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Not only is a national program of universal child care achievable, it is a must to support Canadian families, children’s well-being and the economy concluded participants at the Child Care 2020 conference in Winnipeg mid-November attended by a large contingent CUPE members, staff and activists from Ontario.

What’s more, the over-capacity crowd of parents, early childhood educators, child care workers, policymakers, research academics, economists and federal and provincial NDP and Liberal leaders shared the stage and the opinion that there is more than enough government funding to pay for universal child care, if an array of ineffective tax credits that amount billions of dollars favoured by Stephen Harper’s PCs, were actually directed to child care services and not tax cuts.

“To frame the child care debate as moms who stay at home vs. moms who don’t, misses the point,” said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in Winnipeg on other business and a surprise speaker at the conference.  All of Canada’s federal political parties should be talking about child care and early learning and how we can work as a country to give kids a better start, she said.

Social policy researchers presented studies verifying Wynne’s point.

In addition to clear evidence that universal child care programs are better able to reach disadvantaged children and are associated with lower levels of child poverty, researchers  said children in good quality licensed child care do better in school than children who do not attend early learning programs. The positives for children last well-beyond early childhood into the future and adulthood. Other benefits include lower costs for both the health and justice systems.  

In fact the economic benefits to government of universal child care programs are too great to ignore. Studies show that for every $1 that goes into child care, there is a $1.75 benefit in increased tax revenue for government.

The PC “market” approach is not only wrong-headed, it is wasteful ideological spending that has little basis in sound economic or social policy, reported the economists and researchers. They were  armed with countless research and economic reports to support their claims the tax credit system is worst system possible and not good value for money. For instance the PCs recently proposed child tax benefit will cost $26 billion and will not create a single child care spot. And while they are prepared to spend $42 billion on fighter jets, they vehemently oppose putting federal money into a national child care program.

“Funding services works much better than funding parents through tax breaks. The PC’s market approach doesn’t work. There is no promise of increasing access to services. No promise of quality, innovation or lowering costs. Rather it does the opposite,” said respected child care policy researcher Martha Friendly with Ontario’s Childcare Resource and Research Unit.

While Quebec has $7/day child care, a recent study showed that Toronto and Brampton have the highest child care costs in the country. Toronto parents with kids under age 2 can expect to pay $1,676 a month for the service. In contrast, that cost is $152 for parents in cities across Quebec.

Speaking on day two of the conference, NDP leader Tom Mulcair said that in contrast to the PCs, his party’s $15/day child care plan would create 1 million new child care spots.

Joining by video link, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau echoed the benefits of child care to children, families and the economy, but he did not announce his party’s plan. He did however commit to releasing a plan for a universal child care program that will be included in the Liberal platform for 2015 federal election.

Unlike in 2004, when disparate groups were agitating for the universal child care and the Liberals announced their national framework for child care, today there is a groundswell of public opinion and a cohesive group, the “people in this room speaking with one voice. You can win,” said former Liberal MP Ken Dryden.

Former NDP MP and a long-time public child care activist, Olivia Chow challenged the room “to make it happen, demand more, don’t be so quiet.” Like Dryden she encouraged the group to seize the moment and “be creative and flexible and we will get the universal program we all want.”

Child Care 2020 concluded with a well-received motion for action on-the-ground in local communities to make universal child care a “vote-determining issue” in the next federal election.

CUPE was a Child Care 2020 sponsor.