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A dispute between Ontario and Ottawa over how new federal child-care money should be spent is one of the key issues on the table as federal and provincial ministers meet today to try to reach a $900 million agreement.
Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart is expecting to hear more about Ontario's complaint that using the money to create only regulated day-care spaces doesn't offer parents enough flexibility.
"I'm sure they'll still want to put their views on the record,'' Stewart said in an interview. "I hope it doesn't take us backwards."
Still, Stewart is optimistic there will be a deal after Ontario — described as the lone "holdout" on the issue — said recently it would take the money even with strings attached.
CBC-TV's The National reported last night two sides appeared to have resolved their differences.
However, a spokesperson for the province's social services minister, Brenda Elliott, was noncommittal when asked earlier about the possibility of last-minute snags.
"Don't know. We'll have to wait and see," Christine Bujold replied to questions yesterday.
Elliott, who had been insisting Stewart drop a requirement that the money be used for spaces only in regulated day-care centres, turned down an interview request.
The province wants to support more informal arrangements, such as care in private homes.
But Elliott appeared to back down last week, saying that the province would accept the federal cash "with disappointment."
The reversal was a relief to federal officials, who had been wondering whether Elliott would even show up for today's meeting at a hotel at Pearson International Airport.
Last month's federal budget committed $900 million over five years for day care. The money will flow at only a trickle to start — $25 million the first year and $75 million in the second.
Day-care advocates are disappointed that the funding is back-loaded and say the total falls far short of what's really needed, but they've been urging the provinces to sign anyway.
A coalition of child care, youth, religious and labour groups recently wrote to the premiers pressing them to participate.
"Let's just get this thing on the road and then let's see what we have to work with," said Martha Friendly of the University of Toronto's Childcare Resource and Research Unit.
"I would have like to see a better funded first step, but, okay, this is the first step."
Friendly said she's happy Ottawa is finally talking about daycare again after nearly a decade of ignoring the issue.
But she and other activists will be pushing the federal government to go much further than what is on the negotiating table today.
"Nobody has said anything yet about (childcare) for every child who needs it, or our goal is for everybody. That has not entered into the discussion yet. And that's my goal."
Some child-care advocates have calculated the new federal money would mean just 260 new spaces in Toronto next year, and roughly 25,000 spots over the five years.
The city's current waiting list for subsidized spaces has 15,000 names on it.
Other key remaining points for ministers to talk about today include requirements for the provinces to report back on where the money goes and what the results are.
Accountability mechanisms are a tricky issue, with some provinces balking at what they see as federal interference.
- reprinted from the Toronto Star