For far too long, child care has been seen as a private issue for families, rather than a public one in which government leadership is needed. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this to the extent that employers and public policy makers are taking note of the importance of high quality accessible child care for women’s employment. Universal access to child care quickly became an idea that was embraced by many in the policy and economic world.
Child care and early learning, however, can best be seen as a right that children should be able to realize (see General Comment 13 on the Right to Education). When seen in this light and by not providing quality child care, Canada as a duty bearer is failing to uphold the rights of Canadian children. Specifically, high quality child care should include the following principles: equitable access to early childhood support services, public accountability, and a rights-based approach to standards of care, programming and education for young children.
In the Fall 2020 Economic Statement, a commitment was made to provide “affordable, accessible, inclusive and high-quality child care from coast to coast to coast,” based on the 2017 Multi-lateral Early Learning and Childcare Framework and the 2018 Indigenous Early Learning and Childcare Framework. Parental leave policies were also expanded for the first year of a child’s life. Then the April 2021 budget provided financial and policy commitments to early learning and care. Over the next five years, the federal government has committed to spending $30 billion to build a “Canada-wide, community-based systems of quality child care”.
Provinces have been signing onto agreements with the federal government, but we still do not have a lot of answers of how this will look in every jurisdiction. Furthermore, each federal party has a different policy approach to childcare, and thus the upcoming federal election introduces the risk of the progress that has been made being stalled or rolled back. Rather than the current short-term, “cash in the pocket” approach, a more resilient, systems approach to childcare is necessary to ensure children can realize their rights to early learning and quality care. CCRC partner and member, Child Care Now, notes, that the best child care systems are ones that are publicly funded, inclusive, high quality, and not-for-profit.
The CCRC recommends that Canada:
– Explicitly recognize children’s rights in the current framework in agreements with the provinces, and in legislation to increase the chances of continuity through elections;
– Use rights-based tools for planning, evaluation, and reporting to ensure accountability, and;
– Embed children’s rights in early learning programs, learning plans, programs for parents, and training of workers.
This federal election, we are following what the parties are doing and saying about child care and early learning. Early childhood is a critical period for developing the full potential of children, which should be at the center of public policy. Canada spends less on early childhood than other OECD/high-income countries (according to Child Care Canada, Canada is the lowest spender out of 14 high-income countries). Investing in equitable access to high-quality child-development programs during the early years will benefit families, communities, and Canada’s economy.