Lynn Easton.

Lynn Easton.

Early On: Who’s looking after the kids?

In Quebec - the land of universal daycare - the pieces fit together pretty well.

I’m strolling through a downtown Montreal café with my new friend Lily, a curious three-year-old who has abandoned her grilled cheese sandwich and the café-au-lait-swilling adults who have met up thousands of miles from their B.C. home.

I have happily joined her while her mom steals a quick break and I get my own selfish fix of little-people time. We play with souvenir magnets and look at colouring books. I wish, for the third time this week, that I had remembered the French language children’s puzzle I had put aside for this trip.

When we return to the table, her mom is talking about job-sharing her highly specialized B.C. health care position so that she can juggle time with her little one. She mentions how it’s been a great move for her, and the job flexibility helps keep in her high-powered position.

I think about other young women I know doing the same thing. I think about how, despite their education and dedication, these women often struggle to make ends meet and still earn less than men for the same work – a fact some explain away with false logic about choosing to have children.

I watch others struggle to pay for childcare on two full-time incomes – no matter how much money they make.

I think about friends who now spend their retirement years looking after grandchildren so their grown children can go back to work. They rise early to hang out with newborn grandbabies and later join the drop-off brigade at daycare or school.

And then I think about affordable licenced daycare, and the recent news that Maple Ridge private childcare providers have opted out of the program.

Suddenly, this is all starting to feel a lot like puzzle pieces that just won’t fit – in any language.

Although, somehow here in Quebec – the land of universal daycare – the pieces fit together pretty well.

Parents pay anywhere from $7 to $20.50 a day for government-funded, universal daycare. That is less than half what parents pay in B.C., where monthly costs have reached an average of $1,250 per child, according to the provincial government.

And in Quebec, a Canada-topping 85 per cent of mothers between the ages of 20-44 head back to the workforce after they give birth, according to long-term study results by a team of labour economists from several universities, including MIT, UBC, Queens and Toronto.

A consortium of Canadian universities did some extensive research recently that shows women’s involvement in the workforce shot up substantially and consistently since universal day care was implemented in Quebec 20 years ago. Costs to the government are similar to other types of childcare subsidies. And costs to parents remain low.

It’s not perfect. Wages for childcare workers are comparable to anywhere else in Canada, which means they are adequate, but not great. And the program has become a victim of its own success, as demand has led the Quebec government to encourage a new private stream, which has caused some headaches of its own.

Here at home, the B.C. government, parents, and daycare providers are just now trying to fit their own rather large puzzle pieces together to create something new in this province.

But we’re all a tad confused.

It’s an ambitious and complicated idea to meld government-sponsored universal daycare with private businesses. It’s not the $10-a-day daycare they promised, but it’s a start.

The plan could see parents saving anywhere from $50-$350 with daycare operators getting 10 per cent back in operating costs if they opt in.

Confused parents can find sign-up information at the B.C. Government financial assistance page.

This rebate, 22,000 more spaces, and a higher child tax credit are just the first step in a 10-year plan to get us to $10-a-day childcare, the B.C. Government says.

But it’ll take a lot more nuanced consultation and discussions than this first attempt if the puzzle pieces are ever going to fit.

Private operators say the government rolled out its first effort too quickly and they are uncertain of the process, possible restriction of fee increases, and the fate of private daycare itself.

Here in Maple Ridge, a group of large providers have chosen not to opt into the new plan at all.

But the young parents I know are also worried.

They are tapped out. These parents are frustrated and deserve some answers, too.

They can’t afford ongoing fee hikes to keep their children in care. And they’re wondering if they’ll see any of that promised $350 per month if private childcare providers pull out.

There are plans in the works to fund more spaces in B.C. with public and not-for-profit organizations, which will offer the subsidies. But will it be soon enough for families whose costs are going up hundreds of dollars per year?

I hope so because all of this has real-life implications for families where stress around who looks after the kids is constant.

It still feels like there’s no one right answer as to how best to care for our most valuable B.C. assets. But something has to change.

Generous grandparents, stay-at-home parents, professional well-paid daycare works at both government subsidized and private childcare centres. They all sound like good solutions. Here’s hoping we find a way to value them all without emptying our young parents’ pocketbooks.

In the meantime, thousands of miles away, in the land of café au lait and affordable universal day are, Lily and I watch some toddlers play with their minders out in the spring rain. They look happy. I grab a colouring book from the top shelf in the coffee shop – easier than a puzzle any day – and head back towards her mom so they can fill in the colours any way they want.

Maple Ridge News