There were days when Katrina Chen was rushing out to another work event, and her young son, Yoann, would shout out, “Can’t someone else look after the kids just for today?”
He’d often watch his mom, the Minister of State for Child Care, on television as she made another child care announcement, and he just wanted her to stay home and play with him instead of with all those other kids.
When Yoann was born, Chen and her husband decided she would continue with her career and he would become the main caregiver until Yoann was school age. “It just made economic sense,” she says. “And I recognize that we were fortunate to be in a position to make that choice, that one of us would work and the other would stay home. So many families aren’t able to do that.”
Chen describes how she had to work multiple jobs before becoming elected. She says it wasn’t an easy decision and still proves difficult. The journey they’ve been on since has taught them how far society still needs to change — in attitudes and supports — before old stereotypes about who’s “supposed” to look after young children are shattered once and for all.
“I want people to remember that child care in our province has been ignored for a very long time,” she says. “It wasn’t a priority. There was no co-ordinated strategy. Funding was limited to providers. Subsidies for families were tough to access with low return, and children were the ones to suffer. Lack of quality child care impacts mental health and relationships, causes isolation and financially, it’s a struggle. Sometimes those impacts can take years to recover from.”
She thinks back to some of the warnings she heard from a few people who discouraged her from running for office as a young woman and a mother with a young child. Yet she noticed that the same people had no problem supporting men with young families.
Coming face-to-face with gender bias has been a reoccurring theme for Chen. It began with traditional values she experienced growing up, where she says there were specific expectations for the life path girls and boys would take. “I fought against that every step of the way,” she says. While she considers herself incredibly lucky to have the support of her family, Chen feels a light needs to be shone on those families who are just trying to make ends meet and want to have the choice to pursue an education or career. That reality is what fuels her passion to advocate for an industry in which 97% of early childhood educators are women.
In 2000, when she was 17, she moved from Taiwan to Canada on her own to pursue her education. She began a new life with a Canadian homestay family. After high school, she majored in political science at Simon Fraser University.
Upon graduation, she experienced the challenge of supporting herself for the first time ever. The challenges of that were brought even further into focus when she worked for ACORN Canada, an advocacy non-profit for low- and moderate-income families, where she knocked on doors to connect with local families. “It was a shock. I saw Canada as the land of opportunity and I was being confronted daily with poverty,” she says. She then got work as a constituency assistant in a community office.
“I appreciated casework,” she says of working on the frontlines, problem solving for families, often listening to mothers crying in her office because of impossible choices. “Nobody should have to sacrifice a career or educational opportunities because of a lack of child care,” she says. In her constituency work, she saw how not having child care — coupled with limited supports and other challenges, such as language barriers often experienced by new immigrants — were at the root of many family crises.
“Childcare BC is about achieving equity,” she says. “Everything we’re doing is about providing fair opportunities for all children and their families. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone telling me the difference these changes have made in their lives.”
She can see that right in her own home. When Yoann, now five, returns from one of the many child care programs he’s enrolled in, Chen says, “I learn things about Canadian culture that I never knew. He’s teaching me through local stories and songs. We’re learning and growing together.”