Child-care costs are down and demand is up, but a shortage of spaces, staff persists

With child-care deals now in place between the federal government and every province and territory — and after a massive influx of federal cash — advocates say progress towards $10-a-day child care has been good but Canada is still a long way from the finish line.

Experts say a shortage of resources is jeopardizing the federal project's chances of success

Two rows of kids wearing coats and hats line up to go outside and play at the Echo Bay public school outside of Sault Ste. Marie.
A drop in child-care costs is causing demand to spike, putting new pressure on Canada's small number of child-care spaces, experts say. (Erik White/CBC)

With child-care deals now in place between the federal government and every province and territory — and after a massive influx of federal cash — advocates say Canada is making progress toward $10-a-day child care but still has a long way to go.

The federal investment of $7.5 billion since April 2021 has helped to cut child-care costs in most regions by 50 per cent.

"As a result of these incredible fee reductions, where parents who have access to licensed child care are paying half what they paid more than a year ago, there is huge demand," Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, told CBC News.

She said parents — many of them priced out of child-care services only a year ago — are now joining waiting lists in record numbers and are facing a shortage of spaces.

"What we're finding is, there are not enough qualified early childhood educators to even staff the licenced spaces that we have. And this is true for every jurisdiction of Canada," Ballantyne said.

Advocates say the shortage of both child-care spaces and workers is creating a bottleneck that will take time to unclog.

"I often use the analogy of running a marathon to compare building a high-quality early learning child care system," said Jodie Kehl, Executive Director of the Manitoba Child Care Association.

"[It's] 26.2 miles to run a marathon. We're only on about mile 10 here."

The federal government promised to halve the cost of child care in the first year of its plan, and to bring daily fees down to $10 a day per child in participating provinces by 2026.

That plan comes with roughly $30 billion in federal funding over five years to help provinces offset the costs of a national early learning and child care program. The plan also pledges to create 250,000 new child care spaces across the country. 

Low wages dragging down recruitment

Experts say the single biggest challenge to creating new spaces will be recruiting and retaining more child-care workers — and one of the biggest impediments to that is low wages.

According to the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, a non-profit that conducts research on the child-care market in Canada, the average wage of a child-care worker in Canada in 2015 was between just more than $16 and just under $19 an hour.

Each province's child-care deal with the federal government requires them to create a grid that establishes minimum wages and explains how they'll increase over time.

The federal government left it up to the provinces to set minimum wages. Advocates say child-care wages have to hit $30 an hour to meet demand for the service. And wages have been rising — not always to $30 and often unevenly across the country. 

When Yukon struck its deal with the federal government, it agreed to create 110 new child-care spaces and to increase the minimum wage for fully qualified early childhood educators to $30, or just over $32 in rural communities. So far, not all other provinces have been as generous.

Saskatchewan, for example, has provided a wage boost of up to $2 an hour and has promised to deliver its wage grid in 2023. Alberta has provided child-care workers with wage boosts and one-time payments, while Nova Scotia has boosted wages by as much as 30 per cent. 

Benefits and working conditions

In Ontario, registered early childhood educators started earning a minimum wage of $18 an hour on April 1 — $20 for supervisors. Those wages are to rise to $19 and $21 next year.  In New Brunswick, people with one-year certificates in early childhood education now earn $23.47 an hour, while untrained workers earn $16.90.

The $4 an hour wage bump in B.C. (retroactive to September 2021) was welcome, as were the other boosts to wages across the country, said Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. 

"Unfortunately, it is just not enough to both retain everybody that we need to retain while simultaneously attracting new young women and men into the sector," she told CBC News.

Gregson said the work of a child-care worker is hard. Some shifts start as early as 7 a.m. and others don't finish until close to 7 p.m. Early childhood educators not only look after children but often have to prepare food, clean toilets and maintain relationships with parents.

Those working in the sector have varying levels of qualifications. Some have one to two years of post-secondary education, while others have bachelors or masters degrees in early childhood education.

"It is a challenging job. It's a physically demanding job. It's an emotionally demanding job," Gregson said. "To do all that for $25.00 an hour, and often with very limited health and welfare benefits … there are greener pastures that people can take their passion for young children to and move on from child care."

Ballantyne said low or unpredictable wages are just part of the problem. Benefits and working conditions are the other. She said the sector's lack of pensions, paid vacations and paid time off to update qualifications is driving qualified child-care workers to seek employment as educational assistants.

"When you work for the public education system, you're pretty much guaranteed that you're going to see annual wage increases," she said. "You're also going to have access to really good pension plan, you're going to have access to employee benefits, health benefits."

How will you get the services where they're needed, when they're needed, without just waiting for individuals to turn up and open them up?- Martha Friendly

Experts say that with the country facing a labour shortage, those with certificates or degrees have options that do not require them to endure the working conditions in child-care centres. 

Families, Children and Social Development Minister Karina Gould told CBC News that developing a qualified workforce is something the provinces have pledged to do as part of their child-care deals, and her government is monitoring their progress.

"I think it's important to do those wage top-ups," Gould said. "I think it's also important to focus on work conditions, but also on professional development and pensions and benefits."

The minister said she's confident her provincial counterparts understand the importance of wages and benefits. "I mean, in every conversation that I have with my counterparts, we talk about the workforce," she said.

Scaling up

Even if wages increase and working conditions improve, there's still the problem of infrastructure: Canada needs far more child-care spaces than it has.

"The real question is, how is that going to be done? How will you get the services where they're needed, when they're needed, without just waiting for individuals to turn up and open them up?" said Martha Friendly, executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit.

"There really needs to be a strategy about ... how is expansion going to happen."

Friendly and other advocates say governments can't simply offer up grants and subsidies and expect operators to step forward and start up non-profit centres where they're needed.

Children playing at a daycare.
Ontario was the last province to sign the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care agreement (CWELCC) on March 28 to bring down child-care costs to $10 per day in every province and territory by the end of 2026. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"If you think about what happens when we need a new elementary school, we don't expect the teachers and the parents to get together and find a place for a school to be built and hire an architect and figure out what their square footage would be," said Gregson.

"That's actually the role of the ministry of education and the facilities department to do that.

"We need to move away… from an application-based process and move to a planned process where governments look at where the child care deserts are … and then work with school districts and municipalities to get new child care programs created there."

Ballantyne said provinces need to enlist local governments to convert or modify community centres, schools and other public facilities to create new spaces. She also said public land could be used to build centres.

Gould said she'd like to see provinces give municipalities a role in creating new spaces. 

"Provinces and territories have a real big job here to get this done, and to get it done in a way that works for the people and the families that live in their jurisdictions. And I think, you know, if they can find a role for municipalities, I think that's great," she said. 

Ballantyne said she and other advocates don't currently know how the provinces instead to increase the number of spaces.

"What we want to see is action plans for the next phase of system building," she said. 

"The other thing we'd like to see is a full report on what progress has been made with respect to the system building in each jurisdiction. How many spaces have been created, where have they been created? Who's operating the spaces that have been created, what are the ages of the children being served by the new spaces? 

"We really think there needs to be a proper and full public accounting of how the money, the public money, has been spent."

Gould said that providing the federal government with details of the provinces' child-care plans is a condition of their deals with Ottawa.

"I'm absolutely committed to making sure that this information, the information that we have at the federal level, is publicly communicated, and we're working through that with provinces and territories," she said.