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Affordable, high-quality child care for all is achievable – if lagging provinces push for it

David MacdonaldCanada is getting closer to the federal government’s historic vision of a universal, publicly-funded child care system “for all.” But more needs to be done to realize it fully.

In 2021, the federal budget funded a program to cut child care fees in half by December 2022 and reach $10-a-day by 2025-26. Now, the provincial and territorial governments are trying to hit those goals with the federal cash.

In the spring of 2023, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) conducted our ninth annual phone survey of licensed child care fees in 37 big cities to see how the provinces and territories were doing.

The good news is that Canada is making solid progress toward achieving the federal December 2022 objective. More than half of the big cities cut fees by 50 percent or more. Another quarter got close. The final quarter of cities in Alberta, B.C. and P.E.I. saw reduced fees, but the drop was in the 20 to 30 percent range – a distance from the federal target.

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This means that the provinces and territories mostly delivered on the federal government’s fast-tracked plan of halving fees by December 2022.

Additionally, seven provinces and territories now have set fees, which means that all parents across the province pay the same provincially-set amount and each centre charges the same fee. And five of these are already at $10 a day or less, three years ahead of target.

Yet, despite fees mostly falling by 50 percent, they still remain high in many cities – though they’re lower than in 2019.

Currently, infant care remains the most expensive, with a median fee level of $900 a month for full-time care, in Richmond, B.C. and Toronto. Toddler child care is also most expensive in Richmond, B.C., with a median of $905 a month, followed by $808 a month in Calgary and $725 a month in Toronto. For preschoolers, Calgary is the most expensive city, at $810 a month, followed by $800 a month in Richmond, B.C. and $600 a month in Oakville, Vaughan, Toronto, Burnaby, and Surrey.

In contrast, full-time child care fees are lowest in cities where provinces have moved to set fees across all age groups. This includes Quebec’s cities but also St. John’s, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, and Iqaluit, where fees are now $10 a day.

Establishing set fees in the six provinces and territories that don’t have them should be an immediate next step before then ratcheting them down to $10-a-day over the next three years. Our survey showed that parents in big cities pay a wide range of fees well above the median. Moving to set fees would make fees more predictable for parents as each centre would not differ in what they charge.

Unfortunately, dropping fees is the easy part of this process; what comes next is harder.

Lower fees create much more demand from families, which was part of the plan. But that requires building more spaces. Our survey showed that in half the cities analyzed, centres said they have no room to accept new children in the next week. Basically, the current system is full.

The provinces and territories are not done yet. They now need to develop expansion strategies to ensure new spaces are created near where children live, not just in the downtowns of big cities. They also need to focus expansion on public or non-profit spaces to keep costs down, and they need to ensure that new funding models include improvements to wages in order to retain staff.

The success achieved so far in reducing child care fees across much of Canada is worth celebrating. But all provinces and territories must keep pushing for the system to meet the goal of universal accessibility at $10-a-day.

David Macdonald is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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