Last week, the federal government announced a cornerstone of their budget would be a Canada-wide child care system that would cost parents as little as $10 a day.
The announcement was met with enthusiasm from many working parents, who are rightly concerned about the affordability of child care. Indeed, child care will be an essential part of Alberta’s – and Canada’s – economic recovery. Over the last two years, we have made great strides to ensure that Alberta families have access to high quality, safe, and affordable child care. Alberta’s budget includes almost $400 million for child care this year. That money goes towards providing some of the nation’s most generous subsidies for parents, with about 11,000 families accessing care for as low as $13/day in the centre of their choice. We also provide one of the highest wage top ups in the country for Early Childhood Educators, so that centres can recruit and retain the best staff. This is all in spite of the fact that less than one in seven Alberta parents are using licensed childcare, with others choosing preschools, day homes, or care from family or neighbours.
So, I’ve been asked, if we support child care, why did we raise concerns? Why wouldn’t we just sign on?
First, we have no idea what the program will actually look like. The provinces have not yet received any information on how the funding will be structured nor what program requirements the federal government has in mind.
For example, what if the federal Liberals take a page from Rachel Notley’s NDP and disqualify private operators or preschools from participating? For context, Alberta’s licensed child care system is a mix of both not-for-profit and private/for-profit child care centres, day homes and for-profit preschools. We are unique from other provinces in the respect that the majority – more than 60% of child care centres are for-profit businesses – many run by female entrepreneurs, many of whom are early childhood educations, but also parents themselves. Wherever implemented, including in Alberta under the previous government, universal child care plans have often only allowed non-profit child care centres to participate, excluding the different and often innovative delivery models from entrepreneurs. This creates inequity, discourages choice for parents, and actually limits the number of spaces available for reduced fees. The reality is based on how they were rolled out, these spaces also often went to parents who know how to navigate waitlists instead of parents most in need.
A number of provinces – not just Alberta – have identified the need for flexibility, given the systems and needs of parents differ from region to region. This is precisely why child care falls under provincial jurisdiction.
Again, I’m asked, what type of flexibility are we looking for? What does that even mean?
We want to continue to support Alberta’s current choice-based model that has allowed us to respond swiftly when unique child care issues arise. We have been able to increase day home spaces, inclusive and culturally sensitive options, and extended hours and overnight care because of the entrepreneurship and innovation in our sector.
Alberta’s government intends to preserve that, and any child care agreement with Ottawa must allow for the full range of licensed providers and their families to benefit.
As a mom of two young children who are 6 and 3, I know how important child care is to working moms and dads across Alberta.
I also know Alberta is not alone in asking the federal government to respect the constitution and provide provinces with the flexibility we need.
So, I welcome the federal government’s commitment. I’m also optimistic that Alberta and Ottawa can work out a plan that lowers child care costs while protecting the choice Alberta parents currently have. We will be at the table when the details do come out, standing up for Alberta families. It is my hope that what the federal government proposes will be flexible enough to meet the needs of all working parents in this province and not only a select few.
That is the only true universal plan.
Rebecca Schulz is the Minister of Children's Services