The Canadian childcare agreement: what’s next for the country’s childcare system?

First, the federal and provincial leaders signed the deal to increase childcare benefits across the country on Saturday.

In May, the Trudeau government committed $4.4bn to expand childcare support across the country.

On Wednesday, Alberta’s premier, Rachel Notley, announced her province would contribute $955m to raise early education and care training across the country, expand child care services in Alberta and extend federal family tax credits.

As Alberta’s cabinet prepares to vote on the proposal, we spoke to researchers, childcare advocates and the chief psychologist at the University of Calgary to find out where the federal-provincial agreement leaves Ontario, the country’s most populous province.

Carolyn Uniacke, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Child and Youth Studies at the University of Calgary

What’s happening in Alberta is a really positive step for Canada, said Uniacke. The federal-provincial agreement specifies Canada’s childcare system in terms of funding and parental assistance, and it establishes the national standards that all provinces must meet.

“We’re seeing larger investments for national long-term and daycare development,” she said. Alberta, she said, has been active in its discussions with the federal government about the agreement as well as other parts of its work to ensure a high quality, national system.

What’s not there, Uniacke said, is an incentive to ensure universal and universally accessible child care. There’s a lot of talk about how other provinces need to step up to the plate and provide high-quality child care. But Alberta does not have a plan yet to match other provinces’ child care funding.

“From my perspective, it’s crucial that we create a system where all children have access to high-quality early care and education,” she said. Without that incentive, there will be continued pressure on individual provinces to fill the funding void left by the federal government’s childcare commitment.

Aliza Pratt, Alberta’s minister of children, youth and community services

Pratt says Alberta did not enter the federal-provincial agreement in part because it wants to build on its own childcare system, an approach she said is the most effective approach to affordable and accessible child care.

“We believe we have the best system that Alberta has ever had and that we have the best system in Canada,” she said.

The government’s new government accountability office needs to be thoughtfully developed, she said, since it’s not clear how the federal and provincial governments will interact with each other.

“Alberta is so far advanced that we don’t need to create new measures to link us to the national agreement.”

Stephanie Kurs, director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit at the University of Ottawa

Kurs sees the agreement as an indication that Canadians are taking childcare access seriously. But the past couple of years have shown just how long progress has been stalled by fights over funding and jurisdiction.

Kurs thinks provinces are beginning to gain clarity around the alignment of childcare and early education resources, including increasing funding and working to align standards. That shouldn’t be a problem. “We shouldn’t have to negotiate this thing for 200 years.”

The big winner under this agreement is Ontario, she said. “The easiest and most politically feasible thing for governments to agree to is $1.5bn more for childcare across the country.

“But our people aren’t even asking to put that money in early childhood care. They’re asking for the same amount in school boards. The same amount in community board. The same amount in Catholic boards, [which] also continue to fight a valiant battle in ensuring good early childhood care and education for children.”

The other benefit for Ontario, Kurs said, is that the agreement means that the standards and funding for national childcare should eventually apply to Ontario, and thus, the system there.

Nationally, she said, improving childcare is still a moving target and commitment on the part of successive federal governments. “It’s the trickiest challenge for the prime minister,” Kurs said. “He doesn’t even get a credit line for his newest childcare plan.”

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