The promise of child-care improvements across Canada is disappearing. Clearly working parents and child-care advocates must do more to convince Conservative politicians that communities can only benefit from sharing the responsibility for raising children well, especially young children.

The rhetoric of “institutionalized” child care belongs to another era; today, investment in early learning and care enhances the quality of family life. A universal system in this country would work in partnership with parents. As a society, and like other G8 countries, we need initiatives to establish child care as an essential public service.

Indeed, a majority of Canadians have declared that the time to argue this point has come and gone. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not listening.

The child tax allowance proposed is $1,200 per year for a child under six. However, the amount actually received is reduced by income levels and by the number of adults working in the household. A couple earning $30,000 annually would qualify for $460 per year. Licensed child-care costs run between $5,000 and $12,000 annually and, of course, finding spaces is almost impossible.

In Waterloo Region, children stand to lose $15.5 million pledged by the former government to enhance and expand the local child-care system. In Waterloo Region, 33,000 children need some form of non-parental care for at least part of the work day. With only 7,500 licensed spaces in the region, where are children being cared for? Is the greater community concerned at all?

I am often asked what the ideal child-care system would look like and why the system should be publicly funded like education and health care.

Answering these questions often directs attention to deep-rooted values. Important as these may be, societal changes over the last 50 years matter, too. A system of child care is indispensable for Canadians today. In a country where diversity is respected, we need a flexible system that sets child-care needs at the centre of national social and economic life. For too long, the debate has been allowed to slide messily off government agendas.

When questioned about the taxable family allowance of $1,200 in a recent CBC interview, the minister responsible for social programs, Diane Finley, claimed it will assist parents with ad hoc babysitting needs, such as evening shifts. She failed to comment on matters of quality, safety, accessibility or affordability.

When questioned about the 11,000 children on waiting lists or without options, Finley was quick to note the creation of 125,000 new spaces through tax incentives and up to $10,000 per space to employers, large and small. This isn’t a plan; it isn’t even a scheme anymore; it is indifference at its worst.

In fact, this plan was tried — and failed miserably — under former Ontario Premier Mike Harris. When questioned about going into the child-care business, small business owners are understandably reluctant. There is no money in child care and $10,000 is insufficient to build new spaces.

A national program cannot be built through employer-based programs. There were only 338 employer-based child-care centres in Canada in 2000 and fewer than half were created in the private sector.

What would the “right” plan look like?

For a start, the Conservatives’ $1,200 can be easily eclipsed if the Dalton McGuinty government reversed its clawback of the National Child Benefit Supplement. Currently, it passes on only the annual cost-of-living increases allowed by Ottawa. Economically marginalized families would qualify annually for this supplement of about $1,460 for each child.

Second, the creation of flexible spaces in community based child-care centres must be addressed. These spaces could be incorporated into existing centres as a second shift. Waterloo Region already employs 500 regulated providers to support flexible, licensed child care.

And third, parents want high quality, early learning and care in and around their elementary schools. Best Start was heading in this direction by providing direct funding toward capital projects for schools. This model would have ensured before-and-after school care. With some additional “promised funding,” it also addressed special-needs child care, which had fallen off the radar while we waited 12 years for the Liberals’ promised universal system.

Given current child-care realities, the recent provincial budget was heartbreaking. It killed Best Start by not honouring a promised $300 million investment. To be clear, they had never invested any provincial funding; the money was all federal, announced within the provincial context. Here school boards and the region had already been working collaboratively, in an accountable and responsive fashion, to create new spaces.

Federal and provincial governing parties have offered limp handshakes in their insincere efforts to further early learning and care. We now find ourselves in the untenable position of hoping the Bloc Québécois, NDP and Liberal parties will stand up for children in Canada. A deal is a deal and Harper, in his quest for a future majority government, should recognize and honour the signed provincial agreements.