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Harper's Mommy Wars

Child care policies pit women against each other.

Patricia Robertson 5 May
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The recently remade suspense thriller When a Stranger Calls, where a babysitter and her charges are threatened by a murderous sociopath, brings to mind the current Conservative government's approach to state-funded child care facilities. Here, the real threat to parents is not coming from inside the house, but from our elected officials. Cue the scary music. The new prime minister killed the new child care program in its cradle when he picked between practicality and outdated ideology.

Many working Canadian parents' own child care nightmares will be realized in March 2007. That's the expiration date on Canada's new, federally funded child care program. You see, the Conservative government does not intend to honour the National Child Care Strategy created by Paul Martin's government and executed by Social Development Minister Ken Dryden. That fact slipped out soon after Harper assumed the reins of power and left Stornoway for 24 Sussex Drive.

So, put the kids in their jammies and load them into the backseat of the car; drive-in movies will be the only entertainment you can afford. With Harper doling out his miserly honorarium to working parents, more of your monthly budget in the coming years will be dedicated to paying for a market-driven, as opposed to state-sponsored, child care system. The only alternative is to move to Quebec, where, for a mere $7 a day, you have access to government-funded, licensed child care services.

'Stuck in the playpen'

The $2.2 billion dollar program that Harper cancelled was many years in coming, ever since the Liberal Red Book promise of 1993 first held out the lure of a nationally funded, comprehensive child care program to alleviate the crisis in available, affordable spaces. The National Child Care Strategy would finally have put Canada on par with other developed countries.

Instead, a 2004 study commissioned by the OECD found that Canada's approach to child care remains stuck in the playpen. The only province that boasted any kind of quality, affordable program was Quebec. No wonder they want to separate.

Daycare spaces are a prized commodity in Canada where less than 20 percent of children under the age of six have a place in a regulated, public child care facility. In Belgium, the rate is 63 percent, Denmark boasts 78 percent and even the post-Thatcher UK has 60 percent of its young children in licensed facilities. Apparently, it's easier to obtain a seat in Harper's cabinet than it is to get a coveted, licensed day care spot.

And judging from Stephen Harper's nostalgic approach to family policies, he will mix free market faith with an affirmative nod to the idealized, stay-at-home mothers.

Harper's diapers

Yet times have changed since the 46 year-old Harper was in diapers. A newly minted 2006 Statistics Canada report on women finds that 70 percent of women with kids aged three to five are working mothers, up from 37 percent just 30 years ago. In fact, The Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report released March 7 of this year stated that "the increased participation of women in the paid work force has been one of the most significant social trends in Canada in the past quarter century."

It's a social trend that many Tories seem to be blissfully ignoring as they cancel the key requirement for women's participation in that work force: affordable child care.

The May 2 federal budget held no surprises on the child care issue. As promised, effective July 1, the Conservative government will grant a paltry $1200 a year ($600 in 2006) to families for each child under the age of six. Before you get too excited, realize that his bonus money is also "taxable" and can be attributed to whichever spouse earns the lowest income in your family. What does the new budget say on the subject of a shortage of child care spaces? The government will provide $250 million to address the problem starting in 2007. The philosophical catch is that these "spaces" are not just government-operated child care centres, as the Liberals mapped out and delivered, the new government has opted to open up the business of child care to include corporations, community groups and government.

That $1.25 billion over five years is 10 percent of the total funding promised by the Martin government. Harper has also agreed to honour just one year of the current federal/provincial bilateral agreements signed with Liberal Social Development Minister Ken Dryden in 2005.

In tearing up the bilateral provincial agreements, the gleefully partisan Harper is effectively throwing the baby out with the bath water. And yet, his decision has come at a high price. Meanwhile, the backlash grows from disappointed provincial premiers, angry parents and demoralized child care advocates who have worked to get the Liberals to fund the national initiative over the last thirteen years.

Expert spanking

Monica Lysak, Executive Director of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, was stunned at the news. In a Canadian Press story on February 7, the advocate said "The child care movement is reeling. Within hours of being sworn in, Harper ripped the child-care program away from parents and children without any discussion."

Child care expert Susan Prentice weighed in on the pro-child care policy side of the debate in her 2000 paper "A Decade of Decline: Regulated Child Care in Manitoba, 1989-99". In it, Prentice makes a sound economic and social case for a national child care program. Prentice cites Environics research from a 1998 poll that found 76 percent of Canadians believe a child care system should be available for all families, with the costs shared by government and families. Prentice also cites the Vancouver Board of Trade's conclusion that the economic payback from investing in early childhood care is "spectacular."

In the same vein, the Vancouver City Council approved a motion on March 2 stating that the council was committed to lobby senior government officials at all levels. This would ensure that "Vancouver families have access to affordable and accessible child care through the established national child care program and support for the continuation of the aforementioned program."

Mommy wars

What the news stories don't mention, and many child care lobbyists are afraid to admit, is that there is an unnecessary and very divisive "mommy war" being waged between women who work for wages and women who elect to stay at home with their kids. The hair-pulling started with the trend reported a few years back of high-level female CEOs fleeing the boardroom in gloomy frustration as they tried unsuccessfully to balance parenting and work. This admission of defeat, from the mouths of high-powered women execs, was dismissed by feminists as a blatant exaggeration. Not surprisingly, it was heralded by neo-cons as proof that educated women should really stay home and parent.

Now, a book by New Yorker writer and social conservative Caitlin Flanagan is causing a bit of the stir south of the border. In To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, Flanagan hypocritically aligns herself with the stay-at-homes mums while enjoying the services of a nanny and a personal organizer. Admittedly, Flanagan is a Democrat who is pro-choice and anti-war, but on the family debate, she's a conservative. This uneasy mix of values has brought her criticism from feminists like writer Barbara Ehrenreich who taunts Flanagan for her privileged existence saying "my sisterhood doesn't extend to feeling the pain of stay-at-home mothers with nannies."

With the raging debate over the demise of the Liberal child care program here in Canada, the tension between these two camps, stay-at-home vs. career mum, is heating up with the same frenzy as the messy abortion debate of the '80s. The neo-con combatants, like REAL Women and the Canada Family Coalition, are predictably lining up with the Conservative government to strongly support the $1,200 year solution. In a Globe and Mail story on April 19, a supporter from the anti-child care lobby group said they wanted the state "to recognize the contribution of the stay-at-home parent."

Ouch. Now they're using the feminist rhetoric of the '80s, women hold up half the world, to support the destruction of a viable child care plan. The pro-child care people had better take up a collection and hire some savvy lobbyists if they want to have their message packaged in such a tidy, woman-friendly bow.

Still early days

When I interviewed University of Toronto child care expert Martha Friendly recently, she sounded tired and demoralized. Her child care research unit was rumoured to be under the knife by Harper's bureaucratic lackies, and to add insult to injury, anti-child care lobbyists had been spreading false rumours about alleged misappropriation of government funds given to a pro-child care lobby group Friendly belongs to. Game, set and match. Cut funding to the researchers, pro-child care lobbyists and activists and send them into a tailspin while your army of REAL women tries to convince working Canadian parents that they don't really need all of those pesky child care spaces when they can just stay home and collect $1,200 instead.

So, the political stakes are high, the sides are lining up to do battle and it's still the early days in this protracted debate. Lost in all of this rhetoric are the needs of the children and the practical fact that there just aren't enough spaces in the current system to accomodate everyone - no matter what their political stripe.

In scrapping the child care deal, Harper has left himself open to more than just public anger. On March 22, interim Liberal Opposition Leader Bill Graham threatened to call a confidence vote soon after the first day of parliament on April 4. Graham cited Harper's decision to scrap the child care program as among the chief reasons to bring down the Tory minority government. But since Harper called his bluff, Graham has been eerily silent on the topic.

On the home front, Harper also has his own sitter problems. His former Stornoway chef, Henrik Lundsgaard, is currently suing the prime minister for wrongful dismissal and seeks $250,000 for "lost wages, emotional trauma and damage to his reputation." According to a recent Toronto Star article, Lundsgaard alleges that hr was never paid "for babysitting duties, washing the family car and burying one of Harper's pet cats."

Patricia Robertson is a Saskatchewan journalist. Read more of her work at  [Tyee]

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