Fort McMurray ill-equipped for baby boom, says childcare provider

A baby boom combined with an oil bust is putting unprecedented pressure on Fort McMurray’s child-care system, according to a new analysis of the community’s shifting demographics.

Report shows more than 6,000 children under age six now call Fort McMurray home

More than 100 babies are born every month at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray. (ALAMY)

A baby boom combined with an oil bust is putting unprecedented pressure on Fort McMurray's child care system, according to a new analysis of the community's shifting demographics.

A report from the Fort McMurray Boys and Girls Club— one of the region's registered childcare providers— paints a picture of a city in flux, as local families grow and a generation born during the height of the oil boom matures into young children, just as commodity prices collapse.

Howard Rensler, executive director of the club, said Fort McMurray is ill-equipped for the demographic shift, and the situation for many families has already become critical.

"A lot of families are leaving, and have left over the last couple of years, not because the price of oil, but because the availability of childcare," said Rensler, who is calling on the municipality to provide the sector increased financial support.

"We've been on the verge of a childcare crisis for some time." 

Since the downturn, Rensler said demand for affordable family programming has only increased. Thousands of breadwinners in the city have lost their jobs, and many families can no longer afford registered childcare.

"We have one-third of our clients on subsidy. We're now up to 40 per cent, and even then I had two families last week telling me they're leaving town because of job losses," said Rensler. "The cost of childcare was a critical part of their decision to leave."

Baby boom break-down

According to the report, more than 6,000 children under age six now live in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Rensler says children of all ages account for 25 per cent of the region's permanent, non-transient population of 65,000 residents.

"That's a huge number," said Rensler. "Fort McMurray is now, and can be expected to continue to be, a young family city. But the investment needs to be there."

Only 715 children are registered in licensed daycare programs, with the majority being cared for by stay-at-home parents, nannies or at unregistered childcare facilities.

Even so, Rensler said registered programs in the city have been operating beyond capacity for years.

"I'm at my space max," he said. "I can't take anyone else. We've been turning away three to four people a day, for a year. There is virtually no capacity left in the programs for families in the low income bracket."

In a community where the median age is 31, and the average household income is $210,852, many young families are choosing to have children. For the last two years, an average of 100 babies have born every month in the local maternity ward.

Rensler says caring for the influx of little residents requires major investment,  but childcare services in the region are chronically under-funded.

"There is no federal, provincial or municipal funding for daycare," said Rensler. "None. It's not the kind of business that even a social profit agency can survive in easily."

The boys and girls club will submit the report to Wood Buffalo council within the month.


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