The pandemic could bring long-awaited change for childcare in Canada, according to experts.
A panel titled, “50 Years After the Royal Commission on the Status of Women: Where Do We Stand Now?,” was organized online on November 23 by the University of New Brunswick’s Faculties of Arts in Fredericton and Saint John.
To start off the event, Gail Campbell and Gillian Thompson, professors emerita from UNB’s History department, discussed the significance of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
At the time of the National Report, Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson stated that “the Royal Commission was the culmination of decades of organizing” but it also brought up “the challenge of change” for future transformations. However, the second wave feminists were critical of the findings of the Commission.
According to Campbell, “they did not see the world in the same way as their predecessors.” For example, along with focusing on patriarchal constructions of family, the report did not raise issues of race, which was very problematic for certain people. This disjuncture was termed “generational critique” by Campbell who clarified that, for her, “differences between feminists today are perhaps generational rather than fundamental” or divisive.
Thompson acknowledged there were “not enough women in senior positions” fifty years ago but, there were “women well-established” in Fredericton who pushed for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, like Senator Fergusson and Norah Toole, founder of the Fredericton Voice of Women group. She deemed these women as “politically savvy and experienced” and, even after the Commission’s Report, they “continued to work for more.”
When the report came out in 1970, Thompson declared: “we [women] wanted for more things to happen” and “were ready for change” at the University of New Brunswick. Thus, UNB started a formal investigation in 1975 with a task force on the Status of Women with “community support.” It issued a report four years later, in 1979.
One of the findings of the report was the need for better childcare for women to access education but changes were slow; it wasn’t until fifteen years later (1994) that Fredericton’s College Hill Daycare Co-operative came into being.
Lisa Pasolli, a historian from Queen’s University, and Kate Bezanson, a sociologist from Brock University both spoke about the issue of childcare more closely.
An expert on the history of childcare in the modern state, Pasolli confirmed that, according to her research, childcare “emerged as a defining issue” after the Commission heard from an overwhelming number of women interviewed that this was an issue.
In her historical research, Pasolli found that pre-Commission, “women were ashamed to say they needed childcare,” if they were working outside the home because it meant they were poor enough to need to work.
Childcare was a central part of the “web of complex questions” that emerged from the Commission’s Report. However, Pasolli specified, “we have no national daycare act or strategy” so “the need has remained urgent.”
For her part, Bezanson discussed the issue of “childcare in pandemic and beyond.” She said that the present situation in the pandemic is a “care-led recession (…) not like previous financially led recessions”; it has also been called a “pink-collar recession.”
For Bezanson, Canada needs to avoid a “gender-regressive economic recovery” because the situation for women is currently dire. She ironically stated that “it may take a pandemic to get us the childcare that was promised 50 years ago” in the Commission’s Report.
At present time, according to Bezanson, studies have found that “men were recovering more quickly that women” in Canada while “the unemployment level for racialized workers” has been higher than for non-racialized people. The hours men work have been going up slowly with the timid recovery from the pandemic but women’s hours have stagnated.
With the pandemic, Bezanson said, “women were the first pushed out and [are] the last to go back.” In fact, according to studies, since February, 20,000 women “fell out” of the market but 68,000 men joined.
For Bezanson, this is partial proof that “childcare is one of the biggest variables.” Another recent survey found that one third of mothers had considered leaving the labour market compared to only one fifth of fathers. This situation is compounded by single parent families, especially those headed by women.
According to Bezanson, “we see a consensus emerging in unlikely places.” As an example, she gave The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario. This study came out of a normally conservative organization, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, but endorsed a national childcare policy.
However, childcare has “never been more fragile” than during the pandemic, for Bezanson: “the stock of existing childcare is under threat” but only 29 per cent of children in Canada had spaces. She admitted: “we certainly didn’t have robust architecture” before the pandemic; there existed “a patchwork of uneven accessibility, [and] uneven affordability.” Bezanson declared: “if it’s not bolstered (…) it will likely not exist (…) whenever we come out of the pandemic.”
In Quebec, BC and a few other provinces, there are better and worse examples of childcare: “Where you live will affect how you recover,” according to Bezanson. For example, in Quebec, there have been “significant changes” to labour force participation of mothers. For reference, the “labour force participation rate of women aged 15–64 in Quebec increased from 63% in 1996 to 75% in 2011.”
Because of the variable needs, for a national childcare strategy to be put in place will “require the training of an early childcare labour force.” Bezanson added that “a labour market strategy” is really important, not just for workers in centres (mostly female) but for all the connected needs like construction and transportation.
The Sept. 23, 2020 throne speech had “a different urgency” so Bezanson is “cautiously optimistic.” She added: “it is in the interest of subnational and national governments” to get out and stay out of the “care vulnerabilities” that the pandemic has revealed.
When asked about the role of unions in these endeavours, Bezanson said, “There are moments where are there some very good and effective collaborations” with unions. On the point of collaboration, panelists commented that there need to be “more inter-generational” conversations in order to involve younger people to move toward concrete change.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.