Want cheap day care? Consider Canada.

This week, Parliament debates a Quebec model of subsidizing child care, in which parents pay US$6 per day.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Bridget Wayland lives just 100 feet from the American border, but pays only $7 Canadian a day in child-care costs for her son, Sebastian.

That's far less than her neighbors to the south might pay, where day care costs on average $18 per day according to 2005 US Census figures.

"I couldn't possibly have kept my job if I didn't have full-time day care," says Ms. Wayland, who works out of her home in Frelighsburg, Quebec, as a magazine writer and editor.

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Since Quebec's day-care plan was introduced in 1997, it has increased the number of working mothers in two-parent families by 21 percent - more than double the rate in the rest of the country.

This week, Parliament will debate whether to create a nationwide subsidized child-care system based on the Quebec model. The hotly debated issue could turn into the first political test for the newly elected Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Last summer, the Liberals promised $5 billion (Canadian; US$4.3 billion)to increase Canada's child-care capacity over the next five years. Mr. Harper's Conservatives, who defeated the Liberals in January elections, favor an annual stipend of $1,200 (all dollar figures are Canadian) for families with young children to spend as they see fit.

But in a surprise concession to Liberals, the Conservative government promised in an official speech Tuesday to provide funding for more child-care spaces. No specifics were given, however; Parliament must hash them out, and some commentators say the contentious issue could be the one Liberals use to bring down the government and call for new elections within a year.

The high cost of Canadian day care outside Quebec means some women don't enter the workforce, and prompts others to leave conventional work altogether. Sharon Marks used to commute to Toronto from Newmarket, a northern suburb, paying $35 daily in child-care costs for her son. But because of high costs and the time commuting, she quit her job at AOL Canadaand started working from home.

"The cost of day care was one major factor in leaving work," admits Ms. Marks who now designs business websites and other related work from home. "I would certainly be more flexible if there were $7-a-day care available here."

A recent study on child-care by the CD Howe Institute, a Toronto-based think tank, found that day care has proven to be an advantage mainly for middle-class families who want the security of a second income.

"The Quebec program heavily subsidizes the cost of child-care for middle and high-income families," says Kevin Mulligan, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and one of the report's three authors. "Most [provincial] governments in Canada already subsidize child-care for poorer women but they lose the subsidy once their income rises above the poverty level."

At the program's outset, Quebec parents paid $5 for the service. A decision to raise the program's price to $7 in January of 2004 was followed by public outcry. The CD Howe report estimates that the Quebec government pays from $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year to run its day care service. However, Professor Mulligan points out that because universal day care puts more women in the workforce, about 40 percent of the plan's cost is recouped by the Quebec government in increased tax revenues.

Monthly day care in Quebec costs around $140 a month compared to $900 to $1,100 a month in the neighboring province of Ontario. If low-cost day care has created one thing in Quebec, it's demand, especially in big cities.

"We found it impossible to find a day care spot in Montreal, so we moved out here," says Wayland, who lives more than an hour outside the city. She was able to keep her job as senior editor of Harrowsmith Country Life Magazine and her husband found a post at a rural high school.

The Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatist party that sent 51 members to the federal Parliament after the January election, has said it will support the Conservatives, thereby keeping them in power. Even though the Bloc is in favor of national subsidized day care, it makes little difference to voters in Quebec since they already have the system in place.

This past weekend, the leader of the New Democratic Party said he will fight the Conservatives to preserve the Liberal party's child-care proposal. The Liberals themselves also say they will fight for their child-care ideas, but the Bloc and Conservatives have the numbers in Parliament. Paul Martin, the former prime minister has resigned, so the Liberals are without a full-time leader until a convention in December.

Though the main issue involved is economics - whether or not the national government can afford subsidized day care at a cost of at least $5 billion - the CD Howe report also addressed the emotional stress of putting toddlers in pre-school programs.

"One of the negatives is it puts more stress on families," says Milligan.

Wayland agrees to a point, but says affordable child-care is worthwhile. "I don't know a single working mother who doesn't feel guilty about bringing their child to day care, especially when they're very young." But, she says, "a single income just doesn't cut it anymore. You can't just put your mortgage or student loan payments on hold until your child is old enough for school."

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