'I promised Mac I would protect him': Grieving mother's plea to B.C. premier for daycare reform

In January, Shelley Sheppard's 16-month-old son died in an unlicensed daycare. Sheppard's voice is among many advocates calling for safe, affordable daycare.
Shelley Sheppard's son Mac died at 16-months-old in a Vancouver unlicensed daycare. She says his death was preventable and is calling for the daycare system to be reformed. (Courtesy of Shelley Sheppard)

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Parents across Canada are familiar with long wait lists, and often hefty rates, for daycare spots.

But in B.C., the issue came to a head when one grieving mother wrote a letter to then-premier Christy Clark asking her to reform the province's daycare system. Her 16-month-old son, Mac, died in an unlicensed daycare in January.  

"Although I don't want [Mac's] death to be the only thing people remember about him, there are things that need to be said to prevent this from happening again and to hopefully fix or change our child-care crisis in British Columbia. This hope for change is the one thing I can hold on to that will help me cope with the loss of Mac," Sheppard writes in her letter to Clark.

She adds, "I promised Mac I would protect him and I couldn't. This is hard and agonizing to live with."

'He never learned how to say Mama'

Mac was a kind, gentle person, just blossoming, Sheppard tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"He was the light of our lives. He was everything," she says.

"He loved his books. His first favourite toy was a book and he would make you read the same books a million times over. I think I have them all memorized."

Sheppard recalls her son was just learning how to walk in his winter books and using words like "bye-bye" and "Dada" a lot.
Mac loved to dance and run, says his mother Shelley Sheppard. (Courtesy of Shelley Sheppard)

"One of the things that is really hard for me is that he never learned how to say 'Mama,'" Sheppard says.

"You know one of the things we're really looking forward to most as a parent is just talking to your child and getting to know them, and you know it's not fair that we're missing out on that."

Sheppard tells Tremonti that although sharing "the worst nightmare you can imagine" so publicly in her letter was difficult, she wanted Clark to look at the daycare situation as a mother — not a politician.

"This isn't just about political votes. This is about our children and our struggling families. You know the incredible love that we have for our children. I had hoped that she would hear what I have to say and seriously rethink her stance on daycare."

'I wish we would have had options'

Clark or her office did not respond to Sheppard personally but condolences were mentioned in a press conference.

Sheppard remembers crying when watching Clark speak about B.C. parents wanting options as one of the reasons she was not going to reform daycare.

"That was the very point in my letter that there are no options and I just wish she would hear that. I wish we would have had options when looking for day care but we didn't."

After countless calls to daycares with no spots available, Sheppard felt the pressure to confirm placement quickly when a daycare spot was finally found.

"We made the decision based on what little information we had, and kind of our gut feeling, and we went with it," Sheppard explains. 

"Unfortunately what we thought about this daycare wasn't accurate, I guess is the only way I can put it right now."

"And Mac ended up dying."

She tells Tremonti, Mac's death was "absolutely preventable."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post  including a debate on the merits of universal childcare.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Shannon Higgins.

The daycare operator has not been charged. Vancouver police have called the toddler's death "not suspicious," but are still investigating. The coroner has not released a cause of death. 

Vancouver Coastal Health also confirms they followed up on a complaint at the address of the daycare where Mac died, in 2010. A licensing officer found the operator was not in compliance with the number of children permitted and directed them to reduce the number of children. They say they will continue their investigation of what they say was a "illegal operation of a daycare" after the police conclude their investigation.