Before the pandemic began in March 2020, just 3 percent of parents cited a shortage of spaces as a reason for not using child care, and two-thirds of parents reported “no difficulty” finding a child-care arrangement, according to Statistics Canada.1
Thus, prior to the pandemic, most parents are able to find what they are looking for. Why, then, do we hear so much about shortages?
One reason is that advocates for a universal system count only one type of child care: licensed, centre-based spaces. If a parent uses a home-based daycare in the neighbourhood, a relative provides the care, or if the parent coordinates child-care “shifts” with their partner, then advocates for national daycare don’t count it. When advocates speak of child-care “deserts,” they are excluding the other forms of child care that exist outside of spaces in licensed centres.2 It is a bit like saying that Canada has an extreme shortage of vegetation because you count only cactuses. Second, advocates for a universal system desire a space for every child under a particular age, usually the age of twelve. Given the diversity of child care that parents use and prefer,3 this number of spaces is unnecessary, and counting only licensed centres is a poor metric for attempting to identify shortages.
Both pre-pandemic and current research indicates that there are centre-based child-care spaces sitting empty. For example, in Toronto, “there was a 45 percent increase in the average number of vacant spaces between 2009 and 2016.”4 In British Columbia, “the average day-care vacancy rate including licensed centre-based care and family care, and across all child ages from infant through to school age, is 30.9 percent.”5 After the initial quarantine period, Ontario schools opened in September 2020, and 93 percent of daycares in Ontario were open.6 Peel Region, for example, was at 97 percent of pre-pandemic operation levels, yet only 20 percent of child-care spaces in Brampton, a municipality within this region, were occupied.7 Alberta has reported that 94 percent of daycares were operating, with an enrollment rate of about 50 percent.8
None of this is to say that finding child care is always easy. It can be stressful, particularly in certain jurisdictions. And just as there are surplus spaces in some places, there can be shortages in others. The question is whether a universal system would be the best solution.
Child care is never limited to only spaces in licensed day-care centres. Rather, child care is the care of a child, no matter who provides it. Provincial and territorial legislation and safety and licensing standards must enhance the mix of child-care options in a community and make it plausible and profitable for small, local providers to adhere to regulation. Funding to families, to put toward the form of child care that is best for them and for their child, will ensure that the government does not discriminate against parents and relatives providing child care.