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When sociologist Jennifer Fosket was offered a McGill faculty position in 2003, Quebec's $7-a-day daycare system was far better than what was available in her home of San Francisco. However, her child still doesn't have a place in the McGill Daycare and she is not hopeful that she'll have an easier time getting a spot for the second baby she has on the way.
There is a subsidized $7-a-day daycare on campus, with 106 places for children ranging from four months to four years, in space provided by the university. The daycare has links with home daycares, in central neighbourhoods, which offer another 50 spaces. Those spaces barely address the current need as the 400 names on the daycare waiting list indicates.
There is also the Student Society-run daycare downtown with another 30 spaces, which just this year were included in the $7-a-day program. But they also have a waiting list of dozens of actual and prospective parents, according to manager Christina Mercurio.
"McGill's in the middle of a hiring boom and new faculty are surprised to hear about the waiting list," says McGill Daycare Executive Director Lawrence DePoe. He adds that the importance of the service "can't be underestimated."
Fosket realizes that the problem "is endemic to the downtown core," beyond McGill's campus. "I called every daycare listed in the phone book at one point, and not one of them had space," she says. After searching for a year and a half, she eventually found space in a private daycare.
Fosket was so frustrated that she started an informal discussion group in January with about a dozen other faculty members. "When you're in the middle of the crisis, it's impossible to take any action," she says. "Once you get [daycare space], it's such a relief you don't want to talk about it any more."
Anthropology professor Kristin Norget, who is also in the discussion group, has a daughter in the McGill Daycare, after two years on the waiting list. "I'm a single mother so I'm dependent on childcare. I was able to find great care last year, but it cost me a bomb." She adds that the issue is critical: "Not having good daycare is a major source of stress."
Associate Provost (Academic Staff) Hudson Meadwell has recently been asked to look into the issue at McGill. He sent out a questionnaire about recruitment and retention issues to department deans and chairs in February. Although the results are still being assessed, he acknowledges that "childcare makes a difference, though I wouldn't say it's the most important issue." He's hoping to have representatives from both campus daycares get together to better coordinate their efforts.
The daycare discussion group would like to see a website listing available daycare resources for incoming faculty, or those starting families. They stress the importance of an ongoing exchange of information and support. Meadwell is investigating the idea and would like to provide such a project through his office by the summer.
When Quebec first unveiled its subsidized daycare program, few could have foreseen some of the eventual problems. Increased subsidies mean increased government control. "The system is designed for a nine-to-five, full-time environment," says epidemiology professor Robert Platt, who is president of the McGill Daycare's board of directors. He adds that this does not reflect the needs of students or faculty.
Besides scheduling, the government restricts the number of placements available. Currently, the McGill Daycare has limited slots for children under two-and-a-half years old. The SSMU daycare offers no spaces for children under 18 months. Most smaller, home-based operations don't even offer infant care. The government also determines other elements of the services offered. In some cases, they have attempted to cut back on the quality of service by increasing the number of children per educator. So far, the McGill Daycare has resisted those measures, but the increased expense must be absorbed by parents.
Streamlining information is an important step, but the problem is larger than that. History professor Elizabeth Elbourne, currently on maternity leave with her third child, is also a member of the daycare discussion group. Her four-year-old son is in the McGill Daycare, and she has an older child in school. "It's not a question of not liking the care -- it just is not available."
Those who use subsidized daycare must use the service full-time, or 260 days a year, which is not necessarily compatible with the university calendar. Elbourne was offered a McGill space when her youngest child was just three-and-a-half months old, but she would have had to immediately return to full-time work, and "it was just too soon." She's fairly confident she'll have a space in off-campus daycare by the middle of 2006. When she returns to work in September, she'll fill in the gap by arranging for her mother and her husband to each spend one day a week with the baby, with a nanny taking on the other three days. This less than ideal arrangement "will be financially difficult for us, but not entirely unthinkable," she says.
"The government developed a policy, and then they realized they couldn't afford it," says Elbourne. "Their response was to limit the number of spaces." Since the downtown core has currently filled all available spaces, even if appropriate physical space became available on campus, it's unlikely that more permits would be issued.
Platt says that the McGill Daycare could probably add another 50 places for children, if the government would free up the necessary permits. "When we ask for 50 spaces, we don't get any special consideration," he says. He would like to see McGill's administration intervene. DePoe agrees, saying that the university could use its influence to urge the government to open up more targeted downtown spots. He adds that a current governmental review of the daycare program makes the timing of such an intervention ideal.
Meadwell says he will be suggesting the possibility of lobbying to the university. But he sees that as a long-term campaign over which the university has relatively little control. "We need to make more efficient use of the opportunities and do a better job of communicating what resources are available," he says.