Canadian Historical Review author, Lisa Pasolli, explores the Child Care dilemma for Canadian Mothers during WWII

March 30, 2015

Written by guest blogger, Lisa Pasolli

JDuring the Second World War, thirty-four day care centres in Ontario and Quebec were established under the Dominion-Provincial Wartime Day Nurseries Agreement (WDNA). This shared federal-provincial funding of child care services was unprecedented in Canada, and federal officials insisted throughout the war that the agreement was no more than a temporary measure to mobilize a much-needed labour force. Accordingly, the agreement was cancelled at the end of the war and federal funding was withdrawn. In a stable postwar society, the thinking went, mothers should stay home to look after their young children.

The reality for many mothers, however, was that their wartime work was not simply a patriotic service, but an economic necessity. One 1945 survey revealed that almost ninety percent of mothers who used Toronto’s wartime day nurseries intended to continue working “indefinitely” after the war for financial reasons. The closure of the nurseries meant that many of them would be left without safe and accessible child care options. One mother, in a letter to minister of labour Humphrey Mitchell urging him to keep the nurseries open, underlined the continued importance of public child care to working-class families like hers. “I ask you, Mr. Mitchell,” she implored, “is the emergency over?”

As this mother’s plea reminds us, the story of wartime child care goes beyond the mobilization/demobilization narrative of the WDNA. The wartime child care dilemmas of many Canadian mothers were not simply a consequence of patriotic war service, but of their ongoing struggles to work for their families’ survival. Though these mothers may not have been the targets of the government day nurseries, the introduction of the WDNA and the debates about its potential implementation had ramifications for the ways in which the child care needs of all mothers were understood. Throughout the war, social workers, women’s groups, and many others put forward alternatives to the federal government’s limited vision of publicly-funded child care, and advocated for a comprehensive system of public day nurseries as a fixer of social ills, as an anti-poverty strategy, as an educational innovation, and even as the right of all working women.

There has been lots of scholarly attention paid to the administrative details of the Wartime Day Nurseries Agreement – and rightfully so, since it still represents the only instance of direct federal support for child care in Canada. However, it is also important to consider this wider context of wartime child care, and all the historical actors that were engaged in debates about the meanings and purposes of publicly-funded child care. A closer examination of those debates shows that federal, provincial, and local officials were enmeshed in a complex web of child care politics that had long been playing out in communities around the country, and that would continue to play out long after the war ended. In other words, the WDNA was a catalyst that brought to light intersecting and often-competing objectives around welfare, education, labour force, and gender policy. Echoes of those competing visions continue to resonate in contemporary debates about a publicly-funded child care strategy in Canada.

Lisa Pasolli’s  “I ask you, Mr. Mitchell, is the emergency over?”: Debating Day Nurseries in the Second World War can be found in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review. Click Here to Read.

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