The final for the party among all provinces and territories, Ontario announced that it signed the Canada Wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement last week, March 28.
Despite long waits and suggestions by Doug Ford’s government that the province would negotiate a unique deal, Queens Park received no special treatment.
The announced $13.2 billion would be distributed over six years – instead of five – in the same proportion that was allocated to other jurisdictions. Meanwhile, as the province held on for more, Ontario parents missed out on substantial child care fee savings.
The Canada-Ontario agreement promises to bring parenting fees down to an average of $10 per day during the term of the agreement, while increasing access to child care. Federal funding has promised to add 71,000 spaces to the 15,000 recently developed by Ontario.
When added to the existing 285,962 locations serving the population below the age of six, there will be enough coverage for only 43 percent of children. Experts say that number is far less than the 200,000 to 300,000 spaces needed to meet the demand that will be created as the basic fee declines.
Yet a shortage of early childhood teachers (ECEs) would undermine even the province’s modest expansion goals. Low wages and poor working conditions, further strained by the pandemic, create problems finding and retaining qualified workers. This can leave newly created classrooms empty.
long wait for deal
Child care falls under provincial or territorial jurisdiction. Until now, Canada lacked a national early education and care strategy.
The federal government’s historic 2021 investment of $27 billion in early education and child care, and subsequent associated agreements, marked a turnaround. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the appreciation of the government and the public for the vital role of child care.
But the Ontario deal insufficiently recognizes the integral role of teachers. Ontario pledged to increase the share of qualified early childhood teachers working in child care centers to 60 percent. A minimum wage of $18 per hour has been established for trained workers, increasing by $1 per year to a maximum of $22 by 2026 and $25 per hour for center supervisors.
This rate is below the current $20 hourly average for ECEs and assistants across Canada. More than 75 percent of Ontario child care workers will not benefit from the change.
in the lowest paying areas
The early education and care workforce is female dominated and racialized. It is one of the lowest paying sectors as compared to other female-dominated jobs requiring similar education and experience.
Compared to male occupations with similar education and training needs, the pay gap is even more staggering, and shows how deep our society is undervaluing labor related to educating and caring for young children.
Low and stagnant wages leave the centers with difficulties in retaining employees. In Ontario, only 55 percent of ECEs registered with the College of Early Childhood Educators work in child care.
These challenges predate COVID-19, but were accelerated by it. Employment in child care declined by 21 percent during the pandemic, compared to three percent among all other workers.
When COVID-19 arrived, ECEs were called to the front lines to provide round-the-clock care for the children of emergency workers. Yet support for them was slow to come. They were last on the priority list for pandemic bonuses, protective equipment or vaccinations.
Other Provinces: Pay Grid, Benefits, Pensions
Much has been written about the exhausted health care worker, yet little attention is paid to early childhood teacher morale.
Since the Ontario deal was announced, many early childhood teachers have questioned whyDespite the federal windfall, there is no real recognition of their sacrifice in the deal and the majority are excluded from any gains. In an online briefing the government provided the day after the announcement, teachers were unreliable.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, governments are committed to developing pay grids, improving benefits and even offering pensions for their child care workers.
A grid will set a minimum hourly wage for child care staff, and provide annual increments based on merit.
Manitoba embedded teacher compensation into its agreement with Ottawa, offering a minimum wage of $25.89 and a starting rate for qualified teachers of $27.77.
In April last year, Yukon raised its hourly opening minimum to $30.11. Saskatchewan paid a whopping $3 an hour for its employees, while teachers in New Brunswick received a $4.42 an hour boost their Ontario counterparts would get five years from now.
Read more: Canada’s COVID-19 child-care plan must begin with investment in early childhood educators
We calculate that the province of Ontario, with the largest share of the youngest children in the country, is creating only one new location for every 12 children under the age of six. Except in areas where building costs are prohibitive, Ontario’s accessibility goals are the least ambitious: Saskatchewan is developing a new location for every three children. In Newfoundland it is one of four; In Alberta it is one in eight and in British Columbia it is one in nine.
much improvement needed
Nevertheless, the province will need another 9,000 ECEs, as well as staff supporting staff in the new classes. As the least liberal supporter of its workforce, Ontario won’t achieve its goals unless it gets serious about compensation.
Much of the conversation about increasing the number of ECEs rests on adding more seats to college programs. But young workers are in demand everywhere – they would not choose a career in child care without substantial improvements in pay and benefits. Increasing college enrollment only adds water to a bucket full of potholes.
This government may ignore child care providers, but it pays attention to parents. Parents deserve affordable fees, but also want their children to benefit from the best early education possible. This would not have happened without qualified, resourceful and valuable teachers.