OTTAWA—The federal Liberal and the provincial Progressive Conservative governments have publicly staked their turf when it comes to expanding child care, and to hear them talk they’re miles apart.
With $10 billion on the table from the federal government to expand regulated child-care spaces, and reduce fees by half next year, it’s driving parents and municipalities in Ontario nuts.
But privately there is a breakthrough. Or at least what could be an important acknowledgment: that there is a $3.5 billion gap between them — that’s the amount Ontario spends to provide full-day junior and senior Kindergarten learning to 250,000 Ontario kids under five years of age.
On Tuesday, Ontario’s education minister said that’s a key demand for the Ford government, and the $10.2 billion that Ottawa has offered just doesn’t cover it.
On Thursday, a senior federal official told the Star, “We want to see that on paper.”
“We want to negotiate with the Ontario government. And until we have that, it’s just them talking to media at this point. We need something concrete, and we’re at the table ready to negotiate. But at this point, it’s a lot of talk, and we’re looking for an action plan. And we haven’t received that yet from them.”
Ontario’s junior and senior Kindergarten program would appear to meet many of the objectives laid out by the Trudeau government for its “pan-Canadian” early learning and child care program, particularly the provision of quality regulated early learning and child care for the under-five cohort.
The federal official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the state of any talks, did not acknowledge that explicitly but said: “What I would say is that’s certainly a regional difference that could be discussed at the negotiating table.”
There were other signs of rapprochement Thursday.
Premier Doug Ford and federal Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland attended a Remembrance Day ceremony together in Toronto. And later, they were seen informally chatting — six weeks after a federal election saw Ford and Justin Trudeau take political digs at each other.
(Ford had slammed the “unnecessary election” call. Trudeau had said he “certainly” hoped that Ford “steps up” on proof of vaccination, before the province did so in September. “It’s time for him to listen to public health officials,” said Trudeau in late August.)
However, Ford has since said it’s time to set aside political differences.
And that’s what desperate municipalities are saying too.
Municipal councils in Niagara and Toronto have passed motions — and Hamilton has a similar vote coming up — that reiterate their support for the federal program and direct staff to explore how cities might bypass the province and directly strike agreements with the federal government for the funds.
Carolyn Ferns, of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, said, “I think what it speaks to is their frustration that this is dragging on, as well as the fact that they understand what the child care crisis really is right now, and in their communities.”
Ferns said there is “a serious workforce crisis in child care that’s starting to impact programs. Programs are having to close rooms, (to) ask parents to send the children on alternate days and things because they can’t staff. So it’s really a problem.”
Faced with that pressure, Ford this week asked municipal leaders to be patient.
“I’m pleading with the municipalities, don’t divide and try to conquer. Just doesn’t work. Let’s stay united as a province,” he told reporters.
“When you stay strong and you stay united, we’re going to get a much better deal. I’m not in favour of making side deals with the federal government, with the municipality. That’s just not right for the people of Ontario. You need to stand together. We need to stay united and we’re going to get a much better deal than if you went it alone. It just makes common sense.”
To parents in Toronto, it would be a dream to see fees cut in half by next year. Toronto families pay a median monthly fee of $1,578 for toddler child care — the highest in the country by a long shot. In Quebec, by comparison, the median is $181 a month.
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But Ontario is almost alone in providing Kindergarten to four year olds. Only Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories also offer full-day, school operated programs for all four year olds, while Québec has committed to full-day pre-Kindergarten by 2023. And according to the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 10 jurisdictions offer full-day Kindergarten for five year olds, with Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta offering part-day programs.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said, “There needs to be more (federal) investment because we’re providing a massive investment that virtually no province in Canada does with the exception of Nova Scotia, partially.”
Ontario has two other demands: it wants to include for-profit child care operators and the families that use their services, and it wants clarity around the long-term funding for the program so the province is not left with the full bill at the end of five years.
The federal Liberal government has committed to bringing up its level of funding of child care to a 50/50 share as part of initial five-year agreements, and then an ongoing guaranteed level of at least $8.3 billion in national funding, with needs and progress to be determined starting in year six.
But the Trudeau government’s overriding goal is to cut regulated child care fees by 50 per cent on average by the end of 2022, with $10-a-day daycare for all regulated child care spaces by 2025-26. It has signed deals with seven provinces and one territory. Another senior official said there is still quite a bit of capacity building to do with the other two territories. But talks are underway with Alberta and New Brunswick, not Ontario.
The federal goal is to expand regulated child care spaces, but the preference is to expand non-profit services. All three holdout provinces, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick, don’t want to exclude their for-profit providers.
And yet there may be more common ground to be found there too.
The federal official who spoke to the Star said, “Federal funding can be used for all regulated existing providers, which includes for-profit providers, but of course, as we align to the budget, the primary support will be for not-for-profit spaces.”
New Brunswick’s Education Minister Dominic Cardy was not made available for an interview, but spokesperson Flavio Nienow, said in an email that negotiations with the federal government have resumed with a goal to reach an agreement “as soon as possible.”
He said that province wants a deal that responds to “the unique challenges and realities of New Brunswick’s early learning sector — which consists primarily of small, for-profit businesses that are owned and operated by female entrepreneurs.”
Ottawa has set out its own criteria, including greater “accessibility” for all, meaning spaces for disabled and other vulnerable groups, or children who need enhanced or individual support. Ottawa also wants better data tracking to publicly report progress.
“Accessibility is all about increasing the net number of regulated full-time spaces to reach a 59 per cent coverage rate in Ontario” for the under-five age group, said the federal official.
Lecce told the Star the province is discussing “in good faith” with Ottawa, and denied holding off negotiating a deal until closer to the provincial election next spring.
“We hope to get a deal as expeditiously as possible,” he said.
To date, Ottawa has offered Ontario a little more than $10 billion based on its share — 37.8 per cent — of Canada’s population of children under five.
Ontario officials say their per capita share of the $30-billion federal program announced in the federal budget is more than $11 billion.
But a senior federal official said the pot available to share among provinces and territories is actually $27.2 billion over five years, not the larger number. The official clarified that the oft-cited $30 billion number includes money set aside expressly for Indigenous early childhood education plans.
The federal government has committed to a baseline of $8.3 billion to provinces annually after year five, or $9.2 billion if you include ongoing Indigenous child-care funding.
The need for more child-care spaces is great, especially since the pandemic has ravaged the sector. Most child-care centres survive on parent fees, and the economic fallout of COVID-19 has hit them hard.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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