Thunder Bay

Three communities buy into Kenora Services Board vision for rural child care services

It's wildly expensive. The wait lists are horrendous. And the quality can be inconsistent. Complaints with child care services in Ontario are innumerable and well-documented in larger cities like Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa or Toronto. But the challenges in rural communities aren't often heard.

Red Lake is the latest NWO municipality to turn responsibility for child care over to the KDSB

The Kenora District Services Board says it has a "made-in-Kenora model" to expand and improve child care and early years programming in rural communities in northwestern Ontario. The Municipality of Red Lake is the latest to buy-in to the boards vision. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Child care can be expensive and the wait lists long, and you often hear about complaints in larger cities like Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa or Toronto.

But for many parents in small northern Ontario communities, even having the option to send their kids to a child care can be rare.

The Kenora District Services Board (KDSB) has a plan that will see the board take responsibility for and improve the quality of child care services, as well as expand those services to other communities in the region.

As the board's Chief Administrative Officer Henry Wall explains, "it is a challenge across northern Ontario, where you have communities that may have 500 or 1,000 people as a population … it might be too small for a stand-alone operator to effectively run a child care program in that community. 

"However, if it can be part of an overall operator that has a regional approach to it, we can also look at having child care programs in smaller communities," added Wall.

KDSB assumes responsibility for child care in Ear Falls, Dryden and Red Lake

Already, three communities in the district have bought into the plan.

The Township of Ear Falls turned responsibility to provide child care and EarlyON services over to the services board in May 2020, and one month later the City of Dryden followed suit.

The Municipality of Red Lake is the latest of the three communities to buy in, approving the transfer of responsibility to the KDSB on Oct. 21.

Henry Wall, the chief administrative officer of the Kenora District Services Board, says improving child care services in rural communities will attract and keep young families in the region. (Matt Vis/CBC)

Wall says with more communities transferring operational responsibility and financial obligations along with it, the Kenora services board could actually create more child care spaces.

"It does create an opportunity where we can look at all three communities and look at having one operator and achieving that economy of scale. There are significant savings that are realized by doing that. And so through that, it does create financial capacity within the programs to look at expansion."

That's already happening in Ear Falls, added Wall, as the number of child care spaces will double under KDSB management.

KDSB looking to expand child care services to rural NWO communities

Now the board is looking to expand to communities like Pickle Lake, Ignace and Vermilion Bay, and that has care providers excited.

Marquee Miller, the program supervisor at the Vermilion Bay Nursery School Cooperative, says parents in the community have been asking continuously if it's possible to provide child care.

"I think it would just be a great help for people who have to commute to Dryden, and they have to find child care in Dryden … it'll just make everything a little more convenient. And for the people who can't find work because they don't have child care, well we would be a service [with the support of the KDSB] and we could offer that. Then, they could go look for work themselves."

Miller added she would welcome the experience and additional funding that the Kenora services board would bring if they were to assume responsibility for early years programs in Vermilion Bay.

"The KDSB knows what they're doing. It's an experienced agency … my program supervisor from KDSB, I call her all the time for advice and stuff like that. So if it was just KDSB [operating the centre], the rules are the same across the board. They understand licensing in-and-out … and overall, it would just it would be a more cohesive kind of programming."

The services board hopes their "made-in-Kenora model" to take responsibility for child care services in rural communities will also lead to improved attraction and retention of workers and community members.

"It's part of ensuring that our communities remain vibrant, especially for young families. You know, when we talk about population, we're talking about an aging population. We're talking about communities that have a decreasing population," Wall added. 

"And so we believe that this is one of a number of strategies that communities can employ to ensure that small, rural communities are also a place where families want to relocate to."

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