Families and children dominated the campaign trail on Wednesday. The Liberals and NDP tackled child care issues at campaign stops in Ontario while the Conservatives promised changes to tobacco marketing in an effort to protect kids.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion kicked off the day campaigning in London, Ont., where he promised to make post-secondary education more accessible with a grant that would be delivered to students four times a year.

Dion, speaking at the University of Western Ontario, said the quarterly education grant would replace complicated and "often irrelevant" tax credits for students.

He said the Liberals would also create a 20-year education endowment fund worth $25 billion.

If elected, over the next four years, the Liberal plan would allow the government to provide 200,000 needs-based bursaries of up to $3,500 annually.

For certain minority groups, the plan would provide 100,000 access grants of up to $4000 per year, by the fourth year of the plan.

Dion said every student, regardless of parental income, would be eligible for a $5,000 student loan.

The plan also would support the indirect costs of university-based research by more than 60 per cent to $500 million a year.

Child care

Later on Wednesday, Dion announced that a new Liberal government would work with the provinces to create more early education and child care spots.

The Liberals say they will allocate federal funds that will increase over a four-year period to create 165,000 new child care spaces in partnership with the territories and provinces.

"At full implementation, the federal investment will climb to $1.25 billion annually," said a Liberal press release.

The Liberals promised to keep the current $100-a-month payments already given to some families with children.

The Liberal plan will also:

  • introduce a new refundable child tax credit worth $350 to families for every child under 18
  • provide up to $1,225 per year to Canada's poorest families through a new Guaranteed Family Supplement
  • make federal maternity and parental leave programs more flexible for parents

"Mobility (of workers) is key to a strong economy ... the lack of childcare spaces weakens Canada's competitiveness compared to those countries that have built a strong network of childcare spaces," Dion said from Kitchener, Ont.

Earlier in the day, NDP Leader Jack Layton also announced his party's multibillion-dollar national child care plan during a campaign stop in Toronto.

The plan calls for an initial 150,000 spaces with the long-term goal of providing a space for every child needing one.

Layton said "not a single child care space has been created by the Harper Conservatives."

He said families shouldn't have to struggle to find quality child care.

"When you ask if Canada can afford our child-care program, the answer is yes," Layton said. "Yes, because we'll stop giving billions of taxpayers' dollars in welfare payments to wealthy corporations.

"Instead, we'll use that money to invest in the priorities that matter to families like yours and to invest in your children."

Layton said his party would commit to invest $1.45 billion dollars in the first year and "as finances permit" would build the program until it was fully phased.

It's not clear what the final price tag would be.

Jenny Robinson, executive director of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, said universal care for children should be considered an entitlement and not a privilege.

She welcomed both the NDP and the Liberal plans as being "in step" with the economic realities of today's families.

"Canada still needs child care and I think that's why we see it as a recurring issue every federal election," Robinson told CTV Newsnet.

"The issue isn't going away."

Robinson praised the NDP proposal to entrench child care into legislation - much like laws governing medicare - as a way to strengthen Canadian society and bolster the economy over the long term.

"In other countries, where you have significant investment in child care ... you actually have a stronger economy," she said.

Tobacco marketing

Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper announced Wednesday that his government plans to take further action against tobacco products being marketed to children.

Harper said many parents were concerned about fruit and candy flavoured cigarillos sold in slick packages for less than two dollars.

"I was appalled to see tobacco products being marketed in a way as that is clearly enticing to children, flavouring and packaging them like candy gum," Harper told reporters in Welland, Ont. "This is simply not right. It cannot continue."

"Kiddy" packs of cigarettes are already banned in Canada. Cigarillos, which are rolled in tobacco leaves, are exempt because they are constructed differently than cigarettes.

Harper said his government would target the products by:

Setting a minimum package size for cigarillos that is less affordable for children.

Prohibiting flavour and additives that would appeal to children.

Banning all tobacco advertising and promotion in print and electronic media which may be viewed and read by youth.

With files from The Canadian Press