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The gargantuan task of transforming NWT childcare

Last modified: March 24, 2022 at 10:26am


The opening steps of the federal push toward $10-a-day childcare are illuminating just how difficult that journey will be in the Northwest Territories.

Reducing fees in southern urban centres is one thing. Attempting the same service for the same price in dozens of NWT communities presents a range of bewildering challenges.

Some communities with no existing facilities are wondering who will open a daycare and who will staff it. In Yellowknife, providers faced a fight over fees – at one point being told they would have to roll back recent fee increases, designed to give staff a living wage, to qualify for federal funding.

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All the while, parents told this month they’ll get a fee reduction backdated to January are waiting for their refund without knowing how or when it will arrive. “They are completely unprepared as per usual and have now left families who are in desperate need of some financial reprieve hung out to dry,” one resident wrote this week.

Daycares will be given money to help with administration of those refunds, but the timeline for any of that extra work to get done – when it’s already hard to find staff – is unclear.

Small wonder one NWT provider called Cabin Radio and, asking not to be named to discuss the sensitivities of their work, said: “We’re a f—ing not-for-profit fielding hundreds of emails. No one’s told us anything, we don’t know anything yet.”

But even the most strained daycare providers say they understand the pressure faced by the territorial government to accomplish an enormous task.

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“This is definitely no easy challenge,” said Ryan Fequet, president of the Yellowknife Day Care Association, “and that’s recognized.”

Here’s a guide to what’s being proposed, what has to happen behind the scenes, and some of the key challenges that must be overcome.

What’s ultimately going to happen?

If all goes to plan, the average cost you’ll pay for childcare in the NWT will be $10 by 2026. This year, the average cost of $38 per day will be halved to $19 per day through a federal subsidy. The way it works is the daycare signs up for the subsidy, receives funding, and passes on the saving to parents.

Meanwhile, the NWT has promised to create 70 new childcare spaces this year and another 230 by 2026. Where, exactly, those spaces will be is not yet clear.

What has to happen behind the scenes?

Achieving the basic end goals – cheaper childcare, more spaces – requires figuring out how providers can financially exist on $10 a day from families while still paying enough to attract workers, which are currently in short supply. That’s discussed in more detail below.

The territory must also work out how to create childcare spaces in communities that currently have little to no childcare. There are 12 communities without any licensed program for kids aged under three, though not all may require the service (for example, some may be small enough that no children aged under three presently live there).

Asked which of those 12 communities had requested help establishing childcare, the NWT government neither provided a number nor identified the communities in question. A spokesperson simply said the territory was “aware of interest in some communities” and listed programs available to help.

Even if the money is found to create new childcare facilities – and there are some question marks around that – someone is going to have to run them. What happens if nobody wants to do that job is not clear, but is an obvious stumbling block.

“Right now it’s probably not realistic,” Fequet said of the territory’s push to create a total of 300 spaces by 2026. “But if additional funds come into the sector to support staff and make it a more desirable career option, that will be the TSN turning point, if you will.”

Why will creating spaces in small communities be a problem?

Melanie Harding, a Norman Wells resident, does a good job of explaining this. She is a mom to a young daughter, has another child on the way, and has a vested interest in figuring out childcare in her community.

Right now, Harding says, there’s a twice-a-week playgroup where parents can bring their kids to socialize, but that has no educational component. There’s nothing else.

She would love for there to be a daycare in Norman Wells. But who’s going to run it?

“We all know we need it and the town is really supportive of it happening, but the town doesn’t have the capacity or resources to take this on. If it’s happening, it has to be run by volunteers, a board of some sort, or a private person starting a daycare,” Harding told Cabin Radio.

“We need this so badly, but everyone’s looking at the next person and saying, ‘You’re gonna do it, though, right?’ That’s where we really need the GNWT to provide support for whoever it is that ends up trying to take this on. It seems like it’s going to be an immense amount of work.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is asking: where do these small communities fit in that don’t have childcare right now? Who is going to help us get it started? The families that need childcare are the ones with the least amount of time to do things like this.”

Then there’s the infrastructure side of the problem. Some communities might have somewhere to put a new daycare, but many don’t. Even though the federal government is providing $50 million to get the NWT to $10-a-day childcare, it appears all of that money is going to things like fee subsidies and wage subsidies, and none of it is for infrastructure.

The NWT government has a $1-million annual fund for childcare infrastructure, and smaller communities without daycare spaces are prioritized. But $1 million spread across the territory might not get you much.

“We know there’s at least about $250,000 of repairs needed on the old daycare building in Norman Wells,” said Harding. “Given there’s only a million dollars or so for infrastructure, how realistic is it to expect getting that amount?”

Politicians are aware of this problem. At a committee meeting this month dedicated to the federal daycare program, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said the consequence might be that communities without daycares miss out on years of benefits being offered to families who can access childcare.

“Places that have daycares are going to get an advantage right away over the places that don’t have one,” he said, “and that’s going to create inequity. And that’s not, I think, where we need to go, particularly for the smaller communities that don’t have daycares.”

Shelley Kapraelian is the NWT’s director of early learning and childcare. She told Cabin Radio regional early childhood consultants will work with anyone interested in starting a program, and the $1-million infrastructure fund will issue a new call for proposals in the fall. There’s a separate fund that can help startups and an operating subsidy once the business is up and running.

Asked if the GNWT might provide up-front incentives to encourage people to start daycares where one does not exist, Kapraelian replied: “I understand what you’re saying around the need for a community organization or a group of people to come together. It is based on community needs, so we can work with people who come forward.

“I’ll take your comment back for consideration around an incentive, but I can’t speak to that today.”

How will staff get a living wage if fees go down?

In principle, the answer to this should be simple: federal money coming into the system allows fees to go down but means providers have enough cash to pay their staff a decent wage.

In practice, things may be more complicated.

Right now, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment says the average childcare worker in the NWT is getting between $18 and $22 an hour.

“When I hear that we’re paying 18 to $22 an hour? Gosh,” said Katrina Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, this month. “Years ago, cleaning staff at Giant Mine were making $25 to $30 an hour.”

A minor kerfuffle ensued earlier this month when some daycare providers who recently increased their fees were told the fees would have to roll back to their January 1 levels before they could access the federal funding. Those fees had gone up with the express purpose of paying staff higher salaries.

At the Yellowknife Day Care Association, Fequet said that was “a big scare to us.”

“That’s a non-negotiable, to support our staff and make sure they feel valued,” he told Cabin Radio. “Recruitment and retention is already a big enough challenge.”

At meetings with the department’s deputy minister and senior staff, daycare providers set out their concerns. Wiping out recently announced fee increases to keep the cost of the federal program down, they said, would be self-defeating: there would ultimately be no staff and no daycare at which to pay $10 a day.

By the end of last week, the crisis had been averted. The GNWT has agreed with providers that the department will set an annual maximum fee increase. Anything above that, and providers using the federal funding must ask for permission first. For 2022-23, the fee increase cap has been set at 2.3 percent.

“ECE has committed to meeting with programs, where requested, in advance of opting in to the subsidy, to better understand individual program contexts and why rate increases over and above the approved amounts may be needed,” a spokesperson told Cabin Radio by email.

“We’re in a place now where we can opt into additional funding without affecting our recently increased fees,” said Fequet.

“Now there is a fixed increase in fees that centres are allowed to apply. However, they will consider cases or requests that are outside the norm. If we need to increase our fees to pay our teachers more, that seems like it would be pretty reasonable for them to consider.”

What else is happening to attract staff?

This is really the big problem. If the sector were overflowing with staff, finding people to run daycares in smaller communities wouldn’t be as hard and the GNWT would have an easier time of simply flowing the federal money to the right people.

Alas, childcare is increasingly unattractive as a career.

“The biggest challenge is staff,” said Fequet. “There is a staffing crisis, similar to some of the other front-line sectors that have been exceptionally impacted by Covid. Those are the folks that didn’t get a break and in fact, got leaned on a lot harder.

“When everything else stops, this sector is still going. They are champions, not recognized or compensated the way they should be. There was a mass exodus from this field.”

The territorial government already provides wage subsidies to childcare staff. Education minister RJ Simpson this month said his government would invest a further $1 million into that program in the coming year.

Beyond that, the federal program allows for a range of other incentives to help retain staff – but they’re going to take time to roll out.

Beginning in the next financial year, a “retention incentive” – the exact amount is not yet specified – will be available for staff in centre-based programs, Kapraelian said.

More details are expected in the next few months. Daycare providers are reserving judgement until they know more. “If we’re talking $2 an hour or $15 an hour, that’s a big difference,” said Fequet.

A wage grid that sets out standard rates of pay for different jobs in the sector will follow, but not until 2025 or 2026.

And what about those backdated refunds?

Parents, in most cases, are still waiting for the refund announced this month that retroactively applies to childcare purchased since the start of January.

The problem is the administrative burden. Childcare providers who choose to receive federal funding will get some extra cash to help with the admin, but they still have to physically find the staff or time to do that work. How long that’ll take will vary according to the provider.

One parent said this week they were told not to expect their refund before June at the earliest.

“We have streamlined that process and are working with programs so they understand what’s involved in setting it up and then going forward,” Kapraelian told Cabin Radio.

Fequet said the amount being offered for the administrative side of processing the refund seemed “potentially reasonable,” but his association wouldn’t know for sure until it plunged fully into the task.

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