One mom’s maddening search for childcare in a city where the daycare shortage is beyond critical
One mom’s maddening search for childcare in a city where the daycare shortage is beyond critical
One mom’s maddening search for childcare in a city where the daycare shortage is beyond critical
When I moved back to Toronto from Berlin, a newly single mom, my first order of business was finding good, affordable childcare for my two boys. What I discovered was a daycare system on the verge of collapse
Bernard Hellen, a 46-year-old business development manager and father of two young children, doesn’t usually spend an entire Sunday out walking his dog. But one Sunday last May, his field spaniel, Arfie, had the pleasure of being summoned hourly for an amble around their block in Roncesvalles Village.
The outings had a purpose. Hellen’s eyes were trained on the pavement in front of Howard Junior Public School, home to one of the most coveted daycares in the neighbourhood—Howard Park Children’s Centre. Situated on the third floor of the building and accommodating 88 children ranging in age from four to 12, the daycare is run by early childhood educators and other support staff—some of whom have been there for more than 25 years. The centre enjoys lots of parental involvement, full integration within the school and relatively reasonable monthly fees ($650 for kids in half-day kindergarten and $320 for those school-aged). Registration was to begin at 7:30 the next morning, and competition for admission is fierce. Ten spots are made available each year, some of which are reserved for siblings of kids already enrolled.
At 4 in the afternoon, Hellen spotted two fathers loitering in front of the school. Game on. He got in line, called his wife, Holly, to come hold the spot, then took the dog home and grabbed the sleeping bag and puffy chair he’d recently purchased at Walmart. He then hurried back to the school and took his place third in line.
Nancy Carr, a writer and a mother of two, was returning home from the park with her kids for supper when she noticed the lineup at Howard was already six parents deep. She, too, joined the line, then called her husband, Dale, to come and take her place. Dale did the evening shift, and she took over, with sleeping bag, book and flashlight, at midnight.
The 15 parents in line had a lot in common: most were professionals in their 30s or 40s with young children and a desperate need for good, affordable childcare. In the evening hours, they had pizza and wine; at midnight, they tried to sleep. At 2:30 a.m., Hellen was awoken by the sound of raccoons fighting. Peering into the darkness, he discovered four television cameras pointed at the row of sleeping adults.
When the tousled and bleary-eyed parents paraded into the school the next morning, Hellen was among the six who were granted a spot. Nancy Carr was first on the waiting list. A week later, she received a call saying that a family had dropped out and her older son, who started JK at Howard in September, was in.
Both Carr and Hellen were so ecstatic about getting into Howard Park that camping out now seemed a minor inconvenience. After all, 15 hours in a lineup is a small price to pay for six years of peace of mind. Up until then, Carr and her husband, who works in sports media, had been sending their sons to a private daycare to the tune of $2,450 a month. Bernard and Holly, an office manager at a major architectural firm, had spent a fortune paying for four different nannies over four years, plus all of the extracurricular activities they felt were necessary to ensure the kids were properly stimulated and socialized (an extra $4,000 a year). Nearly all of Holly’s salary had gone toward childcare expenses. Now that they’ve found a secure arrangement, Hellen jokes about their ordeal. “When we were kids, we lined up for Springsteen,” he says. “In our 30s, it was for iPods. And now, in our 40s, we line up for daycare.”
In a perfect world, or in places like Sweden, there’s a licensed daycare spot for every child. In Toronto, there’s one for every five. Parents vying for such a spot spend years on waiting lists, and if they’re lucky enough to be offered one, may then sacrifice a good chunk of their income paying for the privilege.
Without a provincial or national daycare program, Toronto is languishing in a kind of childcare limbo. The city’s subsidy system—its primary public funding mechanism—is severely oversubscribed, with more than 21,000 children wallowing on the waiting list, a figure that rises by the thousands every year. In July, Giorgio Mammoliti, head of the mayor’s task force on childcare, recommended that the city exit the daycare business altogether, which would jeopardize the 52 city-run centres—the closest thing Toronto has to a coherent system. Our catch-as-catch-can approach to childcare has led to a fragmented and inefficient system in which parents scramble to cobble together affordable childcare, sometimes leaving their kids in questionable arrangements or shelving their careers to stay home in the hopes that the job market will be kind to them when they resurface.
I’m one such parent. At the end of 2010, I returned to Toronto from Berlin with a child on each arm. Having originally moved to Germany on a one-year post-graduate scholarship, I fell prey to Berlin’s powers of seduction and stayed for 12 years. I found wonderful friends, interesting work as a journalist and no reason to leave. Until one morning when a terse email arrived from my partner and the father of my two children, announcing the termination of our relationship. Our youngest son, Liam, was five months old, his brother, Theo, not yet two.
Entscheidungsfreudig—joyful in making decisions—is one thing I am not, and this was to be a particularly joyless chapter in my life. At the time, my ex did not intend to take on much in the way of parental responsibility, so I decided to return to Toronto, where I could rely on family support.
My children and I arrived on my mother’s doorstep on Christmas Eve. I was hoping to be swept away by the merriment of the season, but I found my spirits refusing to soar as we ambled through the snowless streets of my mother’s neighbourhood, Davisville Village, scavenging the carcasses of toys in the park and poking sticks at deflating plastic Santas on people’s front lawns. Thanks to Toronto’s prohibitive real estate market and my mother’s generosity, her home was soon to become our own. My first priority was to find childcare and get back to work, at least part-time.
The nursery school that Theo attended in Berlin was a remnant of the former East Germany, which, following German reunification, had adopted Montessori pedagogy. The hours were 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The children were served a hot lunch and went outside twice a day to play in the yard—a park by Toronto standards, containing an herb garden, berry bushes, climbing rocks, a willow labyrinth, multiple playgrounds and a century-old walnut tree whose nuts the children collected to bake into muffins.
Theo was in a group of 20 children aged 18 months to six years, with two teachers. Within the school-sized building, the kids could migrate between activities, and the director floated around, greeting all 160 children by name and inquiring about their stuffed animals or pets, whose names she also knew. Every day she invited a subset of the older children to have lunch with her in her office.
We paid 86 euros (roughly $105) a month for this. It was our Kita fee, calculated as a percentage of our household income, and would have applied to any public Kita in Berlin. Kita, the short form of Kindertagesstätte, is the program German children attend before school starts at age six (no distinction is made between daycare, nursery school and preschool). Had we been rich, we would have paid the maximum monthly fee of 466 euros ($570). When Theo turned three, our rate would have been reduced to the universal 23 euros ($28) to cover his lunches.
Theo spent a year on the waiting lists of three local Kitas and had been accepted into all of them by the time he was one and a half years old. Among my peers, it wasn’t uncommon to wait that long—with 12 months of paid parental leave in Germany and guaranteed post-leave job security for three years, it was possible to ease back into work gradually.
In Berlin, children arrived at Theo’s Kita on foot, bike or sled depending on the season, accompanied by a parent or grandparent. In Toronto, two of the first English words Theo learned were SUV and nanny. And what I learned as I hit the salted sidewalks of Davisville Village looking for childcare was that making comparisons with our Berlin Kita would only lead to disappointment.
My first stop was Little Tots Manor, which came highly recommended at the neighbourhood dog park. Located in a spruced-up but not especially large house on Belsize Drive, surrounded by a white picket fence, it contained 75 children divided by age into beautifully appointed rooms. Theo’s potential group, the senior toddlers, had a staff-to-child ratio of 1:4, and its daily program included instruction in French, computers and mathematics. I was assured that the children were encouraged to get their hands dirty, but it wasn’t clear how, as there wasn’t a living thing in sight in the interlocking stone and artificial turf backyard. The price tag was $1,725 a month, plus the non-refundable $75 required to be placed on the waiting list. Veritably cheap compared with the infant spot for Theo’s little brother, which would have cost $2,025—well beyond the reach of this single mother.
I kept looking and discovered that Little Tots was at the upper end of the price spectrum, but not off the charts. The local Montessori school would cost $1,283 a month for a full day, $888 for a half-day. Two church daycares charged a monthly $1,200 and $900 respectively, but a mother from one warned me that the kids watched a lot of movies. (This wasn’t mentioned during my visit, but there was no denying that the oversized black box draped with a tablecloth in the middle of the room was a television.)
And then there was the little home daycare just around the corner, with the “Kids Are My Business” sign on the lawn. For 25 years, the friendly Vicky Ouelette has been opening the doors of her small, semi-detached home to infants under one, keeping them fed and watered until they’re three. Ouelette’s core curriculum seemed to consist of potty sitting, conducted hourly and before and after all meals. The space was cramped, and on days when she had more than two kids, outdoor time was restricted to her front porch. When I told her I was looking for a spot for my free-range, German-speaking two-and-a-half-year-old, she looked skeptical but would have been game to try for her standard rate of $300 a week had she not been full up at the time.
Thankfully there was one other option, a cooperative nursery school located in the basement of the Church of the Transfiguration on Manor Road. It was cheap by area standards ($460 a month for half-days—only 10 times what we had been paying in Berlin) and had a friendly feel and an attractive setting with an outdoor playground on the grassy church grounds. Its only drawbacks were the brevity of the day, which ended at 11:30 with a $1-a-minute penalty for late pickups, and the fine print in the application that made parents responsible for soiled diapers.
I didn’t really understand what that meant until the phone rang a few weeks after Theo started and the supervisor told me he required a diaper change. It took several iterations of this fact for me to realize that I was expected to perform the task. I’d found a local babysitter to take care of Liam in the mornings—three child-free hours that were so precious I hardly knew what to do with them. Often enough, they were sullied by Theo’s sullied bum.
Meanwhile, I called Toronto Children’s Services to apply for childcare subsidies—money to which low- and middle-income parents are entitled (provided they meet an income test) to help defray the cost of any city-endorsed daycare. There was no question that I was eligible, but as the friendly voice on the phone told me, there were roughly 18,000 children ahead of mine on the waiting list. I was welcome to call back in a year’s time to see where we stood.
The predicament seemed somehow un-Canadian. Over the 12 years that I had lived in Germany, I had come to adopt the German line on Canada—the kinder America, North America’s Scandinavia, a land of lakes, forests and social services. Canadians love to champion their public education and health systems. So where was our national policy on childcare? Where was the political party pushing for it?
The May 2011 federal election came and went and daycare got barely a passing mention, parenthetical to the concerns of the sandwich generation that was caring for aging parents while supporting older children—a demographic well represented in Canada’s political class.
I soon found myself getting a little hot under the collar every time someone asked me how my work was going. When was I supposed to find work, let alone do it? And without work, how was I going to afford even minimal childcare? And if I—a university-educated native Torontonian with oodles of family support—was struggling, how on earth were less fortunate families in this city managing?
In Davisville Village and other upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, most working parents of two or more children are managing with the help of a nanny. For those of us who can’t afford or accommodate a nanny, there are daycares. When childcare experts assess a daycare system, they look at its accessibility (price), availability (number of spots) and quality. Toronto’s system—a contradiction in itself—fails on all counts.
The umbrella term “childcare” covers many kinds of arrangements, but the most fundamental distinction is between unregulated childcare—all private arrangements such as grannies, nannies and private home daycares—and regulated care licensed by the province under the purview of the provincial Day Nurseries Act. Within the regulated world, there’s a further subcategory of childcare centres that have purchase-of-service agreements with the city, which means they’re licensed to accept subsidized kids. Beyond that, there are the 52 daycares run by the city.
In Ontario, regulated childcare is available to 12 per cent of families. Given that approximately 80 per cent of Ontario mothers work, the vast majority of children spend their days in unregulated situations. These are not necessarily bad, but they are—as the term suggests—subject to no official oversight or quality control.
Unlicensed home daycares are popular in this city, and new ones are popping up like mushrooms in our most reproductive neighbourhoods. Most don’t need to advertise or have websites; a little sign and word of mouth do the trick. Given the huge demand, home daycare operators are sometimes tempted to take in more than their permitted capacity of five children. Once they do, they’re not only unregulated, but also illegal.
The public is only made aware of these places when something goes wrong. Sometimes things go horribly wrong—as in the case of 14-month-old Duy-An Ngyuen, who died as a result of injuries suffered in an unlicensed home daycare in Mississauga in 2011. (The owner, April Luckese, has been charged with failing to provide the necessities of life and criminal negligence causing death.) And sometimes things go minorly wrong, as in an infamous biting incident at a Riverdale home daycare in April 2007 that went unnoticed by staff and landed a toddler in hospital. In the investigation that followed, owner Gloria DeMelo was found to be caring for more than 25 children, five times the legal limit.
Parents find themselves in a royal pickle when their daycare is shut down overnight. They must also contend with a serious burden of shame and guilt. I spoke to several parents whose daycares were breaking the rules, all of whom requested anonymity, and their lines of defence were similar: we had no idea and/or we had no choice. One Riverdale mother’s scenario was typical: her nine-month-old baby had been on at least three daycare waiting lists since conception, and one month before the mother had to return to work, she still had no spot. Of course she was overjoyed to discover friendly Gloria around the corner, whose daycare seemed cheery, safe and, at $50 a day, moderately priced.
Not that anyone should assume a licensed daycare is by definition a good one. In August 2011, three toddlers at the Markham Village Childcare Centre wandered off the playground through an open gate and made their way across a parking lot to the neighbouring Shoppers Drug Mart. When store managers contacted the daycare, staff seemed not to have noticed the children’s absence. Video surveillance cameras showed three staff on the playground, one on a cellphone and the other two chatting with each other, as three of the 11 toddlers they were supposed to be supervising sallied forth. Not only did that childcare have a licence, it had won the Markham Economist and Sun’s readers’ choice award for best daycare the previous year.
Studies have demonstrated time and again that parents are poor judges of the quality of daycare programs. Their top criteria—understandably—are location, price and scheduling compatibility. Few think to ask about staff turnover, salaries or professional development opportunities, factors that correlate closely with quality. A recent study that looked at 1,000 children at 100 childcare centres across Toronto revealed that parents stayed an average of 62 seconds when dropping their kids off in the morning. Most parents have little idea what goes on at their daycare centres.
Toronto’s daycare environment is a delicious cocktail for the private sector: a market where demand far exceeds supply, where most customers (parents) don’t know what they’re purchasing but want the very best of whatever it is and are willing to pay a lot for it. For-profit centres exploit these vulnerabilities, emphasizing curriculum, presenting themselves as safe homes away from home and wowing adults with amenities that make absolutely no difference to children. What three-year-old cares if the chair she’s sitting on is eight years old or brand new? If the muffins are made with all-purpose flour or Fairtrade spelt? One fast-growing commercial daycare chain in Toronto is Peekaboo. Its trademark is its Internet video link, which enables parents to watch their children in the centre throughout the day.
This isn’t to say that for-profit childcare is by definition a scam. There are some excellent private childcare centres in Toronto, a blessing to those who can afford them. But with the profit motive at play, there’s a temptation to cut corners, and the first corners to be cut are generally staff salaries.
As a matter of policy, early childhood experts across the board share the view of the Toronto childcare advocate Martha Friendly when she says, “Childcare shouldn’t be run as a business, for about 16 reasons.” They point to Australia, where in the ’90s, the government moved toward demand-side childcare funding—paying parents rather than investing in public childcare, much as we do in Canada—and providing tax incentives for private daycare startups. The system gave rise to a monopolistic for-profit outfit, ABC Learning, which over the course of a decade claimed 30 per cent of the daycare market—becoming the only option in some communities. ABC acquired several offshore daycare chains, lined its own pockets and reached a market capitalization of $2 billion. Severely overextended, the company declared bankruptcy after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis and left Australian taxpayers to pick up the pieces. Although it’s hard to imagine such a scenario playing out in this country, the number of big-box childcare companies has increased in recent years. In December 2011, the Calgary-based and TSX-traded Edleun Group entered the Ontario market, acquiring six centres. It has since purchased eight more.
The proliferation of commercial for-profit operators is a logical consequence of Canada’s failure to invest in a public childcare system. A 2007 report by the OECD ranked Canada 39th out of 40 countries—the lowest of any G8 nation, and behind Lithuania, Slovenia and Cyprus, to name a few—in its public spending on childcare with a commitment of 0.2 per cent of GDP (the United Nations recommends a minimum of one per cent).
There are further consequences. A 2008 UNICEF report card assessing the quality and accessibility of childcare in 25 industrialized countries ranked Canada last, tied with Ireland. Canada’s fertility rate (1.6 children per woman) is one of the lowest in the developed world, a statistic that consistently correlates with weak childcare systems. And an OECD mission sent to Canada in 2004 wrote in its overwhelmingly negative report of “poor” design standards, “makeshift arrangements in low-rent buildings” and “little emphasis on outdoor programming.” One section of the report focused on the low quality of outdoor space, which it found particularly shocking in a country with so much available land.
There is a better way, and Canada has been inching toward it for decades. In its 1970 report, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada called for a national daycare act to enable women to have both children and careers. In the decades to follow, the focus shifted to include the well-being of children, and the terminology evolved from daycare to childcare to early childhood education and care (ECEC).
The merits of public childcare systems could increasingly be expressed in numbers. In Quebec, for instance, where $5-a-day daycare was introduced in 1997 (it has since gone up to $7 a day), economists saw a 3.8 per cent increase in women’s workforce participation, which, by 2008, had pumped $5.2 billion into the provincial economy; every dollar invested in the program was translating into a $1.05 return for the province, plus a 44-cent windfall to Ottawa in increased income and consumption taxes.
In 2004, then–prime minister Paul Martin presented a national childcare program. “The reasons in favour are as long as your arm,” Martin says today, citing the work of early childhood expert Fraser Mustard and advocate Margaret McCain, research on brain development and the importance of early learning environments for all children, even those with stay-at-home parents. “It really isn’t something that brooks a lot of debate.” Martin’s minister of social development, Ken Dryden, had negotiated agreements with all the provinces across partisan lines, and the program’s seed funding was in place. Then a non-confidence vote forced the 2006 elections.
In its first year, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government killed Martin’s program. Rather than invest in public childcare, Harper would send monthly cheques to parents to help with their private arrangements. The sum: a whopping $100 a month per child under six.
The Universal Child Care Benefit is inadequate for families in need of assistance and superfluous for those that are not. Under Harper, the childcare discussion has degenerated into ideological bunkum. As Harper’s human resources minister, Diane Finley, told Canadians, under a national childcare program parents would be “forced to have other people raise their children.”
This is not by definition a conservative position. The most progressive childcare measures taken in Germany—a $5.2-billion commitment to the expansion of infrastructure and extension of parental leave to 14 months, two of which were earmarked for the father—have been under conservative chancellor Angela Merkel and her former minister of family affairs, a medical doctor and mother of seven children. Germany has shown that it is possible for conservatives to adapt antiquated notions of the family to current social realities without compromising the economic health of the country.
Bond Child and Family Development, located within the Metropolitan United Church on Queen Street East, was founded in 1937 by the philanthropist Mary Rowell Jackman. It’s one of Toronto’s oldest daycares, and its mission has always been to serve inner city communities. In August 2011, it announced it would be closing. Enrolment was down to 29 children, less than half of its licensed capacity of 64.
Bond is emblematic of the state of childcare in Toronto: deemed a “centre of innovation” by OISE, it offers subsidized spots in an area where more than 800 children are waiting for such a thing. But because the city doesn’t have enough money to subsidize the kids on its wait list, 35 spots at Bond remained empty, and not enough families in the surrounding neighbourhood could afford to pay full freight ($350 to $500 a month) to keep the place open.
Daycare subsidy funding is split 80/20 between the province and the city. Ontario’s contribution hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1997, and the city has barely increased its contingent of subsidized spots since 1994. It sits at 24,000, which is enough to meet the needs of 28 per cent of Toronto’s low-income children.
Masudur Ahmed is a parent and member of the Bond community. He arrived in Canada in 1997, claiming political asylum from Bangladesh. His application was turned down, and in the eight years he spent appealing that decision (ultimately successfully), he lived off a waiter’s salary or welfare. He and his wife, Munmun, had two babies, both of whom were Canadian citizens but weren’t entitled to child tax benefits due to their parents’ status. Somewhere along the way, a social worker steered Ahmed to Bond, and it became both the children’s daycare and the family’s lifeline.
Since announcing its closure last year, Bond has managed to find a temporary lifeline of its own. Thanks to its charitable status, United Way support and philanthropic associations (including the Jackman Foundation), the centre has secured rescue funding that will ensure its survival until March 2013. But Bond is unique in its good fortune. There are dozens of daycares filling similar roles in communities across the city and barely surviving. Like Bond, 400 of Toronto’s 925 licensed daycare centres are at risk of closure in the coming years.
The subsidy backlog is one major threat to the future of not-for-profit daycare in the city. The other is full-day kindergarten. There is no small irony in this: when Dalton McGuinty proudly announced the full-day program in 2009, his intention was not only to extend education into the early years, but also to alleviate the demand and therefore the cost of childcare for families with young children.
The province opted to roll out the full-day program over five years, assessing its impact as it went. Now in year three, one thing has become clear: full-day kindergarten pulls four- and five-year-olds out of daycares, where they, requiring the least work, have in effect been subsidizing the younger kids. In addition, full-day kindergarten opens up an attractive new market for early childhood educators (ECEs), who are already in short supply. As a result, childcare centres are losing both their most valuable students and their most valuable staff.
This policy backfire belongs to a long tradition. Ever since Canada’s first public kindergarten opened in 1883, kindergarten has been legitimized as an educational tool, an instrument of social reform and integration. Childcare, on the other hand, has always carried the musty whiff of welfare, a matter for charities and churches and not the public purse. (Canada’s one and only national childcare program lasted from 1942 to 1945, when women were more than welcome in the workforce.) Persistent among Canadian policy-makers is the notion that young children are a private responsibility and parents should be available to take care of them.
One expert who views things differently and is watching the implementation of full-day kindergarten with a furrowed brow is Charles Pascal, McGuinty’s Special Advisor on Early Learning and the author of the report on which the program was based. The Pascal Report reads like a working mother’s wildest dream, envisioning a future in which, following 400 days of paid parental leave (six weeks of which are designated for the father), parents have access to full-day programs that offer flexible drop-off and pickup times, the same staff and location throughout the day and a range of health and social services.
Pascal, a seasoned academic and former deputy minister of education under Bob Rae, based his report on the input he received at 84 community roundtables across the province and 15,000 submissions from parents, experts, researchers and practitioners, as well as best practices observed across the globe. Central to his recommendations was that full-day learning truly be a full-day proposition. That the province lacks the financial means to implement all of his recommendations Pascal understands; that childcare is the casualty of the new regime he finds most unfortunate.
The pressure placed on daycares as a result of the full-day program was evident at the February open house for parents of incoming kindergarten children to Maurice Cody Junior Public School in ever-so-fertile Leaside. The school, which was on the 2012 slate for the full-day program, was anticipating seven kindergarten classes. Anxious parents asked where all the kids were going to go, and the remarkably serene then-principal, Shona Farrelly, talked about short-term displacements, contingency plans involving the library and staff room, and the school’s fifth construction project in five years. Asked what will be provided in the way of before- and after-school care—the “full day” of kindergarten goes from 8:30 to 3:30—Farrelly admitted that she didn’t know yet. Parents were asked to fill out a survey indicating their needs, and the results would be forwarded to the Toronto District School Board. If the demand was sufficient, Maurice Cody may offer extended care through the daycare located in the school, which was licensed for 110 children and currently full. The fee would be around $30 a day. But given all the variables, Farrelly strongly suggested that parents retain current arrangements or look into the private alternatives in the neighbourhood, which she named. (Maurice Cody’s in-house third-party daycare has since been relicensed for 174 children; 100 parents applied for the 64 additional spots.)
In the original version of its new kindergarten plan, the province obliged school boards to take on before and after care, in keeping with Pascal’s recommendations. But the hue and cry raised by third-party operators (the YMCA being among the loudest), for whom daycare services represent a huge chunk of revenue, was such that the province conceded and made the provision of before and after care optional for the school boards. So far, only the Waterloo-area school boards have opted to take on this additional responsibility. Thus, the average preschooler’s day remains a hodgepodge of shuttles, interrupted programming and forgotten sweatshirts—and for the average parent, a scheduling nightmare.
There is one ray of sunshine in this bleak picture, and that’s the city-run daycare system. The operating criteria, developed and continually revised by experts at the Toronto Children’s Services and OISE, have the heft of a telephone book. Unlike provincial assessments, the results of city inspections are posted online.
The city is proud of its 52 daycares—which have been emulated by several other Canadian municipalities—and it should be. A visit to one them, City Kids Child Care Centre on lower Bathurst Street, is an inspiring experience. Although smack in the middle of downtown, the space is modern, bright and airy. A south-facing, wind-sheltered outdoor play area enables the children to be taken outside throughout the year. On the sunny February morning I visited, there was a group of snow-suited infants outside, one sound asleep in the arms of its caregiver. The indoor rooms are full of colour and activity but not a hint of chaos, which seems remarkable in a place housing 72 children and 21 staff speaking at least six different languages. Torontonians are well aware of such jewels; the waiting list for city daycares averages 15,000.
City employees say that a key to their success is staff retention, which is due in part to the fact that the workforce is unionized and earns above market wages. Unionized ECEs earn an average of $30 an hour, versus $16 in the free market. A Toronto street-sweeper operator earns an average of $22, a mortgage broker $28, a parking control officer $27. Do we as a society have our priorities right?
Theo’s nursery school in Davisville is a co-op, meaning that parents (or other “special someones”—the honour is often designated to nannies) are asked to serve duty days in the program on a regular basis. Most parents are or have been professionals earning multiples of what the ECEs do. If duty days teach anything beyond the fine art of toy sanitization, it is a healthy respect for the patience, creativity and physical stamina that this job demands.
Looking to the immediate future of our little family, Theo is entering our neighbourhood public school this fall—a modest reprieve, as his half-day kindergarten ends at 11:15, just in time for us to head up the hill to pick up his younger brother at the co-op. The rest of the day will be filled with the activities that have come to endear Davisville Village to us: monitoring condo construction sites and house demolitions, waving at TTC trains and learning the ins and outs of pole replacement from Hydro workers. It’s not exactly how I envisioned our lives in Toronto, but as I’m often reminded, you have to make the best of what you’ve got.