Dimensions of Difference in Child Care

by Lisa Pasolli

It’s relatively easy to identify the similarities in the state of child care across the country. In all of the provinces and territories, with the important exception of Quebec, families needing child care are faced with a shortage of spaces, long waiting lists, often astronomical fees, and conditions of questionable quality.

A closer look at each province’s child care programs, though, reveals subtle but important differences. Taking its cues from Quebec, PEI, for example, has recently initiated reforms to improve its child care programs. In academic analyses, scholars are beginning to pay closer attention to provincial policy variations that result from the “complex set of trade-offs between the quality, affordability, and availability of child care services.”[1]

As a historian of child care, I’m interested in the historical precedents entrenched in those trade-offs. This year’s Atlantic Canada Studies conference, with its focus on “Dimensions of Difference,” prompted me to think about how and why child care programs and policy in the Atlantic provinces may have been carved out along a path distinct from elsewhere in Canada. Is there something different about approaches to child care on the east coast? To what extent do those differences matter?


Dr. Katie Cooke. Image source: Bridges for Women Society (http://bridgesforwomen.ca/the-founding-mothers/).

In my current research I’m trying to untangle the debates of the 1980s, a decade when child care began to feature prominently in national political discussions. After feminists worked so hard in the 1970s to put day care on the map, the ‘80s saw a flurry of studies, task forces, and commissions. The Royal Commission on Equality in Employment (1984) and the Katie Cooke Task Force on Child Care (1986) issued high-profile calls for a national child care program. The Mulroney-appointed Special Parliamentary Committee on Child Care (SPC), on the other hand, decided to gather submissions from around the country regarding the “preferences of parents” for parental versus nonparental care arrangements.

From a historian’s perspective, the SPC hearings are particularly interesting because of the on-the-ground evidence they provide about Canadians’ attitudes towards child care. Not surprisingly, the hearings demonstrated that what Canadians wanted was more public funding and a greater range of high-quality services. But there were important regional variations in terms of how those objectives should be realized.

Atlantic Canadian respondents were more likely than those elsewhere in the country to question the priority given to day care centres. What their communities actually needed, many argued, were small-scale, home-based caregivers who were able to adapt to women’s erratic work schedules – as in the case of seasonal labourers in Newfoundland fish plants, for example. Similarly, a significant majority of New Brunswickers called for public funds to be given directly to parents (through tax reforms) rather than services, which they viewed as providing more flexibility for families. In contrast, a significant majority in the rest of Canada preferred funds go to services rather than parents.

Perhaps the most significant Atlantic outlier, though, was around the issue of auspice: the debate about whether and how much public support should be given to for-profit and commercial child care services, or whether public funds should be provided only to non-profits. This was one of the most contentious issues on the 1980s child care landscape. The Cooke Task Force, for example, called for a phasing out of public funds to for-profits, primarily on the basis of quality concerns. Overall, almost 80% of Canadians agreed.

In the Atlantic provinces, though, parents, advocates, politicians, and child care providers insisted that a national child care strategy must include funding to the for-profit sector. Such arguments were based on the simple reason that the very limited supply of day care in these provinces existed as small, owner-operated for-profits – ones that had emerged in the vacuum created by years of government inaction. In Nova Scotia, for example, 245 out of 294 centres were for-profits; in Newfoundland, there were only 450 publicly-subsidized, non-profit spaces for the 15,000 preschoolers who needed care. If there was any hope of protecting or expanding their child care capacity, Atlantic Canadians said, then for-profit services needed support.

Take the case of a Newfoundland day care provider who appeared before the SPC. The owner of a small centre in St. John’s, she “strongly resent[ed]” suggestions that she adopt a non-profit model. Pointing to previous battles with non-profit parent boards, she told the commissioners that she was in the day care business not for the money, but because she was providing a desperately-needed service. Newfoundland for-profit operators would be “left out of badly-needed support,” she said, if funding became conditional. She and others pointed out that unlicensed caregivers were undercutting their fees, and so if the province wanted to ensure a steady supply of high-quality care, they needed to enhance the capacity of the for-profit services that already existed.[2]

Why does this matter? After all, the legislation that resulted from the SPC’s investigations – Bill C-144, the Canada Child Care Act – died on the order paper in 1988. And this debate about auspice might seem like a relatively small blip when it comes to the big picture: the ongoing fight for universal, accessible, comprehensive, and high-quality child care services across the country. But this Atlantic divergence, in auspice debates and other matters, should serve as a reminder that historical patterns matter in contemporary debates. The Atlantic provinces continue to rely more heavily on for-profit child care than other provinces, the result of a long history of trade-offs in affordability and availability that looks different on the east coast than other parts of the country because of the depth of provincial government neglect, unstable work patterns, the local needs of mothers who work seasonally and part-time, and more. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Moving forward with a national strategy on child care, as the federal government seems poised to do, must take into account these dimensions of difference.

Lisa Pasolli’s Working Mothers and the Childcare Dilemma: A History of British Columbia’s Social Policy (UBC Press: Vancouver, 2015) won the 2016 CHA Clio Prize for British Columbia, while her article ““I ask you, Mr. Mitchell, is the emergency over?”: Debating Day Nurseries in the Second World War ” won the 2015 Canadian Historical Review Prize for best article published in that journal. She teaches at St. Francis Xavier University.


[1] Kelly Pasolli, “Comparing Child Care Policy in the Canadian Provinces,” Canadian Political Science Review 9, 2 (2015), 64.

[2] House of Commons, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence of the Special Committee on Child Care, Issue No. 4, St. John’s, 18 March 1986.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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