On Monday, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Families Minister Karina Gould were in Toronto for a classic holiday milestone announcement.
The two federal ministers, joined by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Women's Minister Charmaine Williams, were celebrating progress on the national child care program.
Over 92 per cent of Ontario's licensed child care centres have signed on to the program, and parents of kids under six will see fees drop by up to 50 per cent relative to 2020 levels by the end of this year.
While the event was mostly to talk up existing programs, the provincial government announced a $213-million grant to help underserved communities pay for facility upgrades to create more spaces.
While the event was mostly filled with kind words, bad jokes and gentle handshakes, Freeland let loose one comment that gets to the heart of Canada's child care policy endeavour — and some federal-provincial tensions, evidently.
"I want you (early childhood educators) to hear from me, from the government, we respect you and respect your work. And I think we need to pay you a little more, too," she said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford also thinks they should get more money, according to comments he made earlier this year.
"To be frank, they deserve more money and we're going to work on that," he said.
Early childhood educators don't get paid a lot in Canada, let alone in Ontario. Several organizations, policy experts and Ontario's political opposition have said the pay issue could derail the program. It won't matter how many new spaces governments create if there isn't anyone to staff them, the argument goes.
The federal government expects to need anywhere from 52,000 to 62,000 new ECEs for the $10/day program to be a reality by 2025, according to projections from Employment and Social Development Canada.
It's the provinces, with jurisdiction over labour law, that ultimately hold the pen over pay.
For its part, Ontario's projecting to need about 15,000 new workers, according to the same stats. Those workers will need to staff the nearly 200,000 new spaces the program needs to be successful, according to other stats.
On payment, it's tough to say exactly how much ECEs make on a provincial or national level due to various data limitations, according to University of Toronto economist Gordon Cleveland.
Ontario actually has some good stats, Cleveland notes, showing an average hourly wage of about $20. That's data from 2019, though, and it hasn't been updated since.
The same dataset shows 42 per cent of ECEs in the province make between $15 and $20/hour, and another 43 per cent make between $20 and $27/hour.
Ontario's agreement with the feds includes a wage floor, mandating a minimum level of pay, whereas many other provinces have a wage grid, which sets salary ranges based on certain qualifications. Advocates say the grid provides better pay and will help shore up the sectoral workforce.
ECEs in Ontario will get a minimum of $18/hour ($19/hour starting in 2023), rising by $1 per year over the course of the program.
For supervisors, the floor is $20/hour and the maximum is $23/hour. They are eligible for $1-per-year raises, up to a maximum of $25/hour.
The agreement was signed in March, and the province was supposed to hold consultations over the summer on how to bolster the provincial child care workforce.
Lecce and his department are supposed to be working alongside the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to boost the homegrown talent providing care to Ontario's under-six population, the age cohort covered by the deal.
The government is also looking to pitch new immigrants on working in Ontario's child care sector, something Lecce told his fellow ministers at a child care meeting in Vancouver this summer. About a third of Canada's child care workforce is comprised of immigrants or non-permanent residents, according to Statistics Canada, compared to a quarter in the broader labour force.
QP Briefing asked Lecce about the consultations and any plans to address workers' wage issues.
He talked up the existing wage floor and $1-per-year increases — plus Ontario's existing child care programs for kids aged 6 to 12 — and said the consultations are ongoing.
It's "really to help guide us on what else can Ontario and governments do together to incentivize workers to enter this rewarding space and stay in this space. Because we do have many that will enter, but perhaps after a few years they may leave. We do understand the correlation of competitive wages for the maintenance of our system," he said.
Pressed by another reporter, Lecce didn't say whether he's committed to increasing wages beyond what the existing agreement says.
"I just want to assure that the province will stay listening to our child care operators, parents and workers, and to the economic interests of the province and country to make sure that we have a flexible child care system that respects the choices parents make," he said. "But also allows us to grow our labour force," he said.
Gould said there's no way to create spaces without more workers and noted the bilateral agreements do have money set aside to help grow the workforce.
In the agreements, "we have asked the provinces and territories to come up with a wage grid. Many provinces have announced their wage grid. Not all have done that. Some, like Ontario, continue to do that workforce work," she said.
Despite the extra federal money, "there's nothing stopping provinces or territories from adding their own extra resources," she said.