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NWT childcare crisis: ‘I opened a day home because I had to’

Last modified: January 12, 2023 at 11:28am


A Yellowknife mom who spent three years on childcare waiting lists says, with two kids at home and no care for them, she was forced to quit her job – and open her own day home.

Kaitlyn Simms says joining the childcare profession herself seemed liked one of the only ways to cover a four-person household’s bills and still have daytime care for her kids in the NWT capital.

Running the day home hasn’t been easy, she told Cabin Radio, particularly as a student also attending university virtually.

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For day home operators to feel successful and flourish, and the profession to grow to meet the territory’s needs, she believes policies need to change.

With day home licensing, Simms is able to take in eight children a day – including her own. Two of the six remaining spots must be for infants, two for children aged two to five, and two for after-school care.

After-school students often require transportation, said Simms, which she isn’t able to provide, meaning those two spots are rarely taken. The other four are filled.

Right now, if Simms charged $1,000 a month per child, she would make $4,000 a month. That is hardly enough to cover the bills she faces, she said.

“Pricing depends on age, so I’m not even making $4,000 a month,” she said.

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“When you think of what it costs to heat a house in the wintertime, groceries, if you go on a field trip, and the maintenance of operating a day home, I’m not left with very much to pay my own bills.”

Simms says she placed her family on a childcare waiting list when she discovered she was pregnant, in 2019. Her son is now three. “We just got a call in October saying there was a spot for him.”

She plans to close her day home in April.

“I opened because I had to. I couldn’t work because I couldn’t find childcare, and I needed to make ends meet,” she said.

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“It isn’t what I want to do, it isn’t what I went to school for. I need to find childcare for my second child by September, and I don’t know if I’m going be able to, which means that I won’t be able to get a job in the field that I paid for an education in.”

Simms emailed a range of politicians last week, including education minister RJ Simpson, all Yellowknife city councillors, and her MLA, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek. She told them her family will have to leave the territory if she doesn’t find care by September.

“We’ve made our roots here. We don’t want to leave,” she told Cabin Radio.

“But at the end of the day, we will have to leave if I can’t work because I can’t find childcare.”

Staff, then spaces

The situation Simms outlines is increasingly familiar in the NWT. Facebook groups are full of parents pleading for childcare help. Spaces can seem impossible to come by. Yellowknife’s dwindling school transit isn’t helping.

The territorial government is about a year into a federally funded program that aimed in year one to halve the fees NWT parents pay on childcare. The next step, the GNWT says, is rolling out staff incentives and wage grids that will help make the profession more attractive and help operators retain staff.

Ultimately, the territory says it will address shortages of care by adding 300 net new spaces (meaning an increase of 300, even taking into account care providers who close) by March 2026, compared to its 2018 figure.

Patricia Davison, chair of the NWT Early Childhood Association, stressed the need to attract and keep staff, saying new spaces alone won’t solve the problem.

More spaces mean more staff, she said, and even staffing existing programs is difficult.

“Right now staff are burnt out, they’re unhappy with wages and they’re moving to other professions, and that should be the top priority,” she said.

Davison described operators having to continually place energy into training new staff to replace those who pursued other careers after burning out.

“A lot of programs have new staff, which means dedicating more time to training,” she said.

“Even though there might be more staff, all the energy is going into training them. When you bring people in, you anticipate for them to have a certain level of knowledge, but there are always some gaps to fill.

“Hopefully that can become more of a priority so that when new spaces are built, we’re able to staff them.”

Davison believes the NWT’s childcare crisis is slowly improving but wants the territory to support the opening of more day homes like the one Simms has been running.

A day home normally comes with an existing space, a vital component in a territory where many communities would otherwise struggle to find somewhere to run a daycare.

“One of the quickest ways to create spaces is through family day homes, and those people exist out there with those spaces. They have homes to provide it in,” Davison said.

She thinks the GNWT could do more to train resources specifically on encouraging new day homes.

“I think that’s a gap that they’ve missed out on,” she said. “It takes time, money and energy to build new spaces, but these spaces are already there, they just need the support.”

‘I just can’t do anything’

Daycares are feeling the staffing drain Davison described.

Mandy Janse van Rensburg is the Yellowknife Day Care Association’s executive director. The daycare currently has a waiting list of 250 children.

There are strong training programs in place for early childcare staff, Janse van Rensburg said, but that doesn’t mean employees will stay once they are trained.

A lot of staff “go through training and then have opportunities to become teachers, and so then we lose staff again,” she said.

“More incentives for daycare workers to stay after, as daycare workers, would really help the problem.”

While staffing is a struggle, the daycare can’t take in more children in case staff sickness means sending kids home, she said.

“It’s hard, because I have parents calling me every day asking for help and I just can’t do anything. I wish we could, but we can’t. We just don’t have the space or the staff.”

Jocelyn Apps moves one of her three children between three different Yellowknife daycare programs each week in a bid to piece together full-time care. A nurse, Apps said she has been unable to find adequate childcare since returning to work last year after maternity leave.

Apps considered opening her rental as a day home, like Simms, but says she was turned off by what felt like a lack of support from the NWT’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

The department encourages people who want to open a day home to contact their local early childhood consultant.

“The follow-through from ECE was minimal, and the amount of hoops to jump through were close to impossible to meet,” Apps told Cabin Radio.

“The addition of available space for daycare facilities to open would help a lot.”

Spaces ‘up 171 since 2018’

In an email to Cabin Radio, a spokesperson for the department said the GNWT was aware of the challenges and “focused on increasing wages that promote the early childhood field as a beneficial, long-term, rewarding and attractive career option.”

A wage grid for centre-based staff, to be developed by 2024-25 will “provide clear career pathways that link wages to training, experience, and education,” the department stated.

According to ECE, the Northwest territories has 171 more childcare spaces now, overall, than it did in 2018, meaning the territory feels it is more than halfway to the goal of 300 spaces by 2026.

But Apps questions exactly where the new spaces are and which market they are serving.

“Where are these spots? Are they really where the need is?” she asked.

“There’s a big need for spaces for infants, not school-aged children, and I hear about those spaces opening, so what about the ones that are needed?”

Apps says she has not fully lost faith. She wants to see open conversations between parents, providers and the GNWT about how things can change.

“I know they’re trying and I know they care, but we need more help. There’s so much proof of that everywhere,” she said.

“More conversations need to be had and we need something to change, so this problem can be resolved.”


Correction: January 12, 2023 – 11:27 MT. We initially stated that Jocelyn Apps moves her three children between three separate childcare providers each week to find care. In fact, only one of her children uses three different providers a week.