William Watson: Our national daycare non-crisis

There's evidence not of a long-term problem, but that if a pandemic shuts down existing daycare, parents are screwed

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I’m sorry, I’m just not getting this story about how we’re facing a national daycare crisis so serious it requires the federal government to, as the throne speech put it, “create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system” by making a “significant, long-term, sustained investment.”

It’s not just that I’m a senior male whose own children are in their twenties and no longer in need of close supervision (most days). There’s no gain in trying to out-do each other’s pandemic stories but I doubt there’s a group that has had a harder time over the past six months than parents of young children. People we know in that situation are now well past stressed. We live opposite a park and have seen families playing together all summer long. No doubt that has created many happy memories that will be treasured once the pandemic has passed. But parents who have been trying to hold down jobs and watch over their kids at the same time are nearing the end of their rope.

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That is not evidence of a long-term daycare problem, however. It’s evidence that if a pandemic shuts down your existing daycare and pre-K systems, parents who depend on them are screwed.

Suppose we had perfect, progressive daycare. Imagine there were two million sensitive, caring Justin Trudeau clones, one for every child under five in this country, who provided personalized daycare five days a week, 10 hours a day, including socializing their charges in inclusive, educational pre-K ways with other kids in the neighbourhood. The clones could even all be unionized and federally regulated, thus fulfilling the longtime dream of all Left lobbyists.

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If these two million Trudeau clones got a vote, the Liberals would win federal elections forever (unless the clones had to pay taxes, that is). But that’s not the point. The point is that even in this perfect daycare world, if a pandemic came along and the clones, like everybody else, got locked down, the result would be an immediate and severe daycare crisis. Which is exactly what we have had.

But long-term federal money won’t end this crisis. A vaccine will end it. Herd immunity will end it. Smart plans for getting people back to work even in the absence of vaccines or immunity will end it. But grand new federal plans for daycare castles in the sky won’t end it. They don’t even address it. You could completely rearrange the rules and financing of daycare all across the country but if you don’t solve the health problem, daycare workers won’t be allowed to work, so you’re still going to be in crisis.

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Conversely, if you do solve the health crisis and get the systems we had as of March 11 back up to speed, then you can evaluate their failings. The throne speech scolds that “it has been nearly 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women outlined the necessity of childcare services for women’s social and economic equality.” The commission reported Dec. 7, 1970. Between that day and this the Liberals have run the federal government for fully 11,037 days, which, dividing by 365, works out to 30.238 years. Which is a lot of years.

The political conclusion from 30 years of not fulfilling their daycare promises is that the Liberals are hypocrites. Who could disagree? But they are also — typically — astute political operators. If in 30 years of governing they have not already brought us a “Canada-wide early learning and childcare system,” I suspect it’s because the country has not wanted it. Important groups clearly do want it: unions, government-monopoly ideologues and, yes, many parents. But provincial premiers insist, probably correctly, that daycare and early education are their jurisdiction, while many parents want to choose their own form of childcare so prefer tax credits to a federal system of care. And many social observers note that unionized monopolies are unreliable suppliers of services, while the canonical Quebec model of $5 (or $7.50 or $10) a day daycare constitutes a major transfer of resources to the middle and upper-middle class. The current Trudeau government is nothing if not devoted to the middle class but it also claims to be dedicated to reducing inequality. Providing free or next-to-free services to professional couples seems a strange way of doing that.

There’s clearly a crisis in daycare. The strained faces of the parents we see in the park every day attest to that. But at the moment there’s a crisis in everything that involves people working cheek by jowl. Once we get over that crisis, it will be time to start thinking about what sorts of daycare arrangements might be better in the long run. Given how long this issue has been around, it won’t be surprising if we decide a new federal system is not required.

Financial Post

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