Creating the Equitable City: A Focus on Child Care, Parks & Recreation, Reconciliation, and Gender Equality

Budgets are about choices and making decisions about our priorities. What kind of city do we want? Does the City Budget deliver a better city, a more equitable city, a city that lives up to our values? In the next few City Budget Watch posts, we’ll take a deeper dive to look at specific areas of the budget and how they shape up to our vision for an equitable City for All. Today, we look at child care, parks and recreation, the City’s recently adopted Reconciliation Action Plan, and its long-lost Gender Equity Strategy.

While we expect to see some advances on most of these fronts in 2023, greater investments are needed in the 2023 budget and in future years:

  • After the launch of the very welcome $10/day child care program, made possible by the federal government, much work lies ahead to build a system that can deliver equitable access to child care for families and good jobs for the undervalued child care workers - a largely female and disproportionately immigrant workforce - caring for our children. 
  • After years of public outcry, the City is increasing access to park washrooms. They’ll open earlier in the spring, close later in the fall, and stay open later at night. But there’s little change to washroom access in the cold winter months. 
  • Look out for an increase in the cost for recreation programs, no increase in the number of centres where programs are free, and more crumbling recreation centres and playground equipment, with big holes in the parks and recreation capital budget.
  • Last year, City Council approved Toronto’s first Reconciliation Action Plan and significant investments are needed to meet the City’s 28 commitments to meaningful action; with the adoption of such an important plan, we should be able to understand how the City’s investing to make good on its commitments. While there are some promising initiatives in the budget, details are few and far between. 
  • The Gender Equity Strategy timelines were extended and we expect it to come to City Council in 2023. It is critical that the City invest sufficient resources into the Gender Equity Office and the upcoming strategy.

Child Care: Big Improvements, Big Challenges

The child care sector is experiencing big changes and significant challenges. The introduction of $10 a day child care, made possible under the new federal Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care System, is long overdue and a most welcome change for families across the country. 

While this new investment is good news, the sector is experiencing significant challenges, including:

  • 17,413 children from low-income families are on the waiting list for a child care fee subsidy in Toronto, with no plan to expand child care fee subsidies in the 2023 budget;
  • a severe HR crisis driven by below-poverty level wages, a lack of jobs with competitive compensation and benefits, and worker burnout due to challenging working conditions, intensified by the pandemic; and
  • inadequate capital funding to create the amount of new child care centres to meet the City’s target or future demand for child care (which is likely to be substantial given the new $10 a day child care plan)

Demand and Access to Child Care as $10/day Rolls Out

Overall, the child care enrolment rate across the city is only 70%, due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many child care spaces are available at present, access to child care varies by ward and neighbourhood.

With the introduction of $10 a day child care, the demand for child care among full fee-paying families will increase, requiring further expansion of the child care system beyond current plans.

While a critical advance in equitable access to child care, $10 a day is still unaffordable for many low-income families. The City’s 2023 budget does not increase the number of child care fee subsidies for low-income families, maintaining the number of total subsidies at 30,700. In November 2022, there were 17,413 children on the waiting list for a subsidy in Toronto. 

City staff reported at the Budget Committee that 87% of child care centres in Toronto have signed on to the federal Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care System to provide $10 a day child care. Participation rates are much higher among nonprofit centres at 93%, compared to for-profit centres at 73%.

Planned child care spaces will not meet the future needs of families

The City’s Licensed Child Care Growth Strategy - developed before the $10/day federal program was announced - sets a goal of creating 30,000 new child care spaces for children under age 4 by 2026. City staff report that about 40% of spaces have been created toward this goal so far.

Staff reported at the Budget Committee that over 8,000 child care spaces are planned for centres in schools, with provincial funding flowing directly to the school board, and over 1,000 new spaces are included in the City’s capital plan. The City requires federal and provincial investment to meet the current target. The need for new child care spaces is likely to be significantly higher than the 30,000 target in the current plan.

The City anticipates that the provincial government will increase funds to build new child care centres, with specific funding allocations expected to be announced in the spring.

Reduced revenue for child care and an HR crisis create big challenges

Revenues from development charges have been an important funding source to build new child care centres. Under Bill 23, the provincial government has frozen, eliminated, and reduced development charges, dramatically reducing an important revenue source for the City of Toronto. The province has promised to cover the amounts from any lost revenues, provided the City submits to an independent audit of its books. If the province doesn’t make up the lost revenues, the City’s capital plan, including its ability to build new child care centres, will be severely restricted.

The child care sector is experiencing a severe human resources crisis, made worse by the pandemic. Inadequate funding to support permanent, full-time jobs with competitive wages and benefits, and good working conditions are the leading causes of the crisis. Burnout is common, with workers experiencing challenging working conditions, intensified by the pandemic. As a result, staff hiring and retention present a significant challenge.

Federal funding has been provided to support professional learning and the development of a workforce strategy; however, only a minimal wage floor has been set for child care workers’ wages, rather than a wage scale with competitive compensation.

The provincial government has provided funding for a cost-of-living increase, but to-date funding has been insufficient to address the low wages of child care workers and the significant wage disparity between child care workers in the public sector compared to those in nonprofit centres. 

In addition to addressing funding gaps and the HR crisis, it’s clear the City needs to increase the number of subsidies available, as well as update their growth strategy, in consultation with community partners. 

What’s included in the 2023 budget for parks and recreation?

The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) division provides a vital service to Torontonians, supporting the physical and mental health and well-being of residents across the city. PFR also has an important equity impact, with its stated commitment to equitable access, quality service, inclusion, and capacity building. However, the level of investment is not sufficient to deliver on these important commitments.

Recreation program fees and subsidies

User fees will increase by 4.73% for registered recreation programs in most of the City’s community recreation centres.

About one-third of community recreation centres offer free programming, so will not be affected by the increase. In other centres, a combination of free drop-in and paid registered programs are offered. The fee increase will apply to registered programs in those centres. 

Eligible residents with low incomes can receive a subsidy for registered recreation programs through the City’s Welcome Policy. For those who don’t qualify, annual user fee hikes may prohibit their participation in these programs. The Welcome Policy budget, at $4.5 million, may not be sufficient to meet the need. Last year, only $2.4 of a $7 million budget for the Welcome Policy was used, reflecting COVID impacts. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, $7.9 million was used out of a $9 million Welcome Policy budget. It is unclear whether this year’s Welcome Policy budget is sufficient to meet the need in the coming year. We know the demand for recreation programs is high. Now might be a good time for an external evaluation of the Welcome Policy and the impact of recreation user fees on the City's ability to ensure equitable access to recreation in Toronto.

There are no plans to expand the number of centres where programs are free. Prior to amalgamation in the old city of Toronto, all programs were free but this was not the case in the inner suburbs. The City should develop a plan to expand the number of centres where programs are free, with a goal of ending fees in all centres.

A long-standing issue: access to washrooms and water fountains

The budget includes an additional $2.857 million to improve access to park washrooms and water fountains. Washrooms and fountains will open earlier in the spring and close later in the fall. Park washrooms will also stay open later at night. However, the budget does not include funding for winterizing more washrooms (the City only has plans to pilot the opening of two new winterized washrooms in 2023), despite years of public calls for winter access.

Our crumbling city facilities

It’s a grim outlook for the state of the City’s community recreation centres and park facilities. The budget promises that more community recreation centres will be in a state of disrepair, and that there will be more crumbling playgrounds and facilities in our parks. This will be a big loss for families and communities. 

The 10-year capital plan is deeply underfunded. The state of good repair backlog for PFR is set to increase from $773 million in 2023 to $1.179 billion in 2032. There are $688.6 million in capital needs that are not included in the 10-year capital plan due to lack of funding, such as work to maintain arenas and community centres in a state of good repair, capital work related to the ravine strategy, and other growth-related and service improvement projects. And, the longer we wait to repair these crumbling facilities, the more it will cost to rebuild and replace them down the road. 

Meanwhile, the unnecessarily costly rebuild of the Gardiner Expressway is fully funded at over $2 billion.

PFR capital costs have risen dramatically due to high inflation, hiring challenges, labour shortages, and supply chain problems related to COVID. Similar to Children’s Services and many other City divisions, Bill 23 translates into lost revenue for the PFR capital plan and will require the province to make up for these lost funds.

Reconciliation Action Plan & Gender Equity Strategy 

Last year, Toronto City Council unanimously adopted the City of Toronto’s first-ever Reconciliation Action Plan, committing the City to 28 meaningful actions across five themes: 

  • Actions to restore truth
  • Actions to right relations and share power
  • Actions for justice
  • Actions to make financial reparations
  • Actions for the Indigenous Affairs Office

Toronto City Council must ensure that the proper resources are in place to advance this critical work. The 2023 City budget documents make reference to the Reconciliation Action Plan and related work in specific divisions. However, it is difficult to piece together the investments committed to this work, whether the budget includes the resources that are needed to implement the action plan, and how the City is assessing whether the resources are sufficient for meaningful action consistent with its commitments. 

Discussion about the Reconciliation Action Plan at the Budget Committee meeting has been limited. City staff from the Economic Development and Culture division reported on the Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, describing it as a cornerstone of its reconciliation work. 

According to the City website: “The City of Toronto is working with the local Indigenous community to develop the Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ICIE). The ICIE is a space designed to give the Indigenous community an opportunity to explore their entrepreneurial aspirations by providing space, business programming, advisory services, mentorship supports, shared co-workspace, community event space and connections to business networks.” 

Staff reported construction delays related to COVID and anticipate that the ICIE will be “online” by the end of 2023. This year, the City will be working with Indigenous partners to select an Indigenous operator for the centre. 

Other references to reconciliation in the budget include an allocation of 20% of homelessness support service funding from a call-for-proposals process to Indigenous organizations, additional funds included in the budget for an Indigenous support line as part of the Toronto Community Crisis Service, work with Indigenous organizations to increase access to housing through the City’s affordable housing initiatives, community service funding for Indigenous-led service providers, co-development of an Indigenous Placekeeping Plan, and initial discussions with an Indigenous organization regarding collaborative opportunities to develop Indigenous long-term care services. 

These are promising initiatives but the information is spread out across many City budget documents. There is no sense of how the budget relates to the City’s Reconciliation Action Plan and if the work involved in advancing the City’s commitments is fully funded.

For several years, City staff have developed an annual briefing note describing the new and enhanced investments included in the budget to support the Poverty Reduction Strategy. That briefing note is made available on the day of the budget launch. The City should provide comparable information on its investment in the Reconciliation Action Plan. The plan should be fully funded and a central aspect of all budget discussions. 

Where’s the Gender Equity Strategy?

In 2019, City Council directed staff to develop a Gender Equity Unit and a Gender Equity Strategy to address intersectional gender inequities in City of Toronto programs, service delivery, outcomes, and workforce initiatives. The goal of this work is to decrease inequities experienced by diverse women, girls, and trans and non-binary people in Toronto. While considerable work has been undertaken to develop the strategy, City Council has yet to adopt the strategy. 

The City budget process and budget documents do not appear to make any reference to the strategy as a priority to bring to Council in 2023 and in fact, there’s little reference to gender equity in the budget deliberations at all. In 2021-2022, Social Planning Toronto carried out community consultations on behalf of the City of Toronto to inform the development of the Gender Equity Strategy. Over 1,000 residents from across the city participated and were encouraged by the commitment of the City to develop this strategy. It’s long past time to move the strategy forward. Additional resources will be needed to carry out this work, as the Gender Equity Unit is severely under-resourced, with just two staff members.

What’s next?

Don’t miss our Budget Town Hall on January 16 from 2-4 p.m.! Register here.

SPT budget town hall flyer

It’s time to register for deputations! Have your say - either in person or virtually - on January 17 and 18. You must register to speak by 4:30 p.m. on Monday, January 16, indicating which day, time slot (morning, afternoon, or evening), and location (online or several in-person options) you prefer. For more on deputations, see this previous blog post.

City Budget Committee meetings are streamed live on the Toronto City Council YouTube channel.


Many thanks to Abigail Doris, Executive Coordinator with the Toronto Community for Better Child Care for her insights and analysis on child care and the issues facing families and child care workers in Toronto.

Photo by Conor Samuel on Unsplash

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