In partnership with the federal government, the Government of Nova Scotia recently hit a key target worthy of applause—increased investments in child care successfully cut fees by 50 per cent across the province. This is a critical move to support families in Nova Scotia who, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia’s 2022 Living Wage Report, pay as much for child care as they do for food.
However, as the recently released Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, “Not Done Yet: $10-a-day child care requires addressing Canada’s child care deserts,” emphasizes, affordability is only one of several interrelated factors involved in creating a high-quality system of early learning and child care. Parents and families must be able to access licensed child care centres in their community. And, as the “ECEs Can’t Wait” group in Nova Scotia highlighted in their well-attended Day of Action last fall, those centres need to be staffed by well-compensated early childhood educators (ECEs).
Accessing a child care space is a challenge faced by the thousands of families in child care deserts nationwide—regions where the number of child care spaces offered is highly disproportionate to the number of children who live there. As the new report outlines, 47 per cent of younger children (not yet attending pre-primary) in Nova Scotia live in a child care desert—which, on par with the national average of 48 per cent, means nearly half of the children and families in the province are not able to access licensed child care spaces. About a third of children in the Halifax Regional Municipality, and most small towns, live in child care deserts. Finding a child care space is twice as hard in rural areas across the province, where 61 per cent of children live in child care deserts.
Though Nova Scotia has a plan for child care expansion—9,500 new early learning and child care spaces will be created by April 2026 to reach a coverage rate of 59 per cent—this target is not nearly high enough, and it is unclear how many spaces have been eliminated already and may be lost in the meantime. The province’s failures to meet expansion targets thus far are not encouraging. The province added only 400 child care spaces in 2022 instead of the 1,500 promised—an aim now pushed to the end of 2023. Will the government meet these new targets, and are those targets even enough to offer care to children in child care deserts across Nova Scotia?
Public and not-for-profit child care expansion can only be realized by prioritizing the recruitment and retention of ECEs. Though the compensation of ECEs is the most expensive cost associated with child care, and the most significant portion of any child care centre’s budget, the expansion of high-quality care child care cannot happen without them. Ensuring a fair wage and benefits for ECEs—who, like many in the gendered caring and service sector, are poorly paid—ensures higher quality care for children. Greater retention of ECEs means better access to child care spots for children and families.
Nova Scotia should do better—and can, by implementing a robust wage grid for ECEs. The province’s current wage grid is insufficient and falls short of providing a sustainable, liveable income or a competitive wage to attract workers to the sector. As Child Care Now Nova Scotia has advocated, the bottom should be no less than $25 for ECEs who hold a diploma—like the comparably generous wage grid Newfoundland and Labrador committed to for its ECEs in March 2023.
Due to the lack of licensed child care across Nova Scotia, many families pay more for care or rely on informal or unlicensed child care arrangements that are often precarious and costly. For-profit child care centres are more expensive for families; for example, we know from the new report that, in the HRM, for-profit child care centres charge at least 15 per cent more than non-profit centres. These centres also create insecurity for families and educators alike, hinging operating costs and the wages of ECEs on parents’ ability to pay. For these and many other reasons, the province must not expand for-profit child care but shift away from it, and instead build a high-quality system of non-profit child care.
Child care deserts are not inevitable—they result from poor, haphazard planning that leaves the distribution of child care to private actors within the market who are ill-equipped to design and execute equitable expansion. Insufficient and unreliable government support, tinkering with market-based solutions, or relying on the initiative of cash-strapped parents in civil society will not address the patchwork that has long characterized child care provision in Nova Scotia.
As is their responsibility under Canadian constitutional arrangements, provincial and territorial governments must take responsibility for the formulation and implementation of child care expansion, and integrate child care into public planning. A central public agency, as proposed in the Nova Scotia bilateral agreement, is necessary to oversee the creation of a publicly-funded, non-profit child care system that provides accessible, affordable, flexible child care to families across Canada, offered by ECEs who are well supported by decent working conditions, living wages, and benefits.
Advocacy groups such as Child Care Now Nova Scotia, alongside parents and ECEs, know what is needed to provide a robust child care system to children and families across the province. It is up to the Government of Nova Scotia to heed their advice.