The NWT government says it’s working hard to help childcare providers create new spaces amid a crisis in which parents say they can’t find care for their kids.
But there’s no easy way to break down where those spaces are being created, a key question some families have asked on being told that the overall number of spaces is rising.
And territorial data suggests the number of spaces has dropped recently, though the Department of Education, Culture and Employment says that figure needs to be treated with caution.
The minister responsible for childcare, RJ Simpson, and senior staff appeared in front of a committee of MLAs on Thursday night. The committee is examining legislative and regulatory changes that the GNWT says are necessary to continue implementing a federal plan that offers millions of dollars in return for a lowering of families’ daycare fees and the creation of new spaces.
That federal agreement, worth $51 million over five years, gives the NWT two big targets to achieve by 2026: bring the cost of childcare down to $10 a day and create 300 net new spaces.
Net new spaces means the total once you take into account all the spaces that open up and all the spaces lost when providers close. (So if 100 spaces were lost because operators shut down, but 400 other spaces were created, that would mean a net 300 new spaces and would meet the target.)
The other important thing to note: the start date. The target is 300 net new spaces since 2018-19, not since the end of 2021 when the deal was announced.
As of September 2022, the department says it has reached 171 net new spaces. That’s the latest figure available, provided to Cabin Radio by email last month and repeated by the GNWT to MLAs on Thursday night.
However, the department told Cabin Radio it does not have a breakdown of where in the territory each new space has been created (or where spaces were lost).
“We will be looking at breaking out this data in further detail for future annual reports,” a department spokesperson said by email in December.
Simpson, speaking to MLAs on Thursday, did give one insight. Noting recent moves to open daycares in Fort Smith, he said the town has “dozens of brand new spaces.” But that’s all the community-specific detail we have.
We also asked for monthly or quarterly data, which would allow a better sense of how the number of spaces is shifting, but the department said that was not available.
The department did, however, provide the annual tally of childcare spaces in the NWT for every financial year since 2018-19, which allows us to see – in broad terms – how the number is fluctuating each year.
The baseline figure for 2018-19 is 1,864 spaces. That had risen to 2,003 spaces by the end of 2020-21, a net increase of 139 spaces, at a time when the federal daycare deal and its associated 300-space target had not yet been announced.
By the end of the 2021-22 financial year, the number of spaces had risen again, to 2,073 – in other words, 209 more spaces than the NWT had in 2018-19.
So the figure of 171 for September 2022 suggests that the territory suffered a net loss of 38 spaces between April and September that year.
“It is important to note that the 171 figure for 2022-23 is not the fiscal year-end number,” the Department of Education, Culture and Employment stated. “It refers to the total to date as of September, not the total for the fiscal year and would be inaccurate to include alongside statistics for previous fiscal years.
“Space numbers fluctuate during the year and typically trend upward by the end of the fiscal year. The completed data will be included in the annual report that is published, which will provide a more accurate picture.
“ECE anticipates the total net change for 2022-2023 will reflect a similar trend of increasing spaces over time.”
Financial restrictions scrutinized
The NWT government says the proposed legislative and regulatory changes being examined by MLAs are necessary to make the next stage of the federal program happen.
That stage includes the rollout of a wage grid that will try to standardize (and improve) wages across the industry while introducing certification requirements.
In general, the territory and childcare providers agree that better wages, more staff and more spaces are necessary. There is some disagreement as to how those things can be achieved, and in what order.
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At Thursday evening’s public hearing, MLAs heard from three representatives of the territory’s childcare sector. Each had concerns about how the proposals may affect them.
Patricia Davison, chair of the NWT Early Childhood Association, and Ryan Fequet, president of the Yellowknife Day Care Association, each brought up the cap the GNWT has placed on annual childcare fee increases as part of the federal program.
“On one hand, sector revenue is being limited. On the other hand, the NWT is implementing a wage grid some programs may have a difficult time implementing,” said Davison, whose organization says it represents 34 childcare providers.
Davison says she is now most concerned about how the GNWT plans to implement “cost control regulations” on providers.
The GNWT says cost control measures – which would, for example, enshrine in legislation the territorial government’s ability to control the fees providers charge – “will ensure that the funding earmarked for enhancing affordability for families is doing what it is intended to do.”
“This would also include defining the types and maximums of allowable child care fees,” reads a GNWT summary.
“If there’s a cost control placed on programs, how do they balance all of the challenges and support staff to the degree they need? I’m not sure that’s possible or realistic,” Davison said.
Fequet said the cost control measures amounted to an extraordinary restriction on a not-for-profit daycare board’s ability to manage its own finances and liabilities.
“I would not participate on a board, nor would I recommend anyone step up to volunteer … without the necessary financial decision-making ability to manage that liability,” he said.
Fequet said he imagined the GNWT was putting such measures in place to satisfy federal requirements, and added he expects the same concerns are playing out across Canada, but urged MLAs to scrutinize constraints that he said typically only turn up if the territorial government is planning to run a service itself. (Simpson had earlier denied Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby’s suggestion that the GNWT may be planning, ultimately, to take over the running of the entire sector.)
“You’re taking away the one benefit of the not-for-profit sector, which is allowing them to take decisions to meet service needs,” Fequet said of the restrictions on finances, adding that 300 children are currently on the waiting list of his daycare alone.
“We’re not dramatizing this, this is real,” he said. “Right now, all we see is a legislative restriction that will shut us down. How do we not collapse a sector that’s already in crisis?”