Eli Schuster
The Interim

In his famous book, The Trouble With Canada, William Gairdner blasted then-prime minister Brian Mulroney’s 1988 promise of a national daycare scheme as “an openly socialist measure,” arguing: “This program, which, if it ever comes into effect, I believe history will show, to be a crucial factor in the breakdown of the Canadian family (primarily because it subsidizes the transfer of personal family childcare to impersonal state nannies.” Today, 17 years after Mulroney made that promise, a national daycare program is once again on the federal government’s radar screen, as evidenced in Finance Minister Ralph Goodale’s February budget.

The federal Liberals’ plan to store $700 million for childcare in a trust fund that provinces and territories can access this year, and then launch a national childcare and early learning program. The government will spend another $700 million on childcare next year, followed by $1.2 billion in each of the next three years for a total of $5 billion over five years.

The relatively small size and multi-year funding of this commitment has advocates on both sides of the issue wondering if anything will actually come of it. Diane Watts, of REAL Women of Canada, told The Interim that most of the studies she has seen indicate any nationally run childcare programs would likely cost in the neighbourhood of $12-15 billion per year, and there are no guarantees the provinces – most of whom are struggling with spiralling health care costs – would even be required to spend the money on the purpose Ottawa intended it for.

Asked why the Paul Martin Liberals are pursuing this agenda after years of relatively responsible fiscal policies, Watts replied that at least two groups are actively pushing for state-run daycare: public sector unions, which see it as an opportunity to expand their memberships, and feminist advocacy organizations, like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. “Feminists see (state-run daycare) as a way to be free to work (outside the home),” Watts said, adding that many such groups accept government subsidies, so the government is simply “responding to their own creations.”

Watts said groups like NAC have practically become “part of the government bureaucracy” and offer misleading statistics and gender-based analysis to policy-makers. Indeed, Helen Ward, president of Kids First Association of Canada, recently accused Statistics Canada of providing “intentionally misleading” information that placed the percentage of children under the age of five in daycare at 53 per cent in 2000-2001. Upon closer inspection, Ward found that only 13.1 per cent were in daycare.

The announcement left many wondering why the Liberals, and most notably Social Development Minister Ken Dryden, appear so committed to the idea of placing children in formal daycare settings. A recent Vanier Institute study showed that few Canadians actually favour such an option for their children, and generally prefer parents, grandparents, other relatives or even home daycare, to institutionalized childcare settings.

Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women, recently suggested the government emulate Finland, which offers both state-run daycare places and grants to parents who choose to stay home to raise their children. “The vast majority of parents in Finland said: ‘We want to stay home,’ but this national daycare plan cuts out the parents’ flexibility and choice.”

In spite of doubts as to whether a national daycare scheme is financially feasible, Watts is concerned about the potential effects on children if it were to become reality. She notes that just as cruise ships have recently become incubators for diseases such as the Norwalk Virus, daycare places many children in close proximity to each other, so ear infections and other illnesses at times become prevalent.

The greatest dangers of daycare, though, argued Watts, are the long-term psychological effects it produces in children. “Mothering is crucial to child development,” she said, adding that many psychologists believe a “lack of empathy” in the first two or three years of a child’s life can result in problems down the road.

“One-on-one childcare (is) the best,” she said.