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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 60 | No 5 | May 2013

Child care at congress an equity issue

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By Anna Guttman & Kristin Burnett

Over the last five years a disturbing pattern has emerged at the annual congress of the humanities and social sciences regarding the lack of affordable and accessible on-site child care. Indeed, the lack of services for child care at the congress has become the norm.

The University of Victoria is hosting the congress this year and chose, until recently, not to offer child care services. Instead, congress attendees were directed to Victoria Child Care Resources and Referrals (VCCRR), which does not provide child care but enables Victoria-based parents to place their children on waiting lists for permanent child care spaces.

This was no help to academic parents planning to attend the congress, for several reasons. This service doesn’t offer any pros­­pect of finding places for even a single child under the age of two, or over the age of five. Only three or four-year-olds had even a theoretical chance of obtaining care.

VCCRR is a referral agency. Their mandate does not include assessing the quality of a facility or ensuring the facility is licensed. VCCRR has confirmed they were not responsible for inspecting the daycares and that it was up to parents to pre-screen all daycares before placing children. It was impossible for out-of-town parents to visit child care facili­ties in Victoria for this purpose.

In fact, none of the daycares named by the referral service as potential contacts for congress attendees had a single available space for any age group. One daycare suggested it might have a space for one three-year-old for a portion of the congress period, but could not confirm that availability in advance.

There were no prospects whatsoever of weekend child care, yet 40 per cent of all association meetings at congress take place over a weekend. Several other events such as the career corner, congress expo, and four of the 10 “big thinking” lectures are also scheduled for Saturday or Sunday.

None of the daycares suggested by the referral agency were within walking distance of the congress location. Even if congress attendees were able to obtain places, they would face costs and logistics of transportation to and from the daycare.

While concerned academic parents had pointed out the lack of meaningful child care options and contacted both local and national (the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences) organizers as early as January 2013, little was done to resolve the situation until almost a month before the start of the congress.

Action was taken only after the federation and local organizers were prompted by a variety of concerned stakeholders, including university representatives and association presidents, and a petition signed by hundreds of Canadian academics. Many offered creative suggestions on how to address attendees’ child care needs. None of these suggestions were acknowledged, although one — that a private company be contracted — was ultimately carried out.

Late in April, congress organizers contracted Kids & Company, a licensed private child care provider, to make care available for the children of congress attendees. The change was quietly announced in a subsection of the UVic congress 2013 web site well after the early registration deadline and well after those with children had likely arranged separate child care — or planned not to attend at all.

Conference attendees faced the same situation in 2012 at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, where child care was not available because organizers erroneously believed daycare centres would be willing and able to set aside temporary spaces for attendees’ children at the expense of local children waiting for regular child care.

The congress of the humanities and social sciences is Canada’s largest and most pres­tigious academic conference with 7,000 attendees in 2012 and at least 6,000 expected in 2013. Presenting papers and being an active member of one of the associated societies figures prominently in promotion, tenure and renewal decisions. Planning for child care should be an integral part of every year’s congress organization and should not be an afterthought, as it has been for the last several years.

While there are organizational challenges to offering child care, these are no greater than other challenges involved in bringing together thousands of participants from dozens of associations over the course of a single week. Host institutions should not be given license to ignore child care; they are not free to ignore any other essential congress amenity. Attendees should no more have to fight for this service than for accommodation.

While booking flights, car rentals, and suitable accommodation in another city online has become a relatively easy process, this is not the case for child care.

The UVic 2013 congress organizers provided detailed information about travel and accommodations as early as December 2012 (even including the distance from partner hotels to the congress site), but did not make a similar effort to provide information about child care. Instead, minimal information was provided and at the shortest possible notice.

Quietly posting child care information a month before the congress fails to address the heart of the issue — that child care is fundamentally an equity issue. Its absence produces adverse effect discrimination that particularly impacts women and young academics. We cannot allow past gains for women in academia to be quietly rolled back. We still have more work to do.

Next year, Brock University will be the host institution, and in 2015, the University of Ottawa will host the congress. We call on these universities, and all future host institutions, to make plans to offer child care across all age groups well in advance of the event, and to publicize information about local child care arrangements at the same time and with the same diligence as other relevant information about travel, accommodations and registration.

As comments we collected on our petition made clear, many parents will choose not to attend the congress when child care is unavailable. While we are pleased there will now be child care services for the UVic congress, at $80 per day per child it remains prohibitively expensive for many, particularly graduate students and contract academic staff. Indeed, child care is more expensive than basic accommodations, but unlike accommodation, cannot be funded through tri-council or university-based travel grants, under current rules.

We call on the Federation for the Huma­nities and Social Sciences to develop a child care fee subsidy for the unemployed and sessional instructor congress attendees. Many large organizations in the humanities and social sciences, such as the Modern Language Association and the Association of American Geo­graphers, already run such subsidy programs for their annual conventions in addition to offering reduced registration fees to graduate students and non-tenure-track or unemployed members. If the federation has the will, there is certainly a way.

Anna Guttman is an associate professor of English at Lakehead University. Kristin Burnett is associate pro­fessor in the Indi­genous Learning Department at Lakehead University.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.

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