Globe and Mail

A working parent's paradise

Quebec has Canada's most ambitious, imaginative family policy

ANDRÉ PICARD
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, September 14, 1999



Daycare worker Grace Oritz wakes up Louis Coffy, 3, top and Léo Portelance, also 3, after their nap at Le Petit poussin doré.


Julia Soares, right, and her daughter, Fatima, work in their neighbourhood grocery store in the Plateau district of Montreal.


Montreal -- It's late at night and Marie-France Coffy has thrown open all the doors and windows in the hope that the driving rain and the breeze cascading down Mount-Royal will dissipate the oppressive humidity of a lingering summer.

Her children, Louis, 3, and Clémentine, 6 months, are asleep, oblivious to the hot weather and to the whir of traffic along the wet streets wafting into her house in the Plateau district of Montreal.

Like a heat wave, the cost of caring for her children weighs heavily on Ms. Coffy. Half her take-home pay goes to childcare, so when Quebec announced its plans for universal $5-a-day daycare, she heaved a cool sigh of relief.

"I pay $23 a day, so I'm looking at saving $18, times two kids, that's $36, five days a week -- $180 a week. That's almost $10,000 a year," she says. "So I say to myself, 'Now my paycheque is starting to look a lot more interesting.' "

However, the plan brought only a hint of relief.

When Ms. Coffy, an administrative assistant at Ultramar Ltd., discussed the news with workers at Le Petit poussin doré daycare centre, she learned details that had her sweating again.

It turns out that Clémentine will not be eligible for low-cost daycare until September, 2000 (the program now applies to ages 2-4).

Worse yet, Ms. Coffy will still pay full price for Louis because Le Petit poussin doré has not yet been awarded subsidized places and other care centres in the neighbourhood that have $5 spots have waiting lists as long as three years.

So, for the forseeable future, Ms. Coffy will be paying $230 a week for daycare.

Like many working mothers, she wonders if she should bother to keep her job, but the demi-wage contributes enough to the family's bottom line to make a difference.

"It turns out that I was counting my savings a little too quickly. The program is a great one in theory, but, in practice, they have a lot of work to do," she says.

Quebec, without a doubt, has the most ambitious and imaginative family policy in Canada, and the winds of change are beginning to be felt across the country.

The provincial policy features subsidized, structured childcare, including daycare for preschoolers and a host of in-school programs; generous family allowances and tax breaks; and plans for parental insurance that would extend maternity and paternity leave far beyond what is offered by federal unemployment insurance.

"It's the most developed family policy and the most generous in terms of financial advantages. No other province even comes close," said Jane Jenson, a Montreal-based researcher who heads the family unit at Canadian Policy Research Networks.

"But the most important message to retain about Quebec's family policy is that it's all connected. It's not just $5 daycare; it's a whole package that makes sense. No government in Canada has ever addressed family issues in such a systematic fashion."

Almost 97,000 parents in Quebec are already benefiting from $5-a-day childcare, but there are long waiting lists as officials scramble to create enough places, and the cost of the promised 200,000 spaces by the year 2005 is creating budgetary worries in some circles. Yet, over all, the program's biggest failure, to date, has been its unexpected success.

The trendy Plateau district, with its mix of urban professionals, artists and entrepreneurs, is the kind of neighbourhood where family policy generates a lot of discussion.

The piping hot empanadas of La Chilenita are as popular with children as the coffee served with attitude at Chez José is with their parents. Strolling from the family-owned grocery store Soares to Nantha's, a restaurant specializing in exotic Indonesian curries, you have to dodge the baby carriages and the daycare kids latching on to a rope as they head to the park.

What do their parents know about the government's overall family policy and its underlying philosophy?

Janet Wyman, only days away from delivering her second baby, ponders the question as she sips a tall glass of ice water and rhythmically rubs her belly in a soothing circular motion. "Probably not that much, but I know about the parts of it that affect us as a family. Why should I really care about the rest?"

In other words, many parents don't worry themselves with grand designs or political motives of governments. What they are interested is practical solutions to the problems that arise from balancing work and family responsibilities.

For Ms. Wyman, a botanist, and her spouse, Jean Grimard, a music teacher, the immediate concern is how to make ends meet when No. 2 son, James, makes his expected entry into the world in the coming days.

"Once James is born, I will have no income," Ms. Wyman says. "We'll be scraping a bit, even if we suspend our mortgage payments, so I'm going back to work in January. As a mother, I don't think that's enough time to spend with the baby, but the system hasn't left me much choice."

Despite years of hard work, she is not eligible for maternity benefits. As a postdoctoral student at L'Institut de recherche biologique et végétale at the University of Montreal, most of her income is in the form of a grant, and her teaching hours did not reach the minimum required for UI eligibility.

As a result, Ms. Wyman finds herself working in the lab right up to her due date and cursing the fact that petty politics is denying her maternity benefits.

"Maternity insurance is something I think all workers are entitled to and that I would love. Most women would jump at the opportunity to spend more time with their newborn," she says.

Under Quebec's planned parental insurance program, Ms. Wyman would be eligible for maternity leave that paid 75 per cent of her salary for up to 30 weeks. (The only prerequisite is an earned income of $2,000 or more in the previous year.)

But the plan has been in limbo for almost three years as the federal and Quebec governments squabble over details of the transfer of powers and money.

"It's kind of typical that we have to suffer, that we have to go back to work early, because the politicians and the bureaucrats can't agree on something that's pretty straightforward," Ms. Wyman says.

Yet she would not dream of giving up her job and studies. These conflicting emotions are reflected in the findings of a groundbreaking Angus Reid Group poll commissioned by The Globe and Mail.

Far more than other Canadians, Quebeckers feel that preschool children would benefit from having a stay-at-home mother. Yet, at the same time, they believe strongly that both parents should contribute to household income.

The compromise seems to come in the form of strong backing for parental leave: 81 per cent of Quebeckers think that parents should get one year's leave, as opposed to 72 per cent in the rest of Canada. Asked about a two-year leave, 57 per cent of Quebeckers were in favour; as were only 46 per cent of respondents in the rest of Canada.

Family policy is a political minefield, rife with seemingly contradictory demands. In that sense, it is like family life itself.

Ms. Wyman and Mr. Grimard recently completed major renovations to their century-old home, digging out a basement, making more room for Jean-Luc, 6, and James. In doing so, they had to shore up the foundation and change the layout.

The Quebec government did something similar when it reformed family policy in 1997.

The only thing left of La Famille Plouffe -- the traditional Quebec family with a bread-earning dad, a stay-at-home mom and a whole bunch of kids -- is mythology.

Today, more than two-thirds of families with children have two parents working outside the home. More babies are born to unmarried women than to married ones. The number of single mothers continues to rise, and many of those births are by choice.

Even the basic definition of family has changed profoundly. Under Quebec law, for example, lesbian and gay parents have the same status and rights as heterosexual parents, whether they are married or not.

With this reality as a backdrop, the government created a family policy with a feminist foundation, one with two main pillars: supporting working parents (mothers still assume the bulk of childcare responsibilities) and getting families off welfare and into the work force (two-thirds of families on welfare are headed by single mothers).

The new approach is diametrically opposed to the natalist policy (designed to boost the birth rate) that existed previously. Under that system, there were universal family allowances, tax exemptions and credits, but they became markedly more generous with each additional child.

The policy's centrepiece was the controversial bébé-bonus,a cash payment for the birth of each child that started at $500 and rose to $8,000 for the third. Despite the fact that the bébé-bonus was costing the provincial treasury almost $200-million annually, the birth rate in Quebec has been falling steadily since 1991.

"The natalist policy was clearly not working," said Ruth Rose, a professor of economics at the University of Quebec at Montreal who specializes in family- policy issues.

"The government started listening to the women's movement, which has long been saying that you have to reconcile working and family responsibilities. It's a much more intelligent approach to supporting families."

The credit, Ms. Rose said, lies clearly with women in the cabinet, notably Pauline Marois, a mother of four who is now Family Minister.

This year, Quebec's new Ministry of Families and Children has a budget of almost $1.4-billion. While it has a high profile, little new money was required to create the ministry. It simply united the myriad programs that the government had created for families and topped those up with the high-profile daycare plan (which was financed largely by cuts elsewhere).

In 1999-2000, Quebec will spend almost $614-million on childcare and $762-million more on family allowances.

Ms. Jenson of Canadian Policy Research Networks said other provinces have not been scared off much by the costs -- most of them the money in other ways, such as welfare programs -- but they have been slow to follow Quebec's lead because they don't know about the programs or the underlying philosophy.

Yet that is changing quickly, particularly with Ottawa openly floating the idea of a national daycare program.

"There is a growing recognition that, beyond the individual role of parents, responsibility for raising children is shared by the collectivity. In other words, everybody in society has an interest in supporting parents because the end result is going to be healthier communities and a healthier society," Ms. Jenson said.

Nowhere is the notion of collectivity more developed and embraced than in Quebec. Quebeckers have a well-honed sense of identity and of belonging, one that extends to the neighbourhood level.

Residents of the Plateau live in long, narrow, century-old homes. They are highly taxed, yet they are generally not members of the tax-cut brigade, but supporters of services. Many houses have little yard to speak of; parents and children turn to community gathering places.

The neighbourhood overflows with parks, from the sprawling Jeanne-Mance Park (which leads into the urban wilderness area, Mount-Royal) to the tiny vacant lots that the city routinely fills with playground equipment, and with family-friendly restaurants.

"Why would we live anywhere else?" asks Pascal Portelance, standing in the middle of bustling Saint-Laurent Boulevard on a Friday night. The street has been closed for a fair, and children are running about, lining up for homemade ice cream at Ripples and squealing with delight at the rare opportunity to play in the street in safety.

"We love the city because people here have a special connection to their surroundings. There's a community feeling here that doesn't happen in suburbia and that probably doesn't even happen in the country any more. It happens on the Plateau," he says.

Mr. Portelance and his partner, Louise Davey, a physicist who works as a business systems consultant, have two children, Léo, 3, and Eva, 6. Daycare is literally around the corner, and school is a short stroll away.

"We walk to do groceries, to the park, to the pool, to school, to daycare; we know all our neighbours; we love the restaurants. That means a lot to us. It's the kind of place we want to raise kids."

In fact, he thinks that, as sweeping as Quebec's family policy is, its focus is a little too narrow. Having a host of accessible, community-based programs such as arts and crafts and sports means as much to Mr. Portelance as giant government programs such as subsidized daycare and family allowances.

(For middle-class families, the allowances have become largely meaningless. Once household income reaches $50,000, the family allowances are clawed back in their entirety.)

"Personally, I'd rather not get a cheque from the government. The only time we ever got one was when Léo was born and we got the bébé-bonus,and that was kind of weird," the young father says. "I prefer that our tax money be spent on programs that help parents in practical ways, instead of getting a little cheque every month."

Like other parents lucky enough to land a $5-a-day daycare spot, Mr. Portelance says that "a hundred bucks a week really makes a difference," particularly to cash flow. (Parents who get subsidized daycare lose their tax deduction, so the actual savings are about half the reduction in their outlay.)

He is also a big fan of in-school programs that are available to the children of working parents. Eva is a Grade 1 student at cole Saint-Jean-Baptiste, one of the most multicultural schools in the country, where 57 languages are spoken among the primary school population.

Eva, a vivacious, outgoing girl, attends before-school and after-school programs, as do many of her classmates. The six-year-old eats a hot lunch at school every day too.

"To me, that's an example of a program that's good for families," Mr. Portelance says. "We pay $3 a day and we know she's going to get a nutritious lunch."

(The "school daycare" aspect of the family policy is, in fact, one of the most overlooked successes. Tens of thousands of kids have signed up. The programs operate on a break-even basis and, while costs vary, most schools try to keep them to the $5-a-day standard.)

What Mr. Portelance likes about the programs is not just that they are inexpensive, but that they are structured and educationally sound, promoting the intellectual and social development of children.

In fact, more than any other province, Quebec has followed the approach of European countries such as France and Italy, where children enroll in the education system by the age of 3.

It is not surprising then that in the Angus Reid poll, Quebeckers are far more keen than other Canadians on the benefits of daycare. They also exhibit seemingly incongruous simultaneous support for stay-at-home parenting and two-income families.

But Mona Greenbaum, a photographer and mother of one-year-old Léo (another baby is due in January), sees no contradiction. She stays at home with the boy, but has an in-home babysitter, allowing her to work intermittently.

"In time, we'll probably put him in daycare, but he's too young. We'll wait until he's ready for something more formal."

Sitting in their comfortable home, adorned with Ms. Greenbaum's photos, her partner, Nicole Paquette, a dermatologist with a thriving practice, says childcare arrangements are part of the trade-offs that take place in relationships.

For example, she works long hours, often from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and often misses Léo's bedtime. "My schedule is hard, but Mona is here a lot. I think we're great parents, we balance each other out. To love your children and to help them grow independent, that's a good parent," Dr. Paquette says. "I don't ever feel guilty, but sometimes I feel a little sad, wishing I could spend a little more time."

After the baby is born, Dr. Paquette plans to change her workweek to be home evenings, but the trade-off will be an extra day shift.

Yet neither Ms. Greenbaum nor Dr. Paquette intends to give up her job because each believes that would send the wrong message to the children. "I think it's important that the kids see us both working, to realize that we have a life aside from taking care of them. I don't want that to define us," Dr. Paquette says.

These days, Janet Wyman is feeling quite defined by her caregiver role. Jean-Luc, a semi-toothless chatterbox of a boy, is bouncing a green ball on the sidewalk outside the house, and she is warning him for what seems like the millionth time not to follow the ball if it rolls onto the road.

At the same time, she is pacing the sidewalk herself, trying to ease that discomfort that comes in the ninth month of pregnancy, with the temperature hovering above 32 degrees.

Despite her anxiety about the lack of maternal benefits, Ms. Wyman is confident and ready for the years ahead. Her own home has a solid foundation, and so does the family policy on which she has comes to rely.

Jean-Luc was among the first children to benefit from $5-a-day care, and he has now graduated to the after-school program.

"The $5 daycare made a huge difference in our budget. And the after-school program allows both of us to work. If these programs didn't exist, I don't know what we'd do," Ms. Wyman says.

She knows that the boys will be well cared for at home and that there will be support available in the system for many years to come.

She also knows that, with this support, she will be able to advance her career and remain a productive, taxpaying citizen for many years to come.

"Honestly, I don't know why other Canadians aren't screaming for the stuff we have. I can tell them from experience that it makes a big difference," Ms. Wyman says.
NEXT: The poll

QUEBEC FAMILIES

(based on 1996 census)

554,060 children under the age of 5.

82 per cent say they live in families.

66 per cent of families have children.

24 per cent of families have one parent.

79 per cent of two-parent families with children are married.

39 per cent of families with children have one; 43 per cent have two; 14 per cent have three; 4 per cent have four or more.

The number of births has been falling steadily in the province since 1991; 85,130 children were born in 1996, down from 97,348 in 1991.

The majority of births, 53 per cent, are now in non-married couples.

The average age of marriage is 29 for men and 27 for women.

Almost 94,000 children under the age of 5 attend formal daycare programs.

After-tax income for a two-parent family is $45,031; for a single-parent family, $22,446.

Take-home pay has been falling steadily since 1986.

88 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in two-parent families with children work outside the home; 74 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women in single-parent families with children work outside the home.

The fertility index (number of children per women of child-bearing age) is 1.73.
Source: Bureau de la statistique du Québec
Conseil de la famille et de l'enfance

THE FEMINIST APPROACH

Quebec began investing in families in a serious, structured manner in 1986, spurred by a plummeting birth rate.

The policy was a "natalist" one; it encouraged women to stay home and have large families. It worked briefly, but over the next decade the birth rate actually dropped.

In September, 1997, Quebec began a major reform of family policy. The new "feminist" approach is diametrically opposed to its predecessor. It is designed to support working mothers and to encourage a broad range of families to have at least one child.

There are several components to the reform:


Universal $5 daycare: As of Sept. 1, all children aged two and over have access to $5-a-day care, at least theoretically. (There is more demand than subsidized spaces.) By September, 2000, the program will be expanded to children under two as well. The subsidy system for low-income families and the tax credit disappeared in favour of low-cost, regulated daycare. Middle-class families come out about $2,600 ahead for each child annually. The childcare program is also non-profit and parent-controlled. The government has pledged to expand services to provide evening care, part-time and respite care.


Kindergarten/after-school care: Schools in Quebec must now offer full-day kindergarten (junior kindergarten is now the purview of daycare centres). They must also offer before-school and after-school care for $5 daily.


Parental insurance: Quebec has pledged to pay 75 per cent of a working parent's salary for up to 30 weeks as long as that parent earned more than $2,000 in the previous year. (Federal employment insurance will pay 55 per cent of salary for 15 weeks of maternity leave and 10 weeks of parental leave, and there are complex rules about number of weeks worked for eligibility.) Under Quebec's plan, mothers would get 18 weeks of maternity leave; either parent could take an additional seven weeks parental leave; and fathers would be eligible for five more weeks paternity leave, all at 75 per cent of their salary. This is the only aspect of reform that has not been implemented because Quebec and Ottawa are squabbling over the province's plan to extend benefits to part-time and self-employed workers.


Labour standards: Quebec's Labour Standards Act guarantees workers 18 weeks of maternity leave and an additional 34 weeks of parental leave for each parent. (Public-sector workers on parental leave receive 93 per cent of their salaries for 20 weeks.) Working parents can also take five days a year for "urgent family responsibilities," but these days are unpaid.


Family allowances: The province abolished the "bébé-bonus," a cash payment ranging from $500 for the first child to $9,000 for the third, and it eliminated universality of family allowances. Middle-class families receive $131 annually for the first child and $975 for each subsequent child. But once family income reaches $50,000, the allowance is clawed back in its entirety.


Child benefits: Both federal and provincial tax benefits have been revised, to provide up to $2,600 for a first child and $2,400 for each additional child. Low-income families are also entitled to a wage supplement.


Tax benefits: Each parent is entitled to a tax credit of $598 for a first child and an additional $480 to $552 for subsequent children. (Single parents get almost double that amount.) The married person's tax credit has also been increased to $1,898 to compensate for the elimination of a young child allowance.


A new ministry: The government created the Ministry of Family and Children's Services, headed by cabinet heavyweight Pauline Marois. It also appointed the mandarin responsible for creation of the family policy, Nicole Boilly, to head Le Conseil de la famille, a government agency researches family issues.


Justice: In divorce cases, there is now mandatory mediation for all families with children. Alimony payments are now deducted at source.

QUEBEC IS UNIQUE

Percentage who agreed with the statements:
"A preschool child is likely to suffer if both parents are employed."

Quebec             62%


Rest of Canada     54%

-***
"A job is all right, but what most women really want is a home and children."

Quebec             48%


Rest of Canada     36%

-***
"Families would be in much better shape these days if mothers would only stay at home with their children."

Quebec             47%


Rest of Canada     40%

-***
"Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person."

Quebec             69%


Rest of Canada     62%

-***
"Both the man and the woman should contribute to household income."

Quebec             81%


Rest of Canada     70%

-***
"Day care is good for children."

Quebec             78%


Rest of Canada     65%

-***
"The state of the family today is a national crisis and the government must take steps to alleviate that crisis."

Quebec             71%


Rest of Canada     52%

-***
Percentage who supported the following initiatives:
"Financially supporting every family with children regardless of that family's income."

Quebec             43%


Rest of Canada     28%

-***
"Extending paid parental leave to parents for one year."

Quebec             81%


Rest of Canada     72%

-***
"Extending paid parental leave to parents for two years."

Quebec             57%


Rest of Canada     46%

The Globe and Mail / Angus Reid

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services