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A call to (loving) arms: let’s protect public child care

Reaction to the election win by the Conservatives was stereotypically Canadian: cautious optimism about government accountability, mixed with reserved apprehension about how far right the new captains might steer the country. In the weeks since, the Tories have repeatedly signalled their intent to push ahead with the full slate of right-wing-friendly promises made during the election, despite the slim minority mandate won at the polls.

Stephen Harper’s plan to scrap the child care agreement recently signed with the provinces last fall, and replace it with a so-called “Choice in Child Care” scheme, has garnered the most attention and controversy, with child advocates and provincial leaders alike stating their resolve to keep the agreement alive. Overall, the question has some Canadians quietly preparing for a very loud fight over the kind of care that Canada’s kids deserve.

Concerns about child care are fresh in the minds of many CMG members who were locked out at CBC last year. During the two-month lockout, many working parents found themselves scrambling to keep up with the costs of daycare for their kids, or making alternate arrangements. Early on, moms and dads frequently appeared on the picket lines with their kids in tow, lacking any other option for their kids’ care. In Toronto, Guild local VP Carrie May and then-City Councillor Olivia Chow jumped in quickly to organize special arrangements for Guild members left in the lurch.

“It really showed the relevance of high-quality, flexible child care,” said May, noting that during the lockout, CMG members got a taste of what low-income Canadians deal with year- round. “People could have lost their child care spaces . . . and then you’re back with the waiting lists, worrying about how far you’ll have to travel to daycare every day. Imagine people who have to work at two or even three jobs. Some people can’t even afford to go to work.”

While the lockout was an exceptional situation, it underscored how urgent the need is for more– and more affordable — child care spaces, particularly in Canada’s urban centres. And it also reminded us that it is an important issue for unionists across the country.

Chow will soon take a seat in the federal Parliament as the New Democrat MP for Toronto’s Trinity Spadina riding.

“The government has a very weak minority, so we will be working with MPs in all parties to ensure that child care is not jeopardized and that we keep on moving forward,” Chow told the Guild. “As well, we will be working closely with caregivers and parents and the provinces to keep the issue alive and focused and to maintain pressure on the government, by focusing on the benefits to the economy and society.”

Although there were criticisms of the five-year, $5-billion child care deal signed under the Liberal government– for example, the quarter-million new daycare spaces to be created represented only about a fifth of the number actually needed, according to estimates from the Canadian Council on Social Development– it was seen as a step in the right direction. At the time, even the Conservatives said they liked it, and promised to honour the agreement should they form the next government.

But the course of the election changed that, as the Tory child care plan– about a hundred dollars a month per child under six, paid directly to parents– became a major part of their platform. From an ideological perspective, the Tory version of child care addresses a Conservative priority — limiting government spending on public programs in favour of individualistic and private-sector approaches.

Unfortunately, the Conservative plan will achieve much less for kids who need care while parents are at work or school. The amount they promise to individual parents represents only a small fraction of the real cost of quality child care: a CBC news report in early 2005 found costs reaching nearly $800 monthly for infant care in some parts of the country, while costs for children age six and over were at least $227 a month.

Despite Harper’s January 27 assertion that the child care deal is now “dead,” supporters of the program aren’t going to go down without a fight. Just a day after Harper was sworn in, members of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada and labour activists joined in an evening vigil in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Ottawa. While the Sussex Drive protest has so far been the only public rally over the issue, it follows a wave of opposition to the Tory plan over the last two and a half weeks. On January 27, CCAAC chair Debra Mayer responded to the Prime Minister’s first press conference by warning the Tories that the numbers aren’t necessarily on their side: “64 % of Canadians voted for parties that support child care programs . . . the new government must reconsider plans to cancel federal funds committed for child care.”

The Premiers of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan have all made public calls for the new government to live up to the commitment made under the previous administration. Calls to protect the program are even coming from Harper’s home turf, where advocacy group Public Interest Alberta notes that the province’s child care funding is the lowest in the country. And one of British Columbia’s top advisors on child care resigned her post on February 7, in protest over premier Gordon Campbell’s silence on the issue since the election.

Meanwhile, CUPE president Paul Moist, who represents child care workers across the country, insisted that Harper has a duty to respect agreements signed with the provinces in good faith and that the existing agreement be “left alone.”

It is too soon to tell if the efforts of the activists and politicians committed to supporting a national child care program will set off the kind of grassroots groundswell that will be needed to change the Conservatives’ minds. But its clear that there is a great deal at stake, and that it is a question of what kind of Canada we all want to live in. Recently, CMG members showed just how effective we can be at public advocacy when our CBC members fought to hold on to the things that mattered to us against a foe that was determined to press its own agenda at practically any cost. The child care fight, which ultimately affects nearly every Canadian, bears some striking similarities. And CMG members across the country can contribute a great deal to this cause.

Alec Forbes is a Guild activist who works at the CBC in Toronto.

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