Hundreds of parents scrambling to find child care should speak up about the lack of affordable spaces in Toronto, an advocate says, as the city continues to grapple with how to fund new spots in schools amid provincial funding cuts.
Carolyn Ferns, spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, says the issue affects individual families across Toronto and now is the time for parents to express their views to councillors and MPPs. Council is slated to discuss this week whether it should pay for the operating costs of a total of 3,049 spaces in Toronto schools.
At issue is operational funding for 51 child care centres, or capital projects, planned for schools. The province has indicated it will not pay to operate the centres and has given the city until August 30 to commit to funding the operating costs. If the city doesn't meet the deadline, it will not receive the funding to build the centres.
"I say to parents: 'Speak up about this.' This is a political issue," Ferns told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday.
Parents might feel alone in their struggle to find child care, but they are clearly not, she said. Thousands of families in Toronto are in the same situation, she said.
"If we all banded together and spoke up about this, and explained that this is a pocketbook issue for parents, that it's a gender equality issue for women and an issue about child well-being, I think that the government would have to sit up and listen," she said.
Ferns called the issue a "silent crisis" because every family deals with the problem on its own. The lack of spaces causes panic and forces parents who cannot find child care to piece together informal arrangements or rely on extended family members. She said 91 per cent of day centres in Toronto have wait lists. Toronto has the highest child-care fees in Canada.
She called on the Doug Ford government to reverse its decision not to pay for operating costs of the centres.
Ferns faced own struggle to secure spot for son
When she was pregnant with her son more two years ago, she put her name on 12 waiting lists. Two weeks before she was due to return to work from maternity leave, she still did not have a child-care space.
"The only reason I managed to secure a spot was because a new infant room opened up in the neighbourhood school under exactly the first phase of the expansion plan that we are talking about today," she said.
The infant room with 10 spaces had a wait list before it opened, she said. She said she got the spot because she told the staff if anybody dropped out for any reason, she would start the next day. "That was the struggle that I faced and I'm somebody who knows the child-care system pretty well," she said.
She said the first centre out of the 51 was to open this fall and the rest over the next three years. Design and planning work has already been done, she said. More than half of the spaces were destined for Scarborough, she added. In a June report, the city staff estimates operating costs to be $35 million annually.
"It doesn't make any sense to turn your back on 3,000 spaces that are supposed to be already being built," she said.
On Tuesday, along with Coun. Mike Layton and Coun. Joe Cressy, Ferns spoke at a city hall news conference on the issue. Earlier, Mayor John Tory had said the province is "going in the wrong direction" on the issue because child care is basic need that allows parents to go to work.
Stan Cho, parliamentary assistant to Ontario's minister of finance, has told CBC that the government is making a significant commitment to child care funding in Toronto.
"There's still $461 million of funding that is based on the formula that has been in place for many decades that we are providing to the city," Cho said.
"This is a historical investment when it comes to direct relief for parents with the $2-billion tax credit program. And we're open to working with the city to address any other lingering concerns they may have," Cho said.