It may have taken 51 years, but Ottawa finally listened to women on childcare. Or at least, one group of women from 1970.
That year, Canada’s Royal Commission on the Status of Women first proposed a national childcare program. It wasn’t that era’s lone public policy solution, however: British activist Selma James kicked off the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972. The grassroots network demanded financial compensation for women’s unpaid work — cleaning, raising children, volunteering — because it is fundamental to a healthy society.
Both initiatives asked the same question: how should government best support parents through their child-raising years? At the time of this writing, in Canada, institutionalizing care prevailed over compensating parents, and the federal government launched a national childcare program to the tune of about $30 billion over five years, plus contributions from the provinces and from parents’ pockets.
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My kids are now 12 and 15. We tried every kind of arrangement when they were younger: full-time care (unpredictable, time-consuming, tears); part-time care (a career killer, chaotic) and no care (working during their naps and in the middle of the night, awful). Even without the expense, childcare didn’t solve our problem; the infant and preschool years were a pressure cooker in my family’s life as we tried and failed to juggle too many demands.
As James and her generation of feminist activists understood, taking care of my children is only one element of the unpaid work I do. Volunteering, cleaning, buying groceries, cooking, maintaining relationships with family and tending my marriage are all still on my plate.
I don’t resent this work at all. I love it. These are the things that make my life meaningful. But churches, service clubs and neighbourhoods all feel the absence of my generation. My family is typical of my peers who are trying to cling to the middle class. Between us, my husband and I have two full-time jobs, two side hustles, plus a small business. Our daily lives are nothing like the one-job-per-household reality of a couple of generations ago when a national childcare program might have solved the chaos.
If governments pay for institutional care but won’t compensate caregivers, there is no choice. To pay your bills, you have to stick your kids in care and go to work.
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A simple voucher system, however, could reimagine choice. If childcare costs $2,000 a month per child to deliver through a national system, that $2,000 should be available to families, to compensate a parent at home or to pay a nanny, daycare or relative.
Similarly, long-term care costs the government about $60,000 per resident per year. Imagine if that amount were available to families instead.
Caring isn’t just making snacks and changing diapers. It’s immersion in your culture, values and religion. And as the L’Arche movement recognizes so well, it is the chance to be a humble servant — to experience the spiritual transformation that comes with slowing down and actively loving the people in your care.
It’s time to radically reimagine how we’re spending government caregiving dollars — especially as Canada witnessed how long-term care and childcare struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we consider the extraordinary cost of a new national, universal childcare system, we need to think about who that might actually serve.
Obviously, institutional care is the right choice for many families, for many reasons. But a fundamental tenet of the feminist movement was choice. What happened?
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2022 issue with the title “The trouble with childcare.”
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