In 2021, the federal government committed to spending an additional $27.2 billion over five years to expand access to affordable, accessible and high quality licensed child care for all children in Canada. Combined with further investment from provincial and territory governments, this public expenditure is intended to create 250,000 spaces between 2021 and 2026. One way to track progress toward this target is to monitor the number of spaces created by each province and territory over these years. Baseline data is available through the CRRU ECEC in Canada series 2021 edition, and future releases are expected to help us monitor how provinces and territories are doing.
Another lens through which to monitor change is by tracking parents’ experiences of access to child care. Statistics Canada recently released their Canadian Survey of Early Learning and Child Care (CSELCC)1 and Survey on Early Learning and Child Care Arrangements (SELCCA)2.
Key findings of Canadian Survey of Early Learning and Child Care
The data from the CSELCC and SELCCA reports that 56% of children 0 to 5 years attended non-parental child care in 2023. This is lower than the 60% attendance rate found through the pre-pandemic 2019 CSELCC. It is important to note that these data do not necessarily align with other administrative datasets, including ECEC in Canada, because the CSELCC and SELCCA include both licensed and unlicensed child care arrangements, namely unlicensed home child care as well as care by nannies, grandparents and other family or friends.
Given that all centre-based services are licensed3, we can look more closely at these numbers to understand changes in the percentage of children accessing licensed centre-based child care, which remains the large majority of all licensed child care spaces in Canada, at approximately 93%.
7% more children in centre-based child care
The data shows that the total number of children using centre-based child care increased from 717,300 to 772,000, representing a 7.6% increase since 2019. There is, however, wide variation across provinces and territories.
In four jurisdictions (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut and Northwest Territories) the survey results show a decline4 in the number and proportion of children 0 to 5 years using centre-based care. In the other nine jurisdictions, the increase ranges from a modest increase of 5% to 8% (British Columbia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec) to a notable increase of 45% in the Yukon. Respondents from the survey reported a 29% increase in centre-based care in Manitoba, while in Alberta, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan the reported increase was 13%, 15% and 17%, respectively.
Use of home child care decreased
The Survey reported a decline in the number of parents using home based care. 201,900 parents reported using home child care (licensed and unlicensed), compared with 281,600 in 2019. This represents a decrease from 12.2% to 9% of parents reporting their children were using home child care. This is perhaps surprising given many provinces and territories are allocating CWELCC funding to support the expansion of licensed home based care. Another survey identifies reasons why many unlicensed providers choose not to be licensed.
Fees are falling, but child care is harder to find
The good news is that parents who previously could not afford child care are now able to afford the reduced fees. This is reflected in the proportions of parents reporting difficulty in finding affordable child care, which declined from 48.3% to 41.2% between 2019 and 2023.
As reported elsewhere, the answer is quite simple: reduced-fee licensed spaces are not readily available and, for some families, the cost is still too high. The CSELCC survey indicates that among parents with children using child care, more parents (46%) reported difficulty finding child care, compared with 2019 (36%) and, corresponding to this, more parents reported their children are on a waiting list, compared with 2019 (26%, up from 19%). Of all parents who were using child care and reported difficulties finding childcare, 32% reported the reason was because they could not find affordable or subsidized child care.
Younger children (0-1 years) are more likely to be on waitlists (47%), compared with older children. But, for both age groups, the proportion of children on waitlists increased since 2019. This is perhaps not surprising given that the median cost of child care has declined in all provinces (except Quebec) and territories since the implementation of CWELCC, driving up the demand for licensed care.5
Are some groups missing out more than others?
There is still limited data available in Canada that monitors the socioeconomic characteristics of children using licensed child care. The CSELCC and SELCCA do, though, provide insight into the usage patterns and challenges of Indigenous parents compared with non-Indigenous parents. At a pan-Canadian level, the percentage of children using centre-based care is similar for Indigenous children (52.4%) and non-Indigenous children (56.3%). However the reported difficulties in finding child care are striking. For example, 10.2% of all respondents reported that the reason for not using any child care arrangement was because the ‘cost was too high’, yet for Indigenous respondents, 24% reported the cost was too high. Similarly, 7.7% of all respondents reported their reason for not using any child care was because of ‘a shortage of spaces or a waiting list’, compared with 20.6% of Indigenous respondents. In 2019, only 10% of Indigenous respondents said they were not using child care because of a shortage of spaces or long waiting lists. Going forward, it’s important that data is collected that can capture the experiences of other minority groups, particularly newcomer children, children with disabilities, and children from low-income families.
What the reports tell us about the expansion of licensed child care in Canada
It’s important to remember that the Statistics Canada reports rely on surveys between January and June 2022, less than a year after the full implementation of the CWELCC funding agreements. Therefore, the data6 provide only limited insight into how the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care (CWELCC) investments are impacting parents’ experiences of access to child care. Nevertheless, this baseline data, along with other complementary data from providers and administrative data about spaces and cost, will help to track changes over time, including the differential impact on families across provinces and territories, and across different socio-demographic groups. Along with planning mechanisms that keep governments accountable, data and monitoring are essential to identify gaps and learn from other jurisdictions, within Canada and internationally.
1 CSELCC covers only the 10 provinces.
2 SELCCA covers the three territories.
3 With the exception of a minority of part-day programs in some provinces.
4 Note that the data for NU and NT / NWT should be used with caution.
5 Median fees in Quebec increased between 2019 and 2022, from $8.25 to $8.85. They are still the lowest in Canada.
6 The CSELCC is a national sample survey with a cross-sectional design, meaning that respondents are targeted based on where they live (province) and the age of their child (0 to 6 years). Further details about how the data is collected is available here.