Skip to main content

Alberta and Ottawa continue to blame each other over who is responsible for problems with the $10-a-day child-care program, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying this week that the province is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that is hindering a successful rollout.

Alberta signed on to the $3.8-billion deal with Ottawa in November, 2021, after tense negotiations that focused, in large part, on getting what the province considered a fair deal for its mix of care providers, more than half being privately run businesses.

Daycare operators have since raised various concerns with the program, including that it is underfunded, has restrictive policies and that delayed provincial grant payments were causing financial hardship. Some temporarily closed their doors in protest last month.

Mr. Trudeau, in Edmonton on Wednesday, criticized the province for “not doing its share” to set up subsidized daycare centres. He said it is an “ideological decision” by the Alberta government not to honour the agreement “while child-care providers are having to do rolling strikes and not able to deliver the child care that parents are counting on.”

Since the five-year bilateral deal was inked, Alberta has spent $1.1-billion of the $3.8-billion provided by Ottawa, said Josh Aldrich, press secretary to the province’s Jobs Minister Matt Jones, in a statement on Thursday. He said the province has spent $971-million from its own coffers for child care over the same period and intends to spend $1.7-billion, in total, by 2026.

“Alberta remains on track to reduce fees further to reach an average of $10 per day by 2026 while supporting parental choice through Alberta’s unique mixed market of child care operators,” Mr. Aldrich said. The province expects to spend the full allocation under the agreement over the five-year period, he added.

Daycare providers in Alberta can charge parents an average of $15 per day at this point. The province then pays operators the difference, based on the fees they charged when they signed on to the program. Parental fees may climb from other expenses, such as optional field trips, transportation and special programming, but they are beyond the scope of the national agreement.

In January last year, the province and federal government struck a deal outlining acceptable costs and profits for operators receiving public money, known as the cost control framework, which also applies to non-profits. The deal allows subsidized daycare spots in private facilities to expand by up to 22,500 spaces over three years, with only a portion available for funding immediately.

Mr. Aldrich said, as of last December, about 22,000 net new spaces have opened in Alberta for a total of 125,000 affordable spaces. He did not say what portion of those new spaces are private. He added that enrolment in licensed child-care programs has risen by more than 40,000 children since the agreement was signed.

Krystal Churcher, a private operator and chair of the Association of Alberta Childcare Entrepreneurs in Alberta, who announced the rolling temporary closings in January, has said the framework limits the fees they can charge while there is not enough support to cover overall costs, hiked by inflation. The association, in a press release on Wednesday, said underfunding by the federal government has “placed the sector at grave risk, jeopardizing its long-term sustainability and accessibility.”

Martha Friendly, executive director of the Child Care Resource and Research Unit, a non-profit research institute, said the provincial government is required to manage the rollout and iron out any issues with the child-care plan, even though it is a federal initiative. Last month, federal Families Minister Jenna Sudds said provinces and territories entered into these agreements with “eyes wide open” and were aware of “what dollars were on the table for them to work with.”

Premier Danielle Smith, earlier this month, gave the child-care file to Mr. Jones with a mandate to fix the grant-payment system that distributes funds to child-care providers. Ms. Smith has previously blamed out-of-control spending by the federal government that has “increased inflation and significantly impacted operating costs” for child-care.

Child Services Minister Searle Turton, who was previously responsible for the file, released conflicting statements about the rolling closings in January. First, he said he was disappointed in operators that were “choosing to scare families with random closures instead of engaging in good faith on the development of a new early learning and child-care funding formula.”

In a later statement, Mr. Turton said child-care operators have his full support. “Record inflation thanks to out of control spending by the federal government has significantly increased operating costs, and the current cost control framework established by the federal government does not recognize this,” his statement said.

Susan Cake, chair of Child Care Now Alberta, said it is unsettling to see the provincial government shift responsibility on the file, seemingly to cater to a small but vocal group of operators in opposition to the program. “This looks like politics and children are ultimately the ones that are going to lose,” she said.

Sam Blackett, press secretary to Ms. Smith, said in a statement: “We will continue working with the federal government to ensure the agreement better meets the needs of parents and operators.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe