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Education
South Slave

Fort Smith day home closes, citing frustration with GNWT


A day home in Fort Smith that already had a two-year waitlist is to close next month as the NWT government’s childcare public relations crisis escalates.

The territorial government’s attempt to introduce a federal childcare subsidy is being met with strong opposition from some operators, who say the rollout is rushed and flawed.

Kristie Vyse on Thursday told Cabin Radio she would no longer operate her Fort Smith day home after 11 years in business. The day home’s doors will close on May 5 and Vyse will take a job at the town’s municipally operated daycare.

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Vyse said the move will affect five children.

“I’m done,” she said, stressing she had a good working relationship with local Department of Education, Culture and Employment staff but expressing frustration at the territory’s education minister, RJ Simpson, and “the policymakers in charge of this program.”

Childcare providers in the NWT have been told to decide whether to opt in to the new federal subsidy by the end of Friday, April 15.

This week, the NWT government made receipt of any territorial support contingent on accepting the federal subsidy. But in accepting the federal subsidy – designed to halve the childcare fees families in the NWT pay this year – operators effectively hand control of their fees to the territorial government.

ECE says operators taking the subsidy must cap any fee increase at 2.3 percent this year and then at a rate to be determined by the department in future years.

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Vyse, like other operators, described ECE asking providers in February not to announce any fee changes while the department figured out how to introduce the federal subsidy. Vyse complied, even though she was planning to raise her fees by $5 per day, as she has every three years.

In March, ECE then told operators about the new limit of 2.3 percent. When Vyse tried to apply for the subsidy but keep her planned $5-a-day fee increase, she said ECE ruled her ineligible for the federal program.

“Even though I was planning the increase before I signed that contract, I would not be eligible. My parents would lose out on that subsidy. At that point, I was done,” Vyse told Cabin Radio.

“I don’t think ECE should have an influence on my business’s income.”

The NWT Early Childhood Association, in a statement by email, said two day homes in the territory had this week told the association they are closing.

Patricia Davison, representing the association, said the territorial government’s assertion that day home operators were making a gross wage of $60 per hour or more was inaccurate.

Both day homes announcing their closure to the association, Davison said, were struggling to make the minimum wage and could no longer afford to provide a service.

On Thursday, two Yellowknife MLAs said they would lobby the NWT government to push back Friday’s opt-in deadline on the grounds that many childcare providers have unanswered questions or feel coerced into accepting the GNWT’s rules to access the subsidy.

On Good Friday, a statutory holiday in the territory, whether the deadline would be delayed was not clear. By Friday morning, the territorial government had not responded to a Thursday request for clarification regarding the deadline and comment on the broader situation.

‘It started going downhill’

Alexa Taylor Lundrigan sends her daughter to Vyse’s Fort Smith day home. Lundrigan said she understood Vyse’s decision.

“She feels horrible about having to close down but she’s got to do what’s best for her and her family,” Lundrigan said.

The problem is what to do next.

Fort Smith has for years had a childcare deficit, to the extent that the municipality’s council voted in April 2020 to start running a daycare based on “overwhelming demand from community residents.” That daycare is full.

“It’s a little bit hard to try to figure out my next steps. I still don’t have a plan as of right now,” said Lundrigan, a single parent. “Everybody is searching for childcare.”

When she arrived in Fort Smith in 2016, the situation was so dire that Lundrigan paid a friend from her home community to come to the town and live with her “just so I could have childcare.”

Lundrigan said Vyse’s rates are “not outrageous” and could be afforded by a single parent alongside other expenses.

“When we heard of the subsidy, at first it was like, great, this is so nice, I’ll have decreased payments every two weeks and it’ll be helpful in the long run. Then it started going downhill,” Lundrigan said.

“As they kept making their announcements, it wasn’t really what we were hoping for. I’d almost have rather stuck to Kristie’s rate without the subsidy and kept going with that, because I was able to manage that.”

$30,000 on groceries

The suggestion that $38 per day is the average cost of NWT childcare – a figure initially promoted by the territorial government but from which it has since backed away, now stating that represents 2019 data – was dismissed by Lundrigan.

“That is totally not even close to average for the territory now,” she said.

“I have a 10-year-old and nine years ago, when she was in the day home, I was paying $45 a day. Once you factor in the cost of living up north, it’s not even close.”

Vyse gave four weeks’ notice of closure to the families she serves on April 7.

She, too, has a mathematical bone to pick with Simpson and the NWT government.

“When RJ says day homes make $130,000 a year? We do not,” she said, referring to the department’s assertion that day homes “typically receive up to $124,000 to $137,000 in gross revenue” annually.

“My grocery bill is $30,000 a year,” said Vyse. “I’m paying my insurance, my taxes, business licence, supplies, a portion of utilities … I don’t make anywhere near that.”

To the territory’s suggestion that day home operators are ordinarily better-off than daycare workers, Vyse – who will be moving into a unionized daycare role as a municipal employee – said: “If I worked in a daycare, I would not be making $130,000 but I would definitely be making more than what I make now.”

Vyse said her frustration with ECE extended beyond the financial assumptions underpinning territorial policy.

“I just feel like they have completely undervalued us as educators. I have self-paid getting my early childhood development certificate. I graduated with honours. I’m doing stuff to invest in my professional development, to make sure I’m providing the best care for these children,” she said.

“They made me feel disrespected, under-appreciated. If you look at how much I made last year after my business expenses and income taxes, I was at the poverty line.

“The way RJ Simpson is wording things is very manipulative and misleading, and it’s making childhood educators look like greedy people in it for the money. If I was in it for the money, I’d have closed on my first day.”

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