According to a new UNICEF report, Canada ranks 22nd on childcare, parental leave among 41 OECD and EU countries

INNOCENTI and NEW YORK and TORONTO, ON–Affordable, quality childcare and parental leave are inaccessible in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, UNICEF said in a new report released this month.

Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare? – published by UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti, ranks countries across the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) based on their national childcare and parental leave policies. These policies include the accessibility, affordability and quality of childcare for children between birth and school age; and the pay, length and inclusivity of parental leave.

Luxembourg, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Germany rank the highest among high-income countries, while the United States, Slovakia, Australia, Cyprus and Switzerland rank the lowest. Canada ranks in the middle in 22nd place.

“Canada is not supporting all families in the early moments of childhood. Our mediocre childcare and parental leave policies reflect political priorities rather than available resources,” said David Morley, President & CEO of UNICEF Canada. “Providing support for parents and giving children the best possible start in life is not just good social policy, it is good economic policy. It ensures a more equitable Canada for every child.”

The highest-ranking countries in the report’s league table prioritize affordability with quality of organized childcare. At the same time, they offer long and well-paid leave to both mothers and fathers/second parents, giving parents a choice in how to care for their children.

Parental leave enables parents to bond with their babies, supports healthy child development, lowers maternal depression and increases gender equality. Canada ranks 23rd among 41 rich countries in parental leave. While the potential length of leave compares favourably, especially with the new flexibility introduced in 2017, Canada’s actual rate of pay (52 per cent of average earnings) is below the average among peer countries (two-thirds of average earnings). Over 15 countries pay more than Canada, with fourteen paying the full average level of earnings.

Beyond individual pay, Canada’s public expenditure in parental leave per child is less than most countries spend. Both the low rate of pay and the limited eligibility of parental leave within the EI system leave too many parents and infants unable to spend these critical early moments together.

Once leave support ends and parents are ready to return to work, childcare can help secure a balance between caring for children, paid work, and caring for their own well-being. Yet, the end of paid leave rarely coincides with the start of entitlements to affordable childcare, leaving families struggling to fill this gap. Canada ranks 16th in access to childcare the year before the start of formal schooling. However, access to childcare for younger children is far less prevalent than in many rich countries.

Lack of affordable childcare is also a key barrier for parents, compounding socioeconomic inequalities within countries. Canada ranks 21st for the affordability of childcare, though subsidies make it more affordable for single, low-income parents.

The report notes that COVID-19-related closures of childcare facilities have pushed families of young children into more difficult circumstances. Many parents have been struggling to balance childcare and their employment responsibilities; others have lost their jobs entirely.

UNICEF Canada advocates that children, youth and families be at the heart of the recovery and welcomes the federal government’s commitment to a national program for early learning and childcare. The plan goes a long way towards ensuring an inclusive, equitable recovery in Canada and addressing gaps in our current childcare policies.

To fulfil the right to a childhood, UNICEF Canada advocates for universal access to at least 12 months of parental leave paid at least at 70 per cent of average earnings; and high quality, affordable childcare from birth to the first grade of school.

About UNICEF
UNICEF is the world’s leading humanitarian organization focused on children. We work in the most challenging areas to provide protection, healthcare and immunizations, education, safe water and sanitation and nutrition. As part of the United Nations, our unrivaled reach spans more than 190 countries and territories, ensuring we are on the ground to help the most disadvantaged children. While part of the UN system, UNICEF relies entirely on voluntary donations to finance our life-saving work. Please visit unicef.ca and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The report uses 2018, 2019 and 2020 data from the OECD, Eurostat and UNESCO to highlight the availability of paid leave for mothers and fathers at full-rate equivalent, as well as access, quality and affordability of childcare for children between birth and school age.

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