Canada’s child care sector struggling under weight of COVID-19

Preschool-age fees rise in 27 of 37 large Canadian cities while many sites face existential crisis
March 18, 2021

Full-time licensed child care in most Canadian cities is struggling under the financial burden of COVID-19—registering a dramatic drop in enrolment while revenue-generating parent fees remain unaffordably high, according to a new study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Sounding the Alarm: COVID-19’s impact on Canada’s precarious child care sector finds exorbitant child care fees remain in many cities outside Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I., as child care services scramble to deal with a drop in enrolment. There is a strong correlation between declining enrolment and cities with high parent fees as well as those with high unemployment, further reinforcing the importance of public funding in child care. 

“Child care centres offering lower fees because provincial governments fund them are holding their own during the pandemic, as we see in the set fee system in Quebec,” says senior economist and report co-author David Macdonald. “Our survey shows that cities with higher fees saw bigger drops in enrolment. It’s clear that relying on exorbitant parent fees to fund services that should be part of the social infrastructure is what got us into this mess in the first place. Canada’s economic recovery is at risk without more, and different, support.” 

Most provinces/territories do not support child care services with substantial operational funding.  Instead, services are forced to rely heavily on parent fees. If fee revenues to programs fall because of the economic impacts of COVID-19 on families, child care services are put in jeopardy. 

“The only way to stabilize this situation and prevent loss of child care spaces in the future—which women will need to re-enter the post-pandemic workforce—is through sustained, substantial public operational funding,” says report co-author Martha Friendly. “We’re sounding the alarm: the federal government must prioritize funding and full transformation of child care now, before it’s too late.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Enrolment is dropping more dramatically in cities with high parent fees. In every city outside Quebec there were at least 10% fewer children in child care in the fall of 2020 compared to February; 27 out of 37 cities showed enrolment drops of 20% or higher. This was most extreme in Ontario, where one-third to two-thirds of child care enrolment evaporated during that period.

  • Child care fees are lower in cities located in provinces that provide operational funding and set parent fees. Set fees are lowest in Quebec (at $181 a month), which provides the most substantial operational funding.

  • Toronto continues to be the least affordable city for child care in Canada, with median preschool-age fees of $1,250 a month ($1,866 a month for infants). Fees have risen 15% to 21% between 2019 and 2020 in Brampton, Windsor and Mississauga. 

  • Quebec City, Longueuil, Montreal, Laval and Gatineau remain the most affordable cities for child care in Canada, followed by Winnipeg and Charlottetown—cities in three provinces that fund child care services and set parent fees to keep them manageable.

  • Fees are higher in the for-profit sector than in the not-for-profit sector. In nine of 25 cities for which data were available, for-profit fees were at least 25% higher, some substantially higher.

The full report is based on data from a survey involving 11,000 phone calls, representing a sample of 53% of regulated full-time centre-based and regulated family child care in Canada.

Sounding the Alarm: COVID-19’s impact on Canada’s precarious child care sector will be available for download on the CCPA website


For interviews contact: Alyssa O’Dell, CCPA media and public relations officer, at 343-998-7575 or [email protected].

The CCPA is an independent, non-profit charitable research institute founded in 1980.