When Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered the first glimpses of the government’s post-pandemic priorities in April’s federal budget, the commitment to building a national network of affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare was welcome news to millions. Parents and guardians have struggled to balance work and life priorities while caring for the needs of their children. Childcare operators and staff have struggled to keep their doors open through severe staff shortages, workplace outbreaks and strict public health protocols.

While the pandemic brought the issue of childcare to a boiling point, it did not create this crisis — it only highlighted the vulnerabilities in Canada’s patchwork programs. Simply put, early learning and childcare was not a national priority before the outbreak of COVID-19, but it should become one of the pandemic’s most important lasting legacies.

A timely new UNICEF report, Where do rich countries stand on childcare?, compares how rich countries support families from childbirth through the preschool years. These countries have similar levels of wealth but use different combinations of parental leave and support for childcare to help parents care for their children. The report ranks each country on seven indicators grouped into four dimensions: the duration and remuneration of parental leave, and childcare affordability, quality and access. Across all dimensions, Canada ranks a disappointing 22nd out of the 41 countries with comparable data.

The 2021 federal budget promise for childcare is a generational leap forward but it is still a small fraction of the overall budget and is not the largest social-policy expenditure earmarked within it.

Ranking in the middle among our peer countries, Canada’s early learning and childcare “system” is exclusive in every sense — it leaves out many children and families and tends to disproportionately benefit the most affluent. Countries at the top of the league table manage to offer inclusive parental leave of sufficient length and pay, and broad access to affordable, high-quality organized childcare — giving all parents choice in how to take care of their children. Those at the bottom of the table delegate childcare to the private realm by investing in neither substantial leave nor childcare options.

Most rich countries offer early learning and childcare in the year before primary school. In Canada, most provinces and territories offer full- or part-time preschool, earning Canada a middle rank of 16th, with 97 per cent enrolment. Canada’s rank falls below the average among rich countries, but it is the availability of affordable care before preschool where Canada falls furthest behind. Canada’s average enrolment rate for ages 2 to 4, at 53 per cent prior to the pandemic, was well below the average of more than 70 per cent. The rate ranges from just 34 per cent in Newfoundland to 73 per cent in Quebec. This leaves a policy gap for Canada’s families between the end of parental leave (for those fortunate enough to take it) and the start of preschool, with many families struggling to fill the gap.

Affordability is the main reason for unmet childcare needs across wealthy countries, but it matters more in some countries than others. Canada ranks 21st among rich countries for the affordability of childcare. It is especially expensive for two-earner couples at the Canadian median income level, for whom Canada’s affordability ranking falls to 28th of 34 countries. However, Canada is among the most affordable countries for single parents with low incomes.

The federal commitment to partner with provinces and territories to work toward a universal system of childcare holds the promise of a policy that will not only help families and children recover from the pandemic but also provide a good start for children in the years to come. However, we have unfinished policy business for young children and their families. In parental leave, Canada ranks 23rd among rich countries. Although incremental progress has given parents more time and flexibility, the limited eligibility of the Employment Insurance system and the low rate of pay leaves out far too many infants and their parents. Across rich countries, the average woman is paid two-thirds of her average earnings while on leave; 14 countries pay the full amount of their average earnings. In Canada, parental leave paid 52 per cent of the recipient’s average wage in 2018, making it unaffordable for some to take longer leave time and reducing family income in these critical early years.

Canada’s ranking in the fundamental child and family policies of parental leave and childcare reflects limits in federal, provincial and territorial policy priorities rather than available resources. The myth of scarcity in Canada is prevalent — a belief that investing more in children is unaffordable for the country. Even among child-policy advocates and service leaders, the dialogue often centres on a false dichotomy: if we invest more in one kind of child policy, such as income benefits, there is no funding to improve in others, like childcare. The 2021 federal budget promise for childcare is a generational leap forward but it is still a small fraction of the overall budget and is not the largest social-policy expenditure earmarked within it.

Canada is one of the world’s 15 richest countries, but ranks 30th in children’s well-being, suggesting that its current family-friendly policies are failing to achieve the best outcomes possible. According to OECD spending data, Canada invests less than the average in parental leave, childcare and income benefits for families with children: three early-years policies that, when inclusive, give children the best start in life and better, more equitable outcomes. We must do better.

UNICEF Canada, along with our partners Children’s Healthcare Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health and the Pediatric Chairs of Canada, led an unprecedented, collective approach to identify shared priorities to measurably improve the well-being of children, youth and families. The Inspiring Healthy Futures initiative engaged more than 1,500 youth, parents, researchers, educators, advocates, policymakers, service providers and community leaders.

The consensus? The state of children is not good enough for them, for us, or for Canada.

It is time to invest a fair share of Canada’s wealth and recovery in the generation whose futures will be defined by our priorities today.

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Lisa Wolff is Director of Policy & Research for UNICEF Canada.

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Terence Hamilton is Domestic Policy Specialist for UNICEF Canada.