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Krystal Churcher, the owner of a child-care centre in Fort McMurray, says she may have to close her centre permanently if questions surrounding the cost control framework aren’t answered soon.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Christine Pasmore runs an animal program at her child-care centre in Grande Prairie, Alta., so that her young charges can play with chicks, bunnies and baby goats. She likes to have extra staff on hand to look after the children. But now, she says, a lack of information about funding under Alberta’s new child-care agreement with Ottawa has left her wondering whether she’ll be able to keep doing these things or even stay in business.

“If the cost controls comes down where they’re really restricting our quality, that’s a big thing for me. I will not run my centre at a lower quality,” said Ms. Pasmore, who has owned and operated the for-profit business for 16 years.

Looking back at Canada’s child care deal in 2022 and the challenges ahead

Alberta signed its five-year, $3.8-billion child-care agreement with Ottawa in November, 2021. Almost immediately, extra federal funding was provided in the form of grants for child-care operators and subsidies for parents. But both for-profit and non-profit operators are still waiting for a “cost control framework” that will apply to them equally and set out what they are allowed to spend that federal money on and what they can charge parents.

For-profit centres – which account for 67 per cent of licensed spaces in Alberta – face an additional issue. Under the agreement, for-profit spaces created after March, 2022, aren’t eligible for the current phase of funding. That means some centres have families who are paying more than four times as much as families with children in spaces that qualify. Operators say they don’t know if or when this will change.

“There’s been a giant frustration in Alberta about the lack of communication. … Everybody doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t know where funding is coming from, doesn’t know where they’re going to get money,” said Susan Cake, chair of Child Care Now Alberta, an advocacy organization.

The province and the federal government were set to finalize a cost control framework by Dec. 31, 2022; it is now expected to be made available to operators by April 1. That’s when the next phase of the agreement will begin, including nearly $45-million in new federal funding.

“We are working hard on a framework that includes the equitable inclusion of private child-care operators, which represent the majority of our child-care spaces in Alberta’s mixed-market system, and ensures the sound and reasonable use of public funds,” Chinenye Anokwuru, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children’s Services, said in an e-mail.

The ambiguity of what counts as “reasonable” is unsettling operators who are nervous about their ability to stay in business, says Krystal Churcher, the owner of a child-care centre in Fort McMurray and chair of the Association of Alberta Childcare Entrepreneurs, a group formed in response to the recent uncertainties.

“It’s terms like reasonable rent, reasonable operating expenses, reasonable staffing expenses, which kind of concerns you as an operator because what’s reasonable for rent in Fort McMurray may not be what’s reasonable for rent in Calgary,” she said.

Different types of for-profit operators – which range from individuals who run a single centre to multinational corporations – will also likely disagree on what counts as reasonable, especially when it comes to rates of profit, says Christopher Smith, associate executive director of the Edmonton-based Muttart Foundation, which privately funds early education initiatives.

“The reasonable return may depend on who you’re speaking to,” he said.

But while frustrations among operators in the dark are understandable, it is better for the provincial and federal governments to take their time to work out the best possible framework, Mr. Smith says.

How the cost control framework will address centres that have opened since Alberta signed the deal, or newly created spaces at previously existing centres, is also of major concern to operators, Ms. Churcher says.

All licensed, for-profit spaces were grandfathered in under the grant program as of last March, and an additional 2,700 for-profit spaces were created.

Seble Ghebreslassie opened the Richmond Daycare in Calgary last summer, and is therefore ineligible for any grant money.

“At first, I didn’t even know that this would happen,” she said.

Ms. Ghebreslassie says she is having trouble hiring staff as a result, and is giving families a $500-a-month discount each in the hope of eventually getting grant funding.

“For parents who are low income or middle income, they couldn’t even pay that. So they’re like, okay, just keep us, keep us on your wait-list,’” she said.

Ms. Churcher says she may have to close her centre in Fort McMurray permanently if questions surrounding the cost control framework aren’t answered soon.

“Your staff that work in those new spaces don’t get the wage top-up, they don’t get any of the other benefits that come under this agreement for easy use. And then the parents that choose your private centre don’t have access to the subsidy or the affordability grants. So how do you even compete? And also, how is that fair to the families?” she said.

Ms. Pasmore has similar thoughts. She currently has more than 400 families on her wait-list, and expanded in October to help meet demand. The 30 families who have children in those new spots pay $65 a day, while families who qualify for the full subsidy pay $13.

“If the cost control measures are to the point where I feel like I cannot run my centre as a quality centre I will close my doors in 18 months when my lease is up,” she said.