In the middle of the WE Charity scandal, it was obvious the Liberals would try to pivot left to change the channel. With a soon-to-be chosen leader of the Conservative Party, the Liberals would be unlikely to curry favour with Conservative voters in the same way they might have without the ensuing honeymoon period. So, they’d have to look left and make overtures to the NDP and Greens to try and shore up support for their minority government.

On Twitter, and in discussion with Sandy Hudson on our podcast, I argued this pivot would likely be toward childcare. With the prominence of the brain-obliterating faux-word “SheCession” everywhere — not intending to mean a situation where the nation’s women cede from the nation’s men, which is an idea with potential — it was obvious in August that they’d choose childcare. If women are being hurt most by the pandemic, goes the logic, then a national system of childcare is the most significant way to help them.

This isn’t really true, of course. Ignoring the fact that the majority of women don’t have children aged 0 to 4, it isn’t as if the pandemic has made childcare even more important. Rather, the pandemic has caused many childcare centres to close, forcing parents to figure out how to do their jobs with no emergency childcare options. The problems that existed before the pandemic related to childcare remain the same: not enough space, high cost and a lack of coordinated network.

These problems are longstanding, too. It’s been 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women proposed a national system of childcare. This kicked off the second wave of feminist organizing in Canada, with feminists mobilizing in communities across the country to demand that the commission’s hundreds of recommendations be implemented. 

To do this, they formed committees and organizations. They opened up shelters and childcare centres themselves, funded in large part by money made available by the federal government of Pierre Trudeau for special projects. But that national childcare call was never heeded, instead becoming a favoured political football punted around for decades as parents struggled to find and pay for high-quality local options. 

Since that report, the women’s movement has mostly disintegrated. Provincial federations of women are rare, and most national organizing is funded directly by the government itself. With so many feminists being paid through government agencies, very little remains at the national level of autonomous feminists organizing in confrontation with the government. 

This allowed Trudeau to call himself the feminist prime minister before having implemented a single policy, let alone feminist policy. Feminism became an exercise in branding and trolling conservatives more than leading to meaningful policy change. 

So now, in the middle of a pandemic, how are we supposed to understand this from the Throne Speech: “The Government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system”?

The Liberals are trying to change the conversation. The rumours that many national columnists pushed that the Liberals were considering a UBI didn’t materialize, and instead, the Liberals are planning to fold CERB into EI. Yesterday, the Liberals presented a motion that would ensure CERB recipients receive similar amounts of aid under EI, thanks to pressure by the NDP.

If you talk to anyone who is receiving the CERB, the anxiety is palpable, and pushing people onto a new program, while at the same time maintaining the programs that have been designed to bail businesses out, shows that their priorities do not lie with working class people. 

In this context, it’s hard to see the talk about a national childcare strategy as anything other than clever PR intended to obscure what the most pressing issues are right now: people’s personal income security, the pandemic and climate change. If the Liberals can convince journalists to talk about childcare, they will ignore the pleas of CERB recipients while also forcing a political debate with the Conservatives on friendly terrain — it’s smart political strategy.

But for folks hoping that this promise for a national childcare system will actually materialize, we have to look at how feminists have won victories in our collective past. It was never through the promises of politicians, but instead, through combative and radical social movements, forcing politicians into taking action. There’s no similar combat brewing over this issue today, and the complex reasons for why that’s the case are detailed in my book Take Back the Fight, set to be released on October 25. 

We must re-build a national feminist movement that can fight for childcare and the many other issues that disproportionally impact women and non-binary people. In absence of one, the Liberals will create a scheme that will fall short of what’s needed, if they do anything at all.

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