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Uniting the haves and have-nots of Canadian childcare

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Image: Flickr/Heidi_d

If there's one thing that neoliberal politicians have figured out, it's that dividing people to conquer them is the best way to impose bad policy.

Indeed, it seems like everything that leaks out of the lips of our glorious Prime Minister seeks to divide and then conquer some community.

But social democratic parties aren't immune from these tactics either. Whether intentional or accidental, dividing people further is a deadly mistake.

Take the example of childcare in Canada. There are the haves, the families who can afford childcare, either through subsidies, inheritance, having a benevolent aunt who lives close by or by having ultra mature 18-month-olds who basically care for themselves. Then, there are the have-nots: the families who can't afford or can't find a suitable space, the woman who can’t afford to have children, the families who simply can't have children.

It's a minefield. So, any policy that seeks to close the gap between the haves and have-nots has to be crafted with great care.

I'm a minority in the "have" camp. I live in Canada's only province that has a childcare system. Since its creation, billions of dollars have been injected into the economy and, more importantly, the sanity of thousands of parents (especially mothers) has been restored.

My minority status is thanks to the fact that I bore two babies at the same time. My kids are not in the public childcare system. Instead, they are watched, part-time, by a woman who has a home daycare for $90/day. When they're not there, I usually get some relief from asking another woman to watch them for two hours at a time (no more than twice a week, if that) for $12/hour.

Québec's $7.30/day system was ushered in by former PQ premier Pauline Marois. Originally set at $5, Marois' plan has had a huge impact on families. Anecdotally, I see more women in traditional "men's" jobs around town. I'd say that about 1 in 3 times I take the bus, I'm driven by a woman.

Now that Marois has been banished into political history, having been thrown out for trying to win a majority government by dividing secular Québecers from our kippa- or hijab-wearing brethren (sisteren?), her beloved program under threat.

Her own party had said that they would be willing to increase the daily cost to $9. If you're keeping track, that would result in an increase of $900 for my family per year, if we had two public spots.

Now, we have a Liberal Party that sees young parents as the enemy. Premier Philippe Couillard has floated a test balloon: he wants to do away with the universal program and try to peg costs to how much money you report in earnings to Revenue Québec each year. As if, through income tax, richer Québecers don't already pay more. But anyway.

I wont get into the problems with this scheme: the massive bureaucracy necessary for such a program, or how it makes it difficult for workers like me whose income varies wildly from year to year, or how the old system was sort of set up like this and it shut women out of the workforce, or how it's the same wacky scheme that Bob Rae advocates for Ontario's tuition fees, or how no one will accept my anticipated tax credits as legal tender. No, I just want to mention that our system in Québec is under a steady, and frightening attack.

But, since I'm writing in English, chances are that you're reading this in Canada. That is, not in Québec, where anything, any improvement to childcare at all, is welcomed. You've probably dismissed much of what I've written as "that's nice Nora but here, in the real world (i.e. Winnipeg), we pay out the yahoo and we need relief. Stop whining." 

And we've circled back to the old divide and conquer trap.

When I heard that the NDP was going to make childcare central to their campaign I was impressed. I am still impressed. Childcare, healthcare and education are critically important and are often ignored over debating "the economy."

I also assumed that with a caucus filled to the brim with Québec MPs, their plan would be to expand Québec's $7.30/day program.

Instead, what was announced is a national system (yay!), with a million new spots over eight years (yay!) with fees capped at $15/day (record scratch).

As someone who has been extremely critical of the plan to increase fees here, supporting the daily cost of $15 per child means supporting an increase to the cost of our program. Intellectually and morally, I can’t do that. Especially since Québec shows that even with a system, there will be families shut out of the new spots.

The 2015 election is still a year away, probably, so there's lots of time for the NDP to be lobbied to improve their plan. Canadian parents need to both support the NDP’s announcement and demand more from the NDP’s policy department.

We need to strive for universality in all of our social programs. We need to get real about things that are taken for granted. Like, what's the difference between a four-year old and a six-year old? About $10,000 in daycare fees. That doesn't make sense.

I hope that the NDP will craft their program on the premise of universality, where the tendency of daycare fees will go towards zero. If Québec serves as a lesson, it's that even with a system in place, families still pay a lot and right-wing forces will seek to dismantle it.

We need to normalize universality to mean free; a task that shouldn’t be too hard, as we’ve all walked out of an emergency ward without having touched our wallets. Aside from digging around for our health card, of course.

Image: Flickr/Heidi_d

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