At Issue: When Will Vancouver Have Accessible and Affordable Childcare?

Last September, when the provincial government called a snap election during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opposition parties were in a tough spot.

It was going to be hard to criticize the NDP’s pandemic response plan, which gave the spotlight to Dr. Bonnie Henry and had been more or less universally praised up until that point. So the parties went digging, trying to uncover promises that hadn’t been met in the three-and-a-half years since the NDP formed a minority coalition government with the Green Party.

The digging meant that childcare, which the NDP promised to get to $10 a day by adopting the plan introduced by the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, was pushed to the forefront of the campaign. All three parties eventually tabled childcare plans that would greatly reduce the current cost for B.C. residents, with the BC Liberals adopting their own slightly altered $10-a-day plan.

That alone was a massive win for childcare advocates across the province. “I think the fact that [Liberal leader] Andrew Wilkinson said repeatedly that we need to get $10-a-day done is a huge victory for parents and grandparents and early education advocates,” says Sharon Gregson, spokesperson for the coalition.

Gregson got involved with the organization (which has been around for more than 35 years) in the late ’80s and helped the coalition develop its $10-a-day plan in 2011. When the NDP committed to the plan in 2017, the coalition recommended a timeline of 10 years to get universal, affordable childcare to all B.C. parents who wanted it. When asked whether the NDP has let anyone down almost four years into that promise, she begs to differ.

“The first real thing the NDP did was in the February 2018 budget, and to commit over a billion new dollars over three years was not letting anyone down,” Gregson argues. “They have moved from childcare chaos to childcare progress in this province, and for the first time in a generation, we’re seeing early childhood educators getting some wage enhancement, we’re seeing parents’ fees start to stabilize or go down. We saw the $10-a-day site launched, and we saw 20,000 new spaces funded.”

And what about in B.C.’s biggest city? “After decades of being on the bottom of the priority list, it’s refreshing to see it being talked about more,” says Mary Clare Zak, managing director of social policy at the City of Vancouver. She points to a memorandum of understanding that was signed between the provincial government and the city as an important move. No such agreement has been forged when it comes to housing, for example.

“That’s really significant as a step in the right direction and for taking the partnership seriously with the city,” she says. “We see that as being an important gesture on behalf of the province to really work with us and invest with us.”

But as much as both Gregson and Zak believe that Vancouver is headed in the right direction, and that a Quebec model of childcare—where families pay an average of $179 a month per child, according to a 2020 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives—is certainly possible, there are still some challenges on the horizon.

Vancouver families pay a median toddler fee of $1,112 a month per child for childcare, according to the same study. That’s among the highest fees in the country, with only Richmond ($1,200), Iqaluit ($1,213) and a handful of Ontario cities (with Toronto topping out at $1,457) seeing higher rates.

And while Gregson commends the work the government has done in recent years, she also sees some cracks in the armour. “Over the first couple of years, government made the mistake of giving taxpayer funds for the purchase of private assets,” she explains. “Whereas we know that when you look around the world at good childcare systems, taxpayer dollars have to be spent to purchase public assets, so that those facilities remain available to the public to use for childcare.”

The current $10-a-day program serves some 36,000 families in one form or another, according to Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen. The prototype, which was built in an agreement with the federal government, was set to expire in April 2021, but Chen assured Vancouver magazine that the deal would be extended.

The Burnaby-Lougheed MLA is motivated to get affordable, accessible childcare to B.C., and not just because her ministry is very much on the hook for it. “I remember looking at a Conference Board of Canada study that said for every dollar invested in childcare, you get six dollars returned in terms of social economic benefits,” she says. “When you invest in childcare it’s good for the economy.”

At a time when the country is hoping to recover from the crippling economic disaster that is COVID-19, that aspect can’t be overrated. At the onset of the pandemic, women became unemployed at a rate of 60 percent higher than men, according to a recent study published by the BC Women’s Health Foundation. To its credit, the federal government stepped up in its April budget announcement, setting aside $30 billion over the next five years in hopes of getting to $10 a day by 2026.

As a mother to a young child herself, Chen maintains that she is very aware what parents in Vancouver and B.C. have to deal with at the present moment. “It’s challenging; parents cannot wait,” she says. “We’re well on our way to investment, and continuing to grow. Every month as we build the spaces, we have more parents and families utilizing them. I think we just need to keep moving. We can’t slow down.”

For Gregson, who was “absolutely shocked” at the lack of a functional childcare system when she joined the coalition as a young mother some 30 years ago, there’s still a fight to be had, even if the signs are encouraging.

“We have to make sure we hold governments accountable to delivering—in a way based on evidence and research and not just growing the market-based system—a public system,” she says.

“Just like all our kids have publicly funded K-12 education, we have to make sure all our kids have access, if their parents choose it, to a quality affordable childcare program. It’s been a pretty substantial start, but I would say that we have to keep the pressure on. Politicians act when they know the public wants these programs.”