Women of Canada! Hold Their Feet to the Fire!

..by Terrance Hunsley

Federal budgets are announced with great fanfare, followed by a broad wash of media reaction usually composed of either criticisms or grudging neutrality. Who was it who said a federal budget is successful if everyone is equally disgruntled? 

But with the most recent federal budget, the reaction of most commentators, and especially those of women, were overwhelmingly positive about the federal pledge to halve child care costs in the next two years and achieve ten-dollar-a-day care in five years. 

Of course anyone who remembers federal elections from the early nineties through to the Harper government, also remembers the mantra of federal pledges to ensure “accessible, affordable, high-quality” etc, child care.  It helped Paul Martin win elections and gave Ken Dryden a challenge longer and harder than being goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs. …. and nothing happened.

This time it may well be different. Our first female Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, has made it her centrepiece, and seems willing to bet her political future on it. Indeed most of the women respondents that I saw on the media identified it directly with her and supported it as a feminist policy. The chances are pretty good that something will be negotiated with the provinces, especially given that Quebec already has the kind of system in place that is being envisioned across the country, and so is quite likely to smile and accept a federal multi-million dollar gift.  Some other provinces are also likely to jump on board, even though many will do their best to spend less than required to meet the goal.

But there is a possibility that this could be another promise that falls off the table. Governments change and their promises change. Other priorities intervene. I recall from back in the seventies and eighties when the baby boom feminist movement was gathering steam. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) would meet annually with the entire cabinet and present their priority concerns. Child care was usually prominent among them, as well as equal pay, elimination of discriminatory hiring/promotion practices, and parental leave.

The feminist movement has arguably been one of the most powerful and sustained equality-seeking movements in world history. And one dimension of it was an expectation that women’s successful integration into the labour force would help to reduce economic inequality among households. That didn’t pan out, as assortative mating tended to reproduce the same earnings gaps as under the previous model of one-earner households. In fact, I can recall a couple of conference panels discussing whether feminists had “failed low income women,”  since their major achievements tended to favour the more highly-educated. I don’t think the movement has failed lower income women, but that perception was discussed.

What fire and which feet?

All this to suggest that we learn from history and do whatever is possible to nail down the promised development in child care. For example, I would feel more confident if the federal government were to put through legislation to guarantee families the promised cost reductions, even if provinces do not cooperate. This could be accomplished by a refundable tax credit to become operative two years from now, and reimburse families for child care costs which exceed half of their current expenditures (or down to $10 per day where it is in place). In 2025 the credit would increase to offset anything above $10 per day.  That would permit provinces to claim the funds to reduce their costs, but would guarantee the results if they don’t cooperate. And being set in legislation, it would be more difficult for a new government to simply ignore the promises made. If women, through whatever channels are available to them, were to insist on something like this, it would help to ensure that history does not repeat itself.    

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