2005 May Speech Don't Cut Alberta Kids Out of National Day Care Campaign

Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, Campaign Launch News Conference, May 2005

(In the spring of 2005, the AFL joined Public Interest Alberta in launching a province-wide campaign to pressure the Alberta government to support the long overdue national child care program being proposed by the then-Liberal federal government.)

Some of you might be wondering why a union leader is participating in this event.

When you think of unions, you probably don't think of finger-painting and story time.

But I'm here today for two reasons.

First, because I'm a father - and children and child care issues are near and dear to my heart.

But, more importantly, I'm here because child care has become a fundamental workplace issue.

In the labour movement, we respond to the challenges that confront people at work.

Those challenges have been different at different times in our history.

When the challenge was unsafe working conditions, unions fought for and won better health and safety protections.

When the challenge was the prospect of poverty in old age, unions fought for and won public and private pensions.

When the challenge was unequal access to health care, unions were at the forefront of the battle for Medicare.

Today, here in Alberta and across the country, the issue many working people are struggling with is the issue of child care.

To understand the scope of the problem, we have to look no further than the study that was released yesterday by researchers from the University of Toronto.

What the study shows is what most of us know from our own personal experiences - namely that the majority of parents have to work to ends meet.

And when they work, they need to make arrangements for the care of their children.

To put the situation in concrete terms, consider the numbers.

In 2003, there were about 219,000 kids in Alberta between the ages of 6 months and five years.

Of those kids, 117,000 had mothers who were in the paid workforce.

That means 54 percent of Alberta pre-schoolers have a mother who works. And that's just the average for the group - when you look at Alberta mothers whose youngest child is a little older - between 3 and 5 - then, 71 per cent are in the workforce.

Of course, not everyone is working full-time - but it comes pretty close. On average, kids of working parents in Alberta need some kind of care arrangement for 22 hours a week.

At this point we have to be clear about something. The vast majority of two-income families in this province are not working only because they want to - they are working because they have to.

Even here in prosperous Alberta, the reality is that most families need two incomes to maintain their hold on the middle class.

As a result, there is a large and demonstrated need for high-quality, accessible, affordable child care services in this province.

And that's the problem - the need is not being met.

As a father and someone who advocates for working people, I look at the system we have in this province and I come away feeling deeply frustrated and, frankly, more than a little angry.

By almost any measure, we are the wealthiest province in country.

But as Bill pointed out, despite our wealth, we have the fewest available spaces in regulated child care facilities.

We spend the lowest amount on child and early education services. Quebec spends more than $4,800 for each regulated child care space; places like Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario spend more than $2,000 - and we spend $816.

But it doesn't end there. To top things off, we are the only province where spending on early childhood services has actually declined over the past ten years.

To put it in a nutshell, we are at the bottom of the pack and moving backwards.

Largely as a result of under-funding, we have a system that can't really be called a system. It's a patch-work - one that is failing kids and failing parents.

The good news is that, there is a ray of hope.

After years of unfulfilled promises, the federal government has finally agreed to move forward with a national child care strategy - and they've set aside $7 billion to get the ball rolling.

The bad news is that our provincial government and their allies in the federal conservative party have, for reasons that can best be described as ideological, been throwing up roadblocks to Alberta's participation in the national program.

That's why we're all here today.

We want to encourage our province to do the right thing.

We want them to do what other provinces have done and agree to participate in the national childcare program.

We also want them to pull their heads out of the sand and realize that the "leave-it-to-Beaver" era is over and that most mothers simply can't afford to stay home full-time with their kids.

Most importantly, we want to make sure Alberta doesn't squander this historic opportunity to build a system that parents can have confidence in and that can provide the kind of quality care and early education that our kids need.

At this point I'd like to quickly address some of the arguments and suggestions put forward by those opposed to the national child care plan.

They say they want parents to have choice. And they point to the fact that only about 20 percent of Alberta parents put their kids in centre-based child care. They say that proves that Albertans don't really want the kind of care being proposed under the national program.

But the real reason Alberta parents aren't choosing centre-based care isn't that they oppose the idea - it's that they usually can't afford it.

It�s true we have some subsidies - but they don't cover the full cost and they are available to only a small group of low-income parents.

So if parents want to put their kids in quality programs, they have to pay between $600-700 per month per child. Frankly, especially for parents with more than one child, that's more than most of us can afford.

A choice that you can't afford is not really a choice at all. So if we want to give parents a real choice - then we have to properly fund high quality care, so it is affordable and accessible to all families regardless of income.

The second thing that opponents of the national program talk about is using tax breaks instead of direct public funding of child care centre to address the problem.

Rona Ambrose from the federal Conservative party for example, for example talks about tax incentives for businesses to set up on-site daycares and $2,000 a year tax breaks for families to encourage one parent to stay at home.

With all due respect to Ms. Ambrose, $2,000 isn't going to replace the income earned by one parent. I'd don't know were she lives, but for most of us $2,000 isn't going to pay the mortgage for a year. We'd be lucky if it covered the grocery bill for a few months.

As far as the idea of tax incentives for businesses go - most Albertans work in small workplaces with 50 employees or less.

I don't care how many incentives you give businesses that small, they're simply not going to be able to afford to establish their own childcare centre - and even if they do, they're likely to be nothing more than babysitting stations, not real centres for child development and learning.

The real solution is the one that research and experience has pointed us towards for years - and that is the creation of a system of quality, publicly supported child care centres that are affordable and accessible. Most Albertans currently don't have that option - but based on the demonstrated demand that's out there, I'm convinced that if we build it, they will come.

Before I wrap up, I just want to say a few words about a group of people who sometimes are overlooked in the debate on child care.

We talk about the kids, we talk about parents - but we also need to talk about the child care workers themselves.

In many ways, child care workers are the backbone, the life blood of a quality child care system. They are the people that bring quality child care and early childhood education programs to life.

But they are also the workers most likely to be under-paid and under-valued in our economy.

Here in Alberta in 2003, the average pay for early childhood educators with three years experience was a paltry $10.37 an hour.

That's about the same pay earned by landscape labourers and people who pump gas.

Among all the workers who need specialized training and certification to do their jobs, child care workers are the lowest paid, bar none.

If we ever hope to build a real child care system in this province, one that parents can have confidence in, one that focuses on developing kids' potential instead of simply warehousing them, then we're going to have to accept the idea that we need a public system; that we're going to have to fund it generously; and that we're going to have to offer decent pay so we can attract and retain high calibre workers.

With the proposal from the Federal government, we have an opportunity to do all those things. Today our message for the province government is clear - don't squander this historic opportunity. Don't cut Alberta kids out of the national child care program.


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