Finding (and Keeping) High-Quality Child Care in Nova Scotia: Guaranteed Disappointment with Corporate Child Care Chains

It’s hardly newsworthy when a parent can’t find or afford a child care space for their child, let alone a space where they feel confident in the care being provided. Ask any parent about finding and securing child care, and they will have a story. 

Finding the space is only half the battle. Once you have found a space for your child, put your name on a waiting list, and received the call letting you know that coveted space has become available, you still have to pay for it. And it’s expensive. While the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care plan is bringing parent fees down around the country—the national target is an average of $10 per day—full-time toddler care still costs about $7000 per year in Nova Scotia (and this is down from $9360 before the plan’s implementation). 

It’s a good sign that the out-of-pocket costs of child care for parents are going down—but there are many other less visible aspects to child care provision that are just as important. One of my primary concerns is the rise of corporate child care chains in Nova Scotia. 

What is “corporate care”?

Corporate child care chains are defined as for-profit child care companies that operate 3 or more licensed child care centres. Corporate child care chains differ from other non-profit or for-profit centres in several important ways. For example, they are often financially backed investments in unrelated industries (such as real estate), and the day-to-day workings of these corporations are managed by individuals with little to no formal education or experience in early learning and child care. While many corporate child care chains are started by an individual, or small group of individuals, who came to the child care problem as parents themselves, these chains typically take off, growing rapidly in response to the overwhelming demand for child care spaces. 

The problem, of course, is that early learning and child care for young children does not practically function as a market product. Child care simply doesn’t work the same way as buying a car, or a stove, or a new pair of jeans. There are no returns or exchanges, and the “product” can’t be made more “efficient”—parents are essentially purchasing time to attend to things other than their children, usually paid work. And, critically, there is an overwhelming lack of options for parents to “shop” around – as I find myself saying to my five-year-old at the dinner table (who insists on using only one pink fork) “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset”. Care is not optional—we need it to survive. Caring well for children is a public good, not a market commodity. Full stop.  

Why this blog now?

Large scale corporate child care has been around in Canada for decades—and it’s only growing. That’s not new. But there are 3 reasons I’m writing this blog now.

  1. Canada is in the midst of rolling out a national child care program (the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care plan). Over the next decade, $30 billion is earmarked for the first-ever, national child care system– an investment that the (gendered) child care advocacy community has spent countless hours, days, and years (and tears) advocating for. We remember vividly holding vigils when Harper cancelled the ELCC Foundations program in 2006. A national child care program has been a long, hard fight— bolstered during the pandemic when women’s unpaid care labour was laid bare. I have no doubt the efforts of all levels of government to roll out this national system are well-intentioned. But well-intentioned does not translate into well-planned or good care – specifically when it comes to the role of corporate child care providers in the program.
  2. You may have heard about Kayleigh Fleet, a mother of twins who paid a hefty fee for two “guaranteed” child care spaces at a major corporate child care program, only to be told at the last minute that those “guaranteed” spaces were not available. Even though Kayleigh did everything “right”—she was on a waiting list for two child care spaces at 20 weeks pregnant and went as far as to pay $2300 to the provider to “guarantee” two spaces by August 1, 2023—the centre informed her two months before heading back to work that those “guaranteed” spaces were not so guaranteed at all. Kayleigh’s story was particularly surprising to me as waitlist fees were banned in 2016 in Ontario–a ban Nova Scotia’s NDP has recently pushed to implement in the province. This highly publicized case shed light on the pitfalls of corporate child care–and, as someone who has been studying this for years, I felt compelled to respond. 
  3. I’m new to Nova Scotia. After working and studying child care policy in Ontario and at the Federal level for over a decade, I recently became an Assistant Professor in Child and Youth Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University. This past summer I started a new project focused on educator’s experience in corporate care and learned that, for a small province, Nova Scotia has a considerable presence of corporate care. In fact, I argue this province has its own “brand” of corporate care that has now expanded to other provinces (including Ontario). This all worries me. Especially now, when there are significant federal funds stemming from the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care plan on the line, the role of corporate care requires immediate attention. 

Why is corporate care a problem?

The short answer? For-profit corporations exist primarily to make a profit. Care is, by its very nature, time and energy intensive, and good care is never profitable. It’s expensive and cannot be made more “efficient” with technology. In Canada, upwards of 80% of child care centre’s operating budgets go to staffing costs. And it’s clear that parent fees are unaffordable high (hence the $10/day federal program), and wages for early childhood educators (ECEs) are too low. In 2022, ECEs in Nova Scotia were paid between $15/hour (lowest-tier, entry-level, Level 1 qualifications) and $19/hour (highest-tier, Level 3 qualifications for the most experienced and trained educators). Assuming an ECE works full-time, full year, her wages leave her hovering just above the poverty line (especially if she has children of her own). You can’t pour from an empty cup – no matter how altruistic, “kind” and/or “caring” the (usually female) ECE is. 

It should be no big surprise that corporate providers are the worst culprits when it comes to paying ECEs poor wages. The “best” (and perhaps only) way to make big money in child care is to hire minimally qualified staff, pay them poorly and not offer things like ongoing professional learning, health benefits, vacation/sick time, planning time, etc… Those things cost money and are difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to “see”. Buying new wooden toys, investing in a bright new building, or creating an attractive, easy-to-navigate website is much flashier to prospective parents than paying decent wages for educators. ECEs working conditions are children’s learning and care conditions—compromising one comprises the other. In corporate child care centres, that happens too often. And by the time consumers come to see the pitfalls of corporate childcare (mainly overextended staff and high turnover rates) they, and their children, are emotionally invested in the centre. That, and there’s probably no other care options anyway.

Until parents like Kayleigh show up. And there will be more Kayleigh’s if we continue to turn a blind eye to corporate child care expansion in Canada. Indeed, there already have been. Earlier this year, this same corporate provider denied several families their “guaranteed” child care spot after paying hefty registration and waitlist fees, leaving these families to scramble for last-minute child care options that simply do not exist across Nova Scotia. The harsh reality is that there are licensed child care spaces (that is, spaces that meet minimum health and safety standards for only about a quarter of children aged five and younger in Nova Scotia. Considering 80% of mothers of children under 5 work in the paid labour force, it stands to reason that many young children who require part-time or full-time child care are not accessing it in licensed settings.

Even when fairly compensating ECEs, non-profit child care programs tend to be much more affordable for families. A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that for-profit child care centres in Halifax Regional Municipality charge at least 35 per cent more than non-profit centres. Not only are they more expensive, but also come with a host of other problems.

I did a study in Alberta back in 2017 and found that large-scale for-profit chains were more than 10 times more likely than non-profit centres (in the same neighbourhood) to be the subject of complaints with the provincial licensing department. Child care chains were also 3 times more likely to report critical incidents (31 compared to 14), and more likely to be inspected overall (259 visits from licensing officers compared to 123 in non-profits). At a public policy level, the Australian case – where the federal government bailed out one corporate child care chain to the tune of $100 million in 2009 – illustrates the extremely high cost of relying on corporations to provide a public resource. ABC Learning provided a quarter of Australia’s childcare in 2009, when poor business decisions of the company’s leaders led to its overextension and ultimate failure. Leaving 25% of working parents would have had major repercussions on the country’s economy, so they bailed these corporate child care chains out. Even more infuriating is that ABC Learning had already heavily profited from hefty government-funded fee subsidies paid to parents to help off-set the high out-of-pocket cost of child care—funds that could have, and should have, gone directly into creating quality, affordable licensed child care spaces. In the end, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent–and there were no more, or better, or more affordable child care options for children and families. 

This example of what not to do has been named one of the “biggest public policy disasters” in contemporary times. Canada is not immune to a repeat performance—and without intervention, provinces may do just that as they roll out this new program. Nova Scotia must take action to ensure it does not fall into this trap.

Where is Nova Scotia at on child care, and where should it be? 

The Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan, and the bilateral agreements signed with the provinces and territories to guide its rollout across the country–including Nova Scotia–emphasize the “importance” of creating a non-profit system of early learning and child care. But how this “importance”, or preference, plays out remains fuzzy. In the provinces with bilateral agreements that allow it, corporate child care programs nationwide were quick to sign on to these agreements and access unprecedented government funds. 

At the end of the day, corporate child care centres present barriers to creating a seamless public system that uses public dollars as efficiently as possible towards providing high-quality child care for Nova Scotia’s children and families. Principles of good care–not the greed of corporations–must drive the expansion of our first-ever national child care system, and its implementation in Nova Scotia. And, indeed, it can. The following recommendations outline how the Province can make this happen:

  1. Research demonstrates that decent wages and working conditions for ECEs are foundational to quality child care experiences for children, families and educators. Non-profit centres are more likely to recruit more staff and more qualified staff and ensure decent wages and working conditions. The Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan represents an unprecedented opportunity to create a non-profit system of early learning and child care system nationwide. Nova Scotia must contribute sufficient public operating funding into building a strong publicly funded, non-profit system of early learning and child care across the province and push the Government of Canada for more and ongoing federal investment to the province to realize this system.
  2. Nova Scotians urgently need affordable child care spaces. Relying on corporate providers to create much-needed child care spaces, then stepping in to help parents pay the fees for these spaces, is a very attractive option for governments. They generally prefer not to get into the “weeds” of directly funding, let alone operating, child care program. But the results can be disastrous. The Nova Scotia government must take responsibility for directly funding non-profit childcare centres within a publicly managed system so that parents aren’t forced to resort to precarious, unpredictable corporate options. 
  3. Nova Scotia introduced a cap on parent child care fees in 2016, but corporate child care centres responded to this profit threat by hiking other fees – including waitlist and other “premium” fees. Promising “guaranteed” spaces through these fees is a prime example–though, as Kayleigh’s story illustrates, it’s clear corporations never intended to deliver on that guarantee. Waitlist fees are essentially a quick-and-dirty way for child care providers to profit from parents’ anxiety about who will care for their child when they go back to work. Nova Scotia must follow Ontario’s footsteps and ban waitlist fees, as it transitions from a for-profit to public and non-profit system of early learning and child care.
  4. Across the country, the child care sector has been plagued by a chronic recruitment problem. Yet, a strong child care system in Nova Scotia cannot happen without ECEs. Starting at a mere $19.67–well below a living wage–Nova Scotia’s current ECE wage scale is not competitive enough to keep enough ECEs in the child care sector, nor attract enough new ECEs to implement the new child care plan. But there is hope. Nova Scotia’s ECE has a wage scale that can be strengthened in a way that ensures the successful rollout of the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care plan across the province. 

As a mother of four children and an educator, I am concerned about what a child care landscape in Nova Scotia that relies on corporations rather than a public, non-profit system means for children, families, and the predominantly female ECE workforce.  Yet, I remain hopeful that the principles of good care, not the greed of corporations, can drive the expansion of our first-ever national child care system, in Nova Scotia and across the country. As these recommendations demonstrate, there are many responsible and caring ways to build an affordable, accessible high quality child care system in Canada. It’s not too late for Nova Scotia to create a strong, public system of early learning and child care. Only time will tell how this plays out.

Brooke Richardson, PhD, is a child care activist and researcher who recently joined Mount Saint Vincent University’s Child and Youth Studies department as Assistant Professor. You can find more information about her here.