Statements & Speeches

Bill C-35 – Canada Early Learning and Child Care – Third Reading

December 5, 2023

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-35, An Act respecting early learning and child care in Canada.

As senators will know, the federal government negotiated early learning and child care agreements with all provinces and territories for a period ending March 31, 2026. The objective of Bill C-35 is to set out the parameters of future early learning and child care agreements between the federal government and the various provincial and territorial governments by enshrining into law the funding and guiding principles for early learning and child care in Canada.

The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, of which I am a member, was tasked with studying this bill. We heard 12 hours of testimony from a variety of witnesses, including federal and provincial government officials, researchers and stakeholders, including the disability community, official language representatives and Indigenous leaders.

My remarks will focus on three questions that were raised during our study: One, the lack of a definition of “early learning and child care” in the legislation; two, the inconsistency regarding minority official languages in the legislation; and, three, the need for more data requirements in the legislation.

On the lack of a definition of “early learning and child care” in the bill, the committee questioned the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development of Canada, Jenna Sudds, on this submission. As it currently stands, Bill C-35 offers no indication of how the government defines “early learning and child care.” The government’s rationale was that this offered flexibility in their agreements specific to each province and that they preferred the option of not being prescriptive in their legislation.

However, many witnesses expressed concern that Bill C-35 does not have a clear definition of “early learning and child care.” There was no consensus on a definition, but most witnesses agreed on the elements needed. First, the definition should be reflective of UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education. Second, the definition should include “licensed and regulated,” which is already in the current agreements. And third, the definition should be inclusive to capture as much of the early learning and child care, or ELCC, landscape from coast to coast to coast.

Taya Whitehead from the Canadian Child Care Federation stated:

A carefully defined definition could play an important role in supporting and protecting the early learning and child‑care programs going forward.

Colleagues, I cannot suppose what definition of “early learning and child care” would be best in Bill C-35. However, given the testimony heard at the committee, I must agree with the experts: A definition of “early learning and child care” in the legislation would eliminate any ambiguity but could also offer the flexibility needed for all.

On the inconsistency in the legislation regarding minority official languages, during our clause-by-clause deliberations, our committee considered a series of amendments regarding official language minority communities. The Human Resources Committee in the other place agreed to amend clause 7 by adding a funding commitment for official languages. That amendment was just a statement that funding agreements must be guided by the commitments set out in the Official Languages Act.

François Larocque, a professor, researcher and lawyer working in the field of language rights, made the Social Affairs Committee aware of the need to also amend clause 8 of the bill. His proposed amendment would protect long-term funding for ELCC programs and services for official language minority communities across the country.

Colleagues, as a member of the English-speaking minority in Quebec, I understand first-hand the importance of the amendment to clause 8 in order to guarantee long-term funding. Since the inception of the Official Languages Act in Canada, official language minority communities have been stuck in a perpetual cycle of turning to the courts to affirm their rights. Official language minority communities need our help as legislators, both to ensure that the federal government will follow up on its commitments and obligations and to have an explicit reference in the legislation when making their case in court.

Professor Larocque told the Social Affairs Committee that:

. . . if clause 8 does not explicitly mention programs for official language minority communities, it is more than likely that a court would conclude that the government is not obliged to guarantee them long-term funding.

Despite this, the government did not include such a reference in clause 8, and we did not have an amendment at the Social Affairs Committee to insert one.

The Social Affairs Committee was also made aware of another inconsistency in the legislation. Clause 7(1)(c) of the bill explicitly refers to “. . . English and French linguistic minority communities . . . .” while clause 11(1) refers to “. . . official language minority communities . . . .” This inconsistency might have been corrected had the government been more welcoming of amendments.

On the need for more data requirements, witnesses who appeared before the Social Affairs Committee were clear — to implement a national social policy like early learning and child care in Canada, robust data is crucial. The committee heard how important data collection is to understanding the impact and effectiveness of these investments.

During our committee meeting of October 16, the minister confirmed that Statistics Canada recently launched a new survey that would provide insights in a few different areas. The minister also mentioned that reporting requirements already exist in the current agreements.

However, we also heard from witnesses concerned that the provinces were not reporting as expected. Professor Gordon Cleveland, Chair of the Data Indicators and Research Working Group of the National Advisory Council on Early Learning and Child Care, told us, “. . . the trouble is that the provinces and territories, in many cases — either haven’t been able to . . .” collect robust data:

. . . or it’s not high enough of a priority. They are not reporting in the way the agreements foresaw. They’re not providing information in as timely a way as we thought they would, and even when they do, there will be major problems of lack of comparability.

Martha Friendly, the founder and executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, or CRRU, told the committee:

CRRU has been collecting and making certain forms of data as comparable as possible among the provinces. . . . But that isn’t a data strategy.

She also told the committee, “We need a data strategy that ensures that we will be officially collecting certain kinds of data. . . .”

We also heard that a lack of data would make it harder for advocates for children from equity-deserving groups. Krista Carr from Inclusion Canada told the committee:

We have a really difficult time in the disability community to get accurate, up-to-date data particularly on the inclusion of children with disabilities, whether that’s in school or in early learning and child care.

It is critically important because otherwise when we try to make our policy arguments or our legislative arguments, whether that’s provincially, territorially or federally, everybody wants the data. . . .

The testimony heard from experts regarding the lack of data collection mechanisms in the bill confirms my concerns. How can we properly invest in a long-term early learning and child care system in Canada if we don’t have the data to guide future investments? It is inconceivable to undertake such an important endeavour without base data to guide subsequent agreements.

As a proud Québécoise, I understand the benefits of having affordable and accessible daycare for mothers and families. We have had a universal, government-funded program in Quebec for more than 25 years. The participation rate of mothers of children aged 3 to 5 rose from 67% in 1998 — at the launch of the program — to 82% in 2014. Furthermore, a 2018 Statistics Canada study confirmed the benefits for women in the labour force in Quebec:

Most of the recent increase in the female labour force participation rate in Quebec, relative to Ontario, occurred among women for whom pre-school child care or before- and after-school care is most relevant—i.e., those with young children. The labour force participation of Quebec women whose youngest child was under 13 also increased among those with less than a university degree, suggesting that the province’s family policies make it economically beneficial for those who would presumably earn lower wages to join and remain in the workforce.

Economist Pierre Fortin of l’Université du Québec à Montréal found that in 2008, universal access to low-fee child care allowed nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program had existed; that Quebec’s GDP was higher, by about $5 billion, as a result; and that the tax-transfer return that the federal and Quebec governments get from the program significantly exceeds its cost.

Colleagues, we can agree on the importance of having affordable and accessible quality daycare for all Canadians, but we need more clarity on the definition of “early learning and child care,” as well as better leadership for a national data collection strategy. Canadians need support to access affordable, quality daycare. We have a lack of space, with wait lists across the country, and a need for more qualified ELCC educators. Federal investments will hopefully help Canadian families. But without proper data, it will be difficult to evaluate the impact of the investment and to adapt future agreements to the challenges faced by Canadians.