Policy Success in Canada: Cases, Lessons, Challenges book cover
Book, Government & politics, Public policy, Future Skills, Munk School

Early Years Policy Innovations Across Canada: A Success?

The Canadian welfare state was largely built on male-breadwinner/female caregiver norms regarding employment policy, and morally regulative ‘cause of need’ rather than ‘fact of need’ social policy provision that discriminated against particular groups of women, especially those marginalized by race, sexuality, and class (Brodie, 2008, 166; Little, 1998; Valverde, 1991). The dominance of the ‘worker-citizen’ paradigm of a working father and stay-at-home mother as the ideal meant that policymakers tended to cast childcare as a ‘women’s issue’ and primarily as a family responsibility (Dobrowolsky and Jenson, 2004). For those who fell outside the norm of male-breadwinner/female-caregiver norms, such as single mothers, state assistance ‘often involved surveillance, conditionality, social stigma, and low levels of provision’ (Brodie, 2008, 169). While this gendered institutional order (Ritter, 2007) embodied by male breadwinner norms and stigmatized social assistance has largely been replaced by gender equality norms in labour markets and in some social policies, vestiges of the previous gendered institutional order continue to linger in government policies and programs. Gendered understandings of the appropriateness of certain government interventions and, in the case of early years policy, the norms of care, have become embedded within governing structures. As such, despite progressively shifting narratives about early years policy—from family-oriented, to women’s rights oriented, to children’s rights oriented—these entrenched norms continue to persist in policies and institutions, even as the original political logics behind existing early years policy have broken down. Reforms have also been resisted by socially conservative actors, including Conservative-led federal and provincial governments supportive of the traditional gendered division of responsibility for care (White, 2017).

Given this context, it is perhaps not surprising that on several important measures, Canada’s record on early years policy cannot be claimed as a resounding success. Canada measures well behind its counterparts in the OECD with respect to government investments in children (UNICEF Canada, 2020). Canada has developed a fairly middling policy approach to maternal and parental leave policies. UNICEF (2020, 6) ranks Canada 24th among rich countries, and 26th in terms of support for child poverty. It ranks Canada 28th among rich countries in terms of investments in children and families, including early childhood education and care (ECEC). However, these aggregate indicators mask some important policy diversity within the Canadian federation. Bright spots within the early years landscape—at both the federal and provincial orders of government—warrant exploration, and deserve to be cast as successes in policy development that can either be replicated across other provincial jurisdictions or explored further by other national governments. Canada’s federal system has both created opportunities for and, in some cases, impeded the successful evolution of early years policy. Federal government investment in early years programs is limited by the constitutional division of powers, which grants substantive jurisdiction over social policy to provincial governments. The federal government’s use of its spending power for early years policy has waxed and waned over the decades and the federal government has mainly relied on tax instruments and intergovernmental transfers to incentivize provincial action. Ultimately, the bulk of early childhood care and education (ECEC) programming lies with provincial governments, which regulate care provision, make determinations over social assistance for care (e.g. public subsidies), and develop policy around early learning. To capture the resultant complexity, this chapter covers early years policy innovations across both the federal and provincial orders of government in Canada. We examine the federal Child Tax Benefit (CTB) program, first introduced in 1992, and expanded and consolidated in the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) in 2016; Ontario’s full-day kindergarten (FDK) model introduced in 2011; and Québec’s maternity and parental leave benefits introduced in 2006.

We touch briefly on Québec’s subsidized childcare model as part of the larger suite of family policies introduced by Québec in the 1990s and early 2000s, but as this policy is given a much fuller exploration by Burlone in Chapter 6 in this volume, we have condensed our analysis of it. We investigate the political and policy design features that have contributed to these varied policy successes, both within the jurisdiction adopting the innovation, and across jurisdictions. In each of the three policies profiled in this chapter, we begin by reviewing the ideational and institutional evolution of early years policy. We highlight the role of the federal government in leading the ideational shifts seen throughout the decades (through several commissions and task forces on the issue), while also illustrating how, and in what ways, the federal and provincial governments have innovated on institutional design and implementation. adrienne davidson and linda a. white 119 In providing this history, we consider the scope and limits of policy paradigm change around children and families and maternal employment. Our chapter pays particular attention to post-1990 reforms that entailed a paradigm shift in policymaking to focus on the child rather than mothers (Dobrowolsky and Jenson, 2004) and human capital development concerns (Prentice, 2009) as part of an antipoverty and child school readiness strategy; to use tax instruments directed to families rather than funding program development; and to ignore feminist arguments around gender equality in care and employment (with the important exception of policy developments in Québec in the 1990s).