learning system. The next step will be negotiating details of the program with the provinces and territories. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Provincial governments have reacted with a mixture of skepticism and openness to the Liberal government's pledge to build a universal and affordable child care system.

In the federal budget, tabled yesterday, the federal government said it would invest up to $30 billion over the next five years, starting this fiscal year, to help offset the cost of early learning and child care services.

The goal is to cut fees in half within the next 18 months and reduce the cost for parents to $10 a day by 2026, the budget said.

The strings attached to the spending pledge would dictate what forms of child care could be eligible for federal funding, and how much parental fees must drop.

"We really look forward to rolling up out sleeves and starting to negotiate bilateral deals, with willing partners, among the provinces and territories on really stepping up our game on early learning and child care," Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said told reporters today. 

But some provincial leaders either feel the strings on the cash are too tight, or won't necessarily help their provinces.

Their responses mark the opening salvos in what could become complex and thorny negotiations between the Liberals and the provinces to create a national system.

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Need for flexible funding

Alberta and Ontario said the proposed measures don't meet the unique needs of parents in their provinces, while New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs wondered if the money is aimed at buying votes in large urban centres.

"While we welcome increased support for child care, until this year, the federal government only contributed 2.5 per cent to Ontario's program," Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement. 

"Ontario needs long-term financial support that is flexible to respond to the unique needs of every parent, not a one-size-fits-all approach."

Alberta's Children's Services Minister Rebecca Schulz also called for flexibility in the funding. 

"What I really want to make sure is that there's flexibility so that we can meet the unique needs of Alberta child care operators and Alberta parents," Schulz said.

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A national child-care strategy announced in the federal budget promises to subsidize the cost to $10 per day for parents by 2025-26. The work and parenting challenges of the pandemic have pushed child care from a social issue to an economic priority.

Schultz said that in Alberta, more than 60 per cent of child care centres are privately owned and only one in seven parents enrol their children in licensed daycares.

"Let's put that into context: to expand a universal program right across Alberta would cost more than $1 billion," Shulz said.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he needs to see more details before passing judgment. But he criticized the fact that the budget did not include a substantial and permanent increase to the Canada Health Transfer — a key demand premiers have been making for months.

"We have trouble with a federal government here that doesn't want to partner effectively on providing health care," said Pallister.

"So I'm very hesitant to give a blank cheque to the federal government already on a pronouncement pre-election."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said provinces must agree to targets on affordability, quality of care and training of early childhood educators if they want a share of the federal child care funding laid out in the budget.

"Provinces that agree to step up in real ways on child care will move forward on agreements," Trudeau said in an interview with Edmonton-based online talk show host Ryan Jespersen.

"Those who aren't interested, well, there's nothing we can do to force them to do it, but they won't be getting the resources that will come through a bilateral deal to move forward on child care."

Atlantic premiers welcome funding

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin and Newfoundland and Labrador's finance minister were both more open to the funding.

"I think this is very important to families and in particular, women, allowing them to get back into the workforce," said Newfoundland and Labrador Finance Minister Siobhan Coady.

Rankin said he's directed the province's education department to examine how the proposed "substantial" funding can help the province improve its pre-primary program. He said an initial calculation projects Nova Scotia would receive around $100 million over the next five years.

"I expect that this budget will pass, hopefully, and we'll be able to leverage this opportunity and we'll finally have universal child care," said Rankin.

"[In the] last budget, we lowered our cost per child care to $25 per day and now with this assistance we'll be considering what more we can do."

In Quebec, the province already operates a child care system where parents pay a flat fee of $8.35 per day. The budget said the Quebec system would be a model for a national system, and that the federal government would look to reach an agreement with the province to further improve its system.

Expanding spaces, fee reductions

The Liberals hope to build on previous child care funding deals, signed four years ago, that broadly outlined how spending tied to the Trudeau government's first foray into daycare needed to be used.

Those deals committed the federal government to spending $7.5 billion over 11 years to create or maintain 40,000 child care spaces. Freeland's first budget doesn't say how many spaces the new federal pledge would create, nor does it estimate how many spaces might move from home-based or private care to non-profit settings.

Expanding spaces needs to go hand-in-hand with fee reductions, said David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"There are not specific targets on the number of child care spaces created. Hopefully, there will be soon," he said.

"That's a big part of a national child care plan, particularly if your goal is to reduce fees."

The budget's child care spending pledge would see the government increase funding over time before matching provincial spending on child care.

Provinces aren't being asked to match costs over the ramp-up period, assuming they sign on to five-year funding agreements starting this fall, said economist Armine Yalnizyan.

"I'm very hopeful that for the first time with political will, as well as money and ambition at the table, we are going to get to where we need to go," said Yalnizyan, who sits on Freeland's task force on women in the economy.

"The only hiccup is going to be intransigent provinces."

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen said the 2017 agreement and previous bilateral agreements on child care between the federal and provincial governments provide a foundation for co-operation.

"This is a journey that we want to embark on together with provinces and territories," Hussen said in an interview on CBC's Power & Politics.

Hussen said the negotiations will determine how much money each province will contribute to the system, and the design of the system in different regions.

With files from The Canadian Press

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