Ontario’s Child Care Woes: The Need for a New Strategy

Amna Raza

“In this country we have national standards for light bulbs but not for children.” – Don Giesbrecht, president of the Canadian Child Care Federation.

In 2008, a UNICEF report ranked Canada among the worst of 25 developed countries in the provision of basic childcare services. Since then, the quality and accessibility of Canada’s childcare sector remains a critical issue in the public policy arena.

Ontario, in particular, raises major concerns as an “unsolved web of problems” plague its childcare system; it currently faces severe underfunding, subsidy shortages and no established provincial early childhood education and care (ECEC) policy. The recent introduction of a full-day kindergarten program has only exacerbated the issue, as half of Ontario’s 4-5 year olds have left childcare centres to enroll in these programs instead. These childcare centres are now struggling to cope with the mass exodus and lost revenue from this age bracket, and many are being forced to close their doors.

As a result, Ontario’s daycare system faces a severe shortage of affordable and accessible childcare. Waiting lists for affordable childcare spaces are extremely lengthy; in December 2012, 20,926 waited for subsidies in Toronto alone. In total, 4 out of 5 Ontario’s children do not have access to licensed childcare . This critical shortage has left thousands no choice but to enroll in unlicensed, and often unaccountable, private childcare centres. Parents, sometimes unaware of the differences between the two, resort to unlicensed facilities after spending many months on waiting lists for regulated care.

Studies into the quality of unlicensed daycare establishments expose significant health and safety risks. Unqualified providers with “substandard facilities” have been reported having “missing baby gates on stairways, cramped, windowless rooms with no fire exits and unfenced outdoor play areas.” Not only is this illegal, it puts the lives of thousands of children at risk – such as fourteen-month-old Duy-An Nguyen who died in 2011 while in the care of an unlicensed childcare business.

The government has recently begun taking action. The Ministry of Education has published a discussion paper, “Modernizing Child Care in Ontario: Sharing Conversations, Strengthening Partnerships, Working Together,” outlining the government’s objectives for improving the childcare sector. The opinions of partners and stakeholders have been taken into account to form its recommendations.

As part of this initiative, the government has also updated its current funding formula and framework by replacing an outdated system of allocation with a more responsive, needs-based mechanism. Its goal is to increase local flexibility, simplify reporting requirements and ease the burden for municipal childcare bodies. Furthermore, Ontario has allocated $242 million in new childcare funding to be spent by 2015. It is important to note, however, that the sector still faces fiscal constraints, especially due to a lack of federal support.

While current government action appears to be promising, the improvement of the childcare sector will require the effective use of new funds and a comprehensive long-term agenda. The government must ensure it commits to making this a topmost priority, as there is desperate need for an accessible, high quality, publicly funded system. A strong childcare sector is of utmost importance – the health and safe development of Ontario’s children cannot be compromised any longer.

Amna Raza is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds a BA in Economics and International Development from McGill University. Amna has worked with a number of NGOs around the world and is interested in pursuing global development policy upon graduating.

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