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By Sid Ryan

Who would ever have thought that a national debate on a pan-Canadian universal child care system would break out two months following the federal election?  Surely Stephen Harper could not have envisioned the passion he unleashed — on all sides of the debate  — when he blithely announced his government would unilaterally renege on the federal-provincial national child care deals.

Politicians, parents, child care activists, newspaper columnists, trade unionists are all embroiled in a debate that should have taken place over the course of the recent two-month long federal election. No quarter is given by either side in this debate, even in the face of empirical evidence that suggests child care programs provide a pathway out of poverty for thousands of single parents trapped in low-paying, dead-end jobs.

Campaign 2000’s recent Report Card on Child Poverty in Ontario stated that “the child poverty rate has been stuck at 15-16% since 2000 despite strong economic growth.” This translates into 443,000 children, or one in six, living in poverty.

One would have thought that this kind of shocking statistic on child poverty would elicit howls of protest from all and sundry. Think again. I was astonished to find myself on a recent edition of the Michael Coren Show having to fend off newspaper columnist Clare Hoy, former Conservative MPP Steve Gilchrist and the host of the show, Michael Coren,  who were actually challenging the very notion of a poverty level below which children are living in this country.

These are all highly intelligent men who in fact do know better. The problem is the debate on childcare has turned into an ideological battle between the left and the right.  Harper wants to appeal to the wistful dream of a bygone era of stay-at-home-moms. The progressive left see an opportunity to create a national program that will provide tangible support to working families and single parents struggling to escape the poverty trap. By the way, just to be clear, my wife was a stay-at-home-mom while raising our three girls, but I was fortunate enough to have a decent-paying job.

The idea of focusing on stay-at-home-moms will have limited appeal in the long run since a new Statistics Canada report shows a dramatic increase in the number of working mothers. In 1976, 39% of women with children under the age of 16 were in the workforce. Today, that figure has jumped to almost 75%. The report also shows that many of these women are trapped in low-paying jobs, or “pink ghettoes,” where they earn on average 64 cents for every dollar a man earns.

About 7.5 million women were in the workforce last year. Many of these women have totally inadequate childcare available to them. They know that Harper’s $1,200 a year tax allowance for children under age 6 — or five bucks a day — simply will not cut it in terms of providing good quality, regulated child care. In fact, the unilateral decision to renege on the child care agreements with the provinces will see the loss of thousands of planned child care spaces.

In Toronto alone, the city stands to lose up to 6,000 child care spaces scheduled for the poorest regions of the city. These are the spaces needed by parents in low-income jobs who are struggling to break free from the cycle of poverty. This is part of the city’s long-term plans to combat crime by providing subsidized and regulated child care to children at risk.

In the last two weeks, more than 15,000 of those women and their supporters have signed onto an open letter to Stephen Harper, available at, because they know this is the time to stand up and be counted.

This is the time for all three opposition parties — the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP — to close ranks and present the Harper Tories with a united front. There is an opportunity for this minority Parliament to provide Canadians with a social program that can rival our cherished health care system in popularity.

It will take guts; it will take nerves of steel to stare down the barrel of a general election that could be triggered by defeat of the government’s budget bill. The reward will be in the knowledge that this Parliament made a real difference in the lives of millions of Canadian children.