Immigration status can exclude parents from childcare support - New Canadian Media
Bench at a Brampton, Ont., child care centre.
Bench with a sign for BST Child Care in Brampton, Ontario. Brampton is among the most expensive Canadian cities for child care, second only to Toronto. Photo by: Fernando Arce

Immigration status can exclude parents from childcare support

While Canada agrees to reduce child care costs, immigrants with precarious status will likely continue being excluded.

While the federal and provincial governments sign agreements to reduce childcare costs by the end of the year, immigrants with precarious status will likely continue being denied subsidies, says one expert, which ultimately will negatively impact their children.

“Even if the child is Canadian-born, in some provinces, if the parents are not permanent residents, they don’t qualify for a childcare subsidy,” says Prof. Judith Bernhard, an early childhood education expert at the Toronto Metropolitan University. 

Adding to the challenges newcomers face navigating the system, she notes that eligibility criteria may differ from province to province.

In April 2021, the federal government announced it would be signing agreements with each province and territory to reduce daycare costs by 50 per cent by the end of this year everywhere outside Quebec, and transition toward $10-a-day by 2026. 

It earmarked a $30 billion investment over the next five years, with a minimum of $9.2 billion per year after that.

But Bernhard says nothing in that plan indicates the situation will change for immigrants with precarious status, which includes refugee claimants, temporary workers and non-status residents.

“There’s a lot of precarity as long as we have this thing about the eligibility for child-care subsidy,” she told New Canadian Media. “It’s not the only way to go about doing this.” 

Provinces that exclude

There is no precise national data, but estimates of the number of people with precarious immigration status range from 200,000 to 500,000. Nearly 50 per cent reside in Toronto, Ontario, according to a 2010 study.

Though it doesn’t distinguish the parents’ immigration status, Statistics Canada predicts that by 2036, 39 to 49 per cent of all children under the age of 15 will have an immigrant background.

Yet, immigration status remains an eligibility requirement in every province. In fact, as a 2013 comparative analysis of all provinces shows, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec don’t give child care subsidies to refugee claimants, while New Brunswick does on a case-by-case basis. 

After calling those provinces for an update, a spokesperson in Alberta confirmed that neither refugee claimants nor refugees were eligible.

Manitoba’s spokesperson said while immigration status is an “informational requirement,” it does not ultimately determine eligibility. 

B.C.’s spokesperson confirmed refugee claimants are not eligible. New Brunswick’s spokesperson said only protected persons ⁠— or convention refugees ⁠— can apply, excluding refugee claimants.

Saskatchewan did not respond before this article was published.

Meanwhile, Quebec introduced legislation in 2018 excluding asylum seekers from receiving the child care subsidy. A legal challenge against that legislation began proceedings in April. 

It should be noted that refugee claimants and other individuals with precarious immigrant status are also excluded from accessing the Canada Child Benefit, a tax-free monthly payment made to eligible families with children under 18 years old, according to a Toronto Star op-ed.

No sanctuary

Since 2017, Toronto has been designated a sanctuary city, meaning that immigration status, in theory, should be no reason to deny anyone municipal services. 

But according to the city’s website, while anyone can access the city’s child care facilities, immigration status is still required to be eligible for subsidies (see screenshot below). 

Update: Since publication of this story, Children’s Services sent a clarification saying, “Toronto Children’s Services does not consider immigration status (including refugee and refugee claimant status) to determine eligibility for child care fee subsidy.”

After pointing out to them that their website says otherwise, the department said, “Staff will review relevant pages and charts on to ensure information is displayed accurately.”

Screenshot from the City of Toronto's website

Screenshot from the City of Toronto's website

Nevertheless, the fact remains that “the cost of child care is prohibitive to many families, even those with full legal status,” according to a 2007 report co-authored by Bernhard looking at the effect of precarious immigration status on children

“This lack of access to services for children placed a strain on mothers with uncertain status who were often hesitant to even find out whether they were eligible for various services,” the report says.

Camila Casas Hernandez arrived in Toronto with her husband and daughter from Cuba in 2014 as permanent residents. But even with status, she says in Spanish, and even when she was able to get the subsidy, it was difficult to access child care centres due to lack of spaces. 

In Toronto, she says, it took more than a year to be approved for the subsidy. During that time, she worked and studied while her daughter attended kindergarten. 

She says she was fortunate that her daughter’s school offered a childcare program, because “that’s not the reality for many families.”

“Your whole life is put on hold,” says Hernandez, referring to the fact many women, in particular, have no choice but to stay home to care for their children rather than work or study due to the unaffordability of child care.

A ‘vicious cycle’

Hernandez, a graduate student in the master of arts program in early childhood studies at Toronto Metropolitan University, says she was a psychologist back home. 

But here, she was compelled to accept minimum wage jobs due to the well-documented difficulty immigrants have in validating their foreign credentials.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. “You’re stuck in low-income because your foreign credentials aren’t recognized, which puts you in a precarious status…It all interlocks.”

Due to prohibitively high costs of child care, it is not uncommon for families to send their children back home to be taken care of by relatives, Bernhard says. 

“It is the worst thing that you could possibly do. It is really a deal with the devil, because the child becomes attached to the people in the home country,” she says, adding that the mother may feel shame and become socially stigmatized as a result.

“But that is what people do because (child care) is not affordable,” she says.

Targeting subsidies

According to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) report, “Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, and P.E.I. are counting their low-income subsidy system as part, or all, of their targets.”

But while this will see a reduction in out-of-pocket expenses for some parents, the report states, “overall, parent fees generally will not be reduced. This would have the effect of driving down the average for all parents to meet the 50 per cent federal target but this fee reduction will not extend to parents who aren’t eligible for subsidies.”

“They’re not targeting fees,” says David Macdonald, senior economist at the centre and co-author of the report. “[They’re] targeting a subsidy system that differs based on income.” 

In the end, says Bernhard, it’s those with precarious status who will suffer the most, as they are not only excluded from receiving the subsidies, but often feel stigmatized for trying to access services, fearing “that maybe it’ll be held against (their immigration process) one day.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated following initial publication to reflect important comments received from the City of Toronto. 

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Fernando Arce is a Toronto-based independent journalist originally from Ecuador. He is a co-founder and editor of The Grind, a free local news and arts print publication, as well as an NCM-CAJ member and mentor. He writes in English and Spanish, and has reported from various locations across Canada, Ecuador and Venezuela. While his work in journalism is dedicated to democratizing information and making it accessible across the board, he spends most of his free time hiking with his three huskies: Aquiles, Picasso and Iris. He has a BA in Political Science from York University and an MA in Journalism from Western University.

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