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Budget for child care [CA]

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Publication Date: 
17 Feb 2005

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Child care advocates who had hoped Canada would soon see the creation of a national child care program - two decades after Brian Mulroney became the first of three prime ministers to promise it - are again in waiting mode.

But if cooler heads prevail, the wait should be temporary.

Optimism was high when the provinces and Ottawa met last week to follow up on an agreement last fall that set out the principles behind a national child care program. But they failed to reach a deal.

The provinces balked at signing the agreement being offered by federal Social Development Minister Ken Dryden because they were unclear how and when Ottawa would deliver the $5 billion over five years that it has committed to creating the plan.

Can the provinces expect to get $1 billion a year or, as Dryden has hinted, will the program start with a smaller amount in the early years with rising sums of money toward the end of the five- year window?

The details will come in next week's federal budget. The provinces rightly thought it unwise to sign an agreement until they knew those details.

Also, it is unclear what will happen after five years. Dryden has said federal government support would continue indefinitely. But it is still too vague. The provinces have a right to see this commitment made in black-and-white in next week's budget.

Finally, the provinces have a legitimate beef that Ottawa has simply not put enough money on the table to create the quality care it espouses.

Quebec has an ambitious program that can potentially cover every child from cradle to Grade 1 and beyond through after-school programs. Creating something comparable across Canada would cost $10 billion a year.

The $1 billion a year that Dryden is holding out for the entire country won't go very far. If Ottawa is sincere about a program that offers quality and is open to all children, it must do much better, especially when it comes to making such a program affordable to all young families.

The ministers will meet again after next Wednesday's federal budget to try to work out a final deal.

Still, whatever is in the budget, whatever deal Ottawa eventually comes up with, some provinces will likely never want to sign on. Alberta and Quebec have bluntly said they will expect their share of the cash from Ottawa, but will refuse to live by any federal government demands that they be accountable.

Dryden has taken the correct path by leaving open the possibility he will forge an initial deal with provinces willing to accept federal demands on accessibility and quality.

Child care is a fact of life. More than 70 per cent of mothers with pre-school children are working.

Ontario Children's Minister Marie Bountrogianni has plans to use Ottawa's money to offer all-day programs for kindergarten children and eventually move to provide daycare to every child aged 21/2 and over.

The province should take Ottawa's money and start the programs. Conditions may never be ideal, but at some point, we just have to get on with it.

- reprinted from the Toronto Star