Two Yellowknife MLAs are calling for the NWT’s education minister to extend the deadline by which childcare providers must choose whether to take new federal funding.
Ottawa is paying $50 million over five years to reduce the cost of childcare in the NWT. The territorial government is administering that funding, which goes first to providers and then on to parents.
Daycares and dayhomes must tell the GNWT by Friday, April 15 whether they are opting in to the federal program or not. The program is currently mired in conflict, with groups of providers declaring the process is flawed and the territorial government acting in bad faith.
If they miss the April 15 deadline, providers can still join at a later date but the families they serve won’t be eligible for a retroactive rebate that refunds a share of the fees families paid between January and March this year.
The deadline comes just three days after the NWT government announced a significant shift in its approach to the federal funding. On Tuesday, the GNWT told providers they now cannot access any territorial funding unless they have opted in to the federal program.
“How can you do that?” Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asked on Thursday. “You’re making people sign under duress.”
Nokleby and Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland met with day home operators earlier on Thursday. Cleveland said she would ask the education minister, RJ Simpson, for a last-ditch extension to the initial April 15 deadline.
“There is a group of day home providers who have a lot of questions and want to ensure they are able to provide quality childcare and still put food on their table,” Cleveland told Cabin Radio.
“It’s important that they have their questions answered. People are feeling like they’re expected to sign on to an agreement without having the full picture.”
Cleveland said providers had complained that they cannot get answers to many of their questions from the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.
“If you don’t know the answers yet, you shouldn’t be talking about a deadline,” she said. “Until you can answer questions in full, you cannot expect them to sign on to an agreement.”
Nokleby said the territory was rushing toward an artificially urgent deadline when the Northwest Territories has been given until the end of 2022 by the federal government for the program’s first phase to roll out.
“What really struck me at this meeting was that none of this had to roll out right now. He had until the end of this year to do this,” Nokleby said of day homes’ concerns about the minister’s deadline.
“Why would you roll out this obviously inadequate program and just try to strong-arm everyone into it when they ask you questions about what this means for their future?”
So far, a group of seven day homes and an association representing the NWT’s early childhood educators have each said the rollout of the federal program is going badly wrong.
They say the NWT government has taken away providers’ control over fees by tying the federal subsidy to territorial funding, leaving many providers with no choice but to sign up.
The GNWT says fees can increase by no more than 2.3 percent this year and only at a territorially approved rate in future years. That future rate has not been decided.
The territory says limiting increases is important to maximize the subsidy’s impact and reduce families’ costs. Providers say the limit removes any ability for daycares and day homes to amend rates that, in some cases, have not increased for years and decades, at a time when Canada is grappling with the highest inflation in a generation or more.
Balance to be struck
On Thursday, at least one parent said they understood ECE’s concern about hikes in fees.
“I’ve had friends tell me that their day home operators were very clear and forward that the increase in price was to maximize the subsidy that they would receive,” the parent, whose child attends a Yellowknife day home, told Cabin Radio.
“I think that while it’s hard to say what’s appropriate, it’s clear that there’s a lot going on here.”
Another parent, whose child attends a Yellowknife daycare, said that daycare had been “super upfront about needing to increase prices to cover costs and mortgages and aim for a living wage for staff.”
That parent said they would “love for federal funding to help make stable funding easier and of course lower costs, but not like this.”
ECE has accused some day homes of “concerning practices” such as “families feeling pressured to consent to retroactive fee increases and in some cases being denied care when refusing to consent.”
The department also says the average wage for a day home operator is three times that of a daycare worker, calling that a “stark contrast” that ECE is “trying to address.”
Nokleby said she did not “buy that anybody is against the day home providers.”
“They would rather see their provider be able to sustain themselves and sustain their business than worry about getting to $10 a day at this point in time,” said the Great Slave MLA.
Cleveland said: “I have one day home in my riding who has been in business for 20 years and not increased her rates. With the cost of food and fuel, all the cost of living in the North is currently going up. Her concern is being able to provide for her families and make this commitment of not increasing her fees over 2.3 percent.
“We say we want to show our childcare providers value for the indispensable services they provide. They need to also make a living wage. There’s a balance there that needs to be met.
“My biggest concern is that if people do not feel supported, we will in fact lose childcare spaces in Yellowknife, and that would be the biggest failure of this agreement.”
‘Coerced’ to opt in
Whether the NWT government would be prepared to push back its deadline at the last moment was not immediately clear. Friday, deadline day, is Good Friday, a statutory holiday in the Northwest Territories.
The territorial government has been approached for comment.
Yvette Cooper, a Yellowknife day home operator who has been outspoken in her criticism of the rollout, took part in the meeting with Cleveland and Nokleby and said she was “grateful … that there are still people in politics that are going to do the right thing.”
Cooper has already agreed to opt in to the federal program. She says she did so “under coercion.”
“They have made it super clear that they’re super happy to punish my families if I don’t do what they want,” she said, referring to the financial impact on families of opting out. The federal subsidy aims to halve fees for families this year.
“I took the 2.3 percent,” she said of the maximum fee increase ECE is offering. “I don’t have an option, especially when they’ve tied all the funding together.”