Last to the party among all provinces and territories, Ontario announced that it signed onto the Canada Wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement last week, on March 28.
Despite the long wait and suggestions by Doug Ford’s government that the province would negotiate a unique deal, Queen’s Park received no special treatment.
The $13.2 billion announced will be distributed over six years — instead of five — in the same proportion as allocated to other jurisdictions. Meanwhile, as the province held out for more, Ontario parents missed out on substantial child care fee savings.
The Canada-Ontario agreement promises to bring parent fees down to an average of $10 a day over the life of the agreement, while increasing child care access. Federal funding promises to add 71,000 spaces to the 15,000 that Ontario recently developed.
When added to the existing 285,962 spaces serving the under six-year-old population, there will only be sufficient coverage for 43 per cent of children. Experts say that number is far below the 200,000 to 300,000 spaces needed to address the demand that will be created as parent fees decline.
Yet even the province’s modest expansion goals will be curtailed by a shortage of early childhood educators (ECEs). Low wages and poor working conditions, further strained by the pandemic, create problems finding and retaining qualified staff. This could leave newly built classrooms sitting empty.
Long wait for a deal
Child care falls under provincial or territorial jurisdiction. Until now, Canada lacked a national early learning and care strategy.
The federal government’s 2021 historic $27 billion investment in early learning and child care, and the subsequent associated agreements marked a shift. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated government and public appreciation for the critical role of child care.
But Ontario’s deal insufficiently recognizes the integral role of educators. Ontario pledged to increase the portion of qualified early childhood educators working in child care centres to 60 per cent. A minimum wage of $18 an hour has been established for trained staff, rising by $1 each year to an hourly maximum of $22 by 2026, and $25 per hour for centre supervisors.
This rate is below the current $20 hourly median for ECEs and assistants across Canada. Over 75 per cent of Ontario’s child care workers will receive no benefit from the change.
Among lowest-paid sectors
When compared to male professions with similar education and training requirements, the wage gap is even more staggering, and shows how our society’s devaluation of labour related to educating and caring for young children is deeply gendered.
These challenges predate COVID-19 but were accelerated by it. Employment in child care dropped 21 per cent during the pandemic compared to three per cent among all other workers.
When COVID-19 struck, ECEs were called to the front lines to provide round-the-clock care for the children of emergency workers. Yet support for them was slow to come. They were among the last on the priority list for pandemic bonuses, protective equipment or vaccinations.
Other provinces: Wage grids, benefits, pensions
There is much written about the exhausted health-care worker, yet scant attention is afforded the demoralized early childhood educator.
Since Ontario’s deal was announced, many early childhood educators have questioned why, despite the federal windfall, the deal contains no real recognition of their sacrifice and excludes the majority from any benefit. At an online briefing the government provided the day after the announcement, educators were incredulous.
A grid would set a minimum hourly wage for child care staff, and provide annual increases based on qualifications.
Manitoba embedded educator compensation in its agreement with Ottawa, offering a minimum wage of $25.89 and starting rate for qualified educators of $27.77.
In April last year, the Yukon raised its hourly starting minimum to $30.11. Saskatchewan made a good faith down payment of $3 an hour for its staff, while educators in New Brunswick got a $4.42 an hour boost, putting them well ahead of what their Ontario counterparts will earn five years from now.
We calculate that with the largest share of the country’s youngest children, Ontario is creating only one new space for every 12 children under six years old in the province. Except for the territories where building costs are prohibitive, Ontario’s access targets are the least ambitious: Saskatchewan is developing a new space for every three children. In Newfoundland it’s one in four; in Alberta it’s one in eight and British Columbia it’s one in nine.
Substantial improvements needed
Still, the province will need another 9,000 ECEs, plus support workers to staff new classrooms. As the least generous supporter of its workforce, Ontario won’t achieve its goals until it gets serious about compensation.
Much of the conversation about growing the numbers of ECEs relies on adding more seats in college programs. But young workers are in demand everywhere — they won’t choose a career in child care without substantial improvements to salaries and benefits. Increasing college enrolment only adds water to a bucket full of holes.
This government may ignore child care providers, but it pays attention to parents. Parents deserve affordable fees, but also want their children to benefit from the best early education possible. This does not happen without qualified, resourced and valued educators.