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ATAMANENKO: The “Periwinkle Curse”: How the Lack of a National Childcare Policy Is Failing Our Children

The pretty village of Kaslo on Kootenay Lake has a population of less than 2,000 and one licensed daycare, the Periwinkle Children’s Centre. The centre has a long history in the community and also a long history of the same problems repeating themselves.  Sarah Lawless, chair of the board of directors for the non-profit centre, calls this situation “the Periwinkle Curse.”

“Because of our community’s low population, the number of children enrolled at the centre is never enough to pay for a full-time caregiver,” explains Lawless. “Because we cannot offer full-time employment, we have not been able to attract qualified, committed staff. This has resulted in a high turnover rate among staff.

“This inconsistency of care makes parents rightfully reluctant to entrust their children’s care to Periwinkle, and some parents choose not to work rather than send their children to us—resulting in even lower enrolment,” she says.

This Catch-22 situation is exacerbated by the lack of a national childcare program in Canada. In fact, not a single childcare space has been created by the Harper Conservatives, an issue that my colleague, NDP MP Olivia Chow, has addressed in a private member’s bill introduced in April 2009. “After years of empty promises to Canadian parents, an act to enshrine a national childcare system in Canada is long overdue,” says Chow. “Canada simply can’t do without children.”

Lawless agrees. “What’s the point in giving families a Child Care Allowance when there is no childcare available?” she asks. “I recently discovered the ‘Community Childcare Investment Program,’ which seems to be trying to encourage local businesses to cover the cost of childcare in their communities. In a community such as ours, full of small, struggling businesses and self-employed parents, this does not seem a likely proposition.”

Although some parents have the luxury of staying home with their children, for others the choice is often made with great stress and struggle. Single parents, of course, have even fewer options available to them, especially in our rural communities where jobs (and daycare spaces) are scarce.

Lawless points out that she is often forced to cancel days of low enrolment at Periwinkle, because the centre cannot pay a care giver when there are fewer than six children enrolled. Assistant care givers, who are basically on-call in case an extra child drops in, have no job security whatsoever. “This is no way to treat our staff, and certainly no way to treat our children,” comments Lawless.

A recent UNICEF report on early childhood education and care investment ranked Canada tied for last place among all industrialized countries in meeting minimum standards.

According to Nigel Fisher, the president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, “This report clearly shows that quality childcare and educational services with strong family supports, such as effective parental leave, are crucial to both our children’s and our nation’s potential.”

Unfortunately, the message does not seem to be getting through to the Harper Conservatives. While the government continues to drag its feet on a national childcare strategy, the families of Kaslo and elsewhere continue to struggle with their own versions of “the Periwinkle Curse.”

Alex Atamanenko is the Member of Parliament for the Southern Interior of BC.