If you’re struggling to find a licensed child care space for a young child in Nova Scotia, a new report released on Tuesday suggests you aren’t alone. 

Using postal codes, researchers found that 47% of the province’s children who are too young for kindergarten (Primary) live in ‘child care deserts’ where there’s a shortage of licensed spaces. The average jumps to 61% if you live in rural Nova Scotia. 

The figures are included in the new report Not done yet: $10-a-day child care requires addressing Canada’s child care deserts

Published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the report was co-authored by CCPA’s senior economist David Macdonald and by Martha Friendly with the Toronto-based Child Care Resource and Research Unit. The CCPA notes that while lowering fees to $10 a day is a good plan, parents are struggling to find licensed spaces. 

“Thankfully, the federal government has lowered parent fees for licensed child care at warp speed over the past two years, but when it comes to creating new quality child care spaces, it’s more like a horse-and-buggy show — something all levels of government need to fix and quickly,” Macdonald said in the release.

His co-author agreed. 

“If making high quality child care accessible to all Canadian families is our goal, then purposeful expansion of public, and not-for-profit licensed child care is the only way to ensure that the child care deserts in which half of Canada’s younger children live become a thing of the past,” Friendly said.

The authors looked at 759,000 full-time licensed child care spaces across Canada for pre-Primary aged children. They found a “substantial shortage” of spaces everywhere but Quebec and P.E.I. 

‘Must significantly ramp up expansion’

Nationally, 48% of younger children live in postal code regions with a shortage of licensed child care spaces. On the higher end, 92% live in child care deserts in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, it’s 61%.

In a media release accompanying the new report, CCPA said the research demonstrates that the next phase of Canada’s $10-a-day child care plan “must significantly ramp up expansion.” This includes ensuring an adequate number of qualified early childhood educators (ECEs) are available to staff child care spaces.

In January 2022, the Nova Scotia government and Ottawa announced plans to achieve $10-a-day child care (on average) by March 31, 2026 through the Nova Scotia Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement. The announcement included a 25% fee reduction retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022.

Following a second fee reduction of 25% as of Dec. 31, 2022, fees paid by most families for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers for licensed child care in Nova Scotia were on average 50% lower than in 2019.

Driven by last year’s federally funded fee reduction and a post-pandemic return to work, demand for child care has grown and there aren’t enough spaces to keep up. CCPA-Nova Scotia’s director Christine Saulnier described it as “significant” that there aren’t enough licensed spaces for at least 47% of the province’s children.

“People need access to it in order to reap the benefits from the bilateral agreement in terms of the fee cut, a 50% cut so far. But people are just needing to find child care in their community,” CCPA-Nova Scotia director Christine Saulnier said in an interview Monday afternoon.

“In lots of cases there’s no option to have child care. People are just struggling. They’re so challenged trying to figure out what this means in terms of their family.”

A white woman with long light brown hair and wearing a purple shirt leans against a stone wall with her arms crossed.
CCPA-NS director Christine Saulnier. Credit: CCPA-NS

Numbers vary widely in HRM

In more populated areas of Nova Scotia, about a third of children live in child care deserts. In rural areas, that jumps to 61%. 

According to an interactive data map linked in the report, licensed child care coverage rates vary widely across HRM. Anything under 33% is considered a child care desert. 

In Harrietsfield (postal code B3V), there are only 10 full day licensed spaces but 255 pre-Primary aged children. The coverage rate is 4%.

In Dartmouth southwest (area code B3A), there is a 21% coverage rate, with only 179 full day licensed spaces and 838 pre-Primary aged children.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the coverage rate of full day licensed spaces in Waverley (postal code B2R) is 264%. There are 93 pre-Primary aged children and 246 full day licensed spaces available. 

Tantallon has a coverage rate of 75%, with 521 full day licensed spaces and 693 children.

A coloured map of Nova Scotia and a bit of New Brunswick shows which regions are licensed child care deserts with little to no coverage and which have good coverage.
An interactive data map linked in the May 16 CCPA report showing licensed child care coverage rates in Nova Scotia. Credit: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)

Saulnier said in the scramble to find affordable child care, many families are being forced to consider staying away from work longer. But that’s not always possible.  

“That may then cause problems with your employer. You may, in fact, lose your job. The implications of not having access are very serious for the families who unfortunately can’t get access in Nova Scotia. And even more so in the rural areas,” Saulnier said.

“People are just needing to find child care in their community. What we don’t know is what people are doing. That likely means they’re making more informal child care arrangements, which likely are more costly to those families as well.”

‘Luck should not determine access’

A random sampling of the child care desert map shows that outside of HRM, postal code regions like Sydney Southwest (202 children), Canso (345 children), and Isthmus of Chignecto (80 children) each have 0 full day licensed child care spaces. 

Truro Heights/North River has a 5% coverage rate with 525 children but just 28 full day licensed spaces. There’s a 28% coverage rate in Yarmouth (area code B5A) where there are 176 full day licensed spaces, and 630 pre-Primary aged children.

Saulnier described the current child care environment as a “patchwork of market-based programs” where parents are fortunate to get something in their community. 

“Luck should not determine whether you get access to child care,” she said.

Saulnier said planning is key and should resemble the planning required for public education.  

“It needs to be done so that it actually is something that people are entitled to in their community and it’s responding to the need in those communities,” she said. “The lack of planning has put us in this place where so many families cannot get access.”

‘Independent agency’

Saulnier said one of the unique aspects of Nova Scotia’s bilateral $10 a day child care agreement was the plan for a central agency. She described that as a “critical piece,” adding her hope that more details on that agency will be unveiled soon. 

“That speaks to, hopefully, a step away from partisan politics so that you have an agency that actually is independent in the sense that it’s looking at the evidence,” Saulnier said. 

“It’s really thinking through how do we plan child care in this community because there’s X amount of need… The other thing that we’re underlying in this report is at the end of the day, what’s the problem? Why can’t we open up new spaces? Because we need early childhood educators. We need to keep the ones we have and recruit more.”

Better wages, she said, would also help ensure ECEs remain in the child care sector and encourage others to consider it a career path. 

Infant spaces a ‘treasure hunt’

Although CCPA wasn’t able to dig into the Nova Scotia data to the same degree as some other provinces in terms of specific age breakdowns of pre-Primary children, Saulnier said infant spaces are at a premium. 

“Those are like some kind of treasure hunt. Even in places where there’s child care, this is grouped in under pre-Primary age, so you’re getting that coverage rate,” she said. 

“But if we were to drill even further, we know those younger spots are harder to come by. That’s because you need more ECEs per infant. Of course we do. Of course that needs to happen. That’s also very, very difficult for centres.” 

Saulnier also hopes that provincial governments consider the interactive child care desert data map as a “standard” for data collection. She said such work shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of CCPA researchers. 

“We know that our provinces struggle to create new spaces, but they’ve also lost some spaces along the way and it’s not really clear where we’re standing right now,” Saulnier said. “The data piece is important and could also be part of a central agency’s mandate.”

Reasons for continuing to expand not-for-profit child care is underlined in the report and by the evidence, Saulnier said. 

“It showed that in Halifax, which is where we have the data, that for-profits do charge more, even in the licensed sector,” she said. “So there are other issues. But that’s part of holding our government to account in terms of the use and efficiency of the funding that’s available.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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