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Fatima Abaszadeh, manager of Cozy Childcare in Vancouver, said parents ask daily whether her daycare has space but it’s fully booked until September 2026.Felicia Chang/The Globe and Mail

It took Jason Li more than a decade to find a suitable detached house in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood where he and his wife could open their second daycare.

Initially, Mr. Li believed the building he finally bought would only require minor adjustments to obtain a licence. But he spent months meeting the demands of the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health, requirements that were sometimes in conflict.

The city wanted a cabinet in the basement area designated for child care gone. Vancouver Coastal Health ordered that it stay. Mr. Li had to find a smaller one that suited both parties.

Then the city wanted a door linking the basement and ground floor eliminated, saying it violated building codes. But the health authority said it needed to be there to ensure child safety.

“The city says one thing, VCH says another,” said Mr. Li. “We had no clue and felt confused.”

Mr. Li invested more than $1.6-million to buy the house and thousands more in renovations. During the year he awaited licensing approval, he didn’t earn any income from this site.

He noted he gets little support as a private daycare provider for his business as the provincial NDP government shifts its resources to funding non-profit and publicly-run child care.

As demand for child-care spaces has exploded and with a fall election looming, the provincial government has worked to dramatically ramp up the availability of publicly-funded daycare spaces. But daycare spots in B.C. are still hard to come by and publicly-funded spaces, which generally cost less, have especially long wait lists.

The majority of spaces in B.C. are currently offered by private operators, and these centres are also growing faster than publicly funded options. But providers like Mr. Li say they are being discriminated against even though they’re offering a much-needed service.

On May 16, the B.C. government announced the latest round of grants for groups expanding or creating new child-care spaces. Those eligible include Indigenous governing entities, local governments, public bodies such as health authorities and non-profits. The grants can run up to $500,000 for costs related to minor renovations or equipment – and higher for bigger renovation, building and expansion projects.

Providers like Mr. Li are not eligible.

While he believes his building can accommodate more children, he is only allowed to enroll a maximum of eight. He received a $4,500 grant from the province – an initial payment of $500 plus an additional $500 per space – in startup funding.

Mr. Li’s Green House Childcare Centre is classified as a “family child-care” centre, meaning it is privately owned and operated out of a home rather than a community-based facility. “Group child-care” centres, meanwhile, can be private or public, are allowed to accept more kids and are operated out of a community-based facility.

Subsidies are available to parents at both types of facilities, but amounts differ. For example, parents of kids three and under at family daycares qualify for $600 per month. The corresponding amount at a group centre is $900.

These discrepancies, where publicly-run centres receive more financial support from the government and parents at larger daycares are eligible for bigger subsidies, make it difficult for smaller, private centres to operate, he said.

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In B.C., 64 per cent of children live in child-care deserts.Felicia Chang/The Globe and Mail

Fatima Abaszadeh said parents ask daily whether her daycare has space for their children but it’s fully booked until September, 2026.

“It’s really horrible. I’m so sorry for all the parents,” said Ms. Abaszadeh, owner and manager at Cozy Childcare.

In response to soaring demand, she explored the possibility of launching a larger facility in Kitsilano.

But after nearly eight years of searching, Ms. Abaszadeh has been unable to find a location that meets the city’s requirements, especially for outdoor space. Even if one were available, she couldn’t afford it without substantial government support. Moreover, government-capped tuition means she is unable to charge enough to balance her investment.

“With all expenses and the lease and the teachers’ wages, it isn’t worth to start this business at all. You’re stuck in a crazy loop of this business,” she said.

Child-care advocates prefer a publicly-funded system, arguing it provides more affordable care, accountability and transparency.

But private providers say the lack of space in the public system means their work is still necessary.

A 2021 internal document from the Ministry of Education and Child Care, released by the BC United Party under freedom of information legislation, indicated that only public organizations, Indigenous governments and non-profits would be eligible for provincial child-care space creation funding.

This approach was to “further signal government’s move away from market-based child care towards a universal, co-ordinated child-care system,” states the note.

“As the government moves towards a universal, public-funded, flat fee model of child-care delivery, it may be cost prohibitive for for-profit providers to remain in the sector, making the creation of these spaces unviable in the medium-term.”

The document also states that for-profit, private child-care providers make up the majority in the B.C. sector and are creating more spaces at a faster rate than publicly-funded daycares.

Data provided by the ministry last month show that from 2019/20 to 2023/24, the number of private group child-care spaces increased by about 15,000 to 72,182. Publicly-funded group child-care spaces saw a smaller increase of around 10,400, climbing to 61,874.

In comparison, family child-care spots increased by about 270, reaching 12,573.

In a statement, the ministry acknowledged private providers continue to be important and said operational funding will remain equal in both sectors.

Sharon Gregson, of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C., supports the government’s preference for a publicly funded system.

When we think about investing public dollars, taxpayer dollars, we want to make sure that we’re building a system that is community owned, and it’s going to be long lived and serves the public good. It’s not just about investing taxpayer dollars for private asset,” she said.

Still, that funding isn’t keeping pace with demand.

In a 2023 report, researchers from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded that 48 per cent of younger children – those not yet attending kindergarten – reside in a child-care desert, defined as a postal code in which there are at least three children competing for one licensed space.

In B.C., 64 per cent of children live in child-care deserts. The province ranks behind only Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Manitoba.

B.C. was the first province outside Quebec to embrace the federal goal of $10-a-day daycare – a promise that helped the NDP win the 2017 election.

But Ms. Gregson, B.C.’s spokeswoman for the $10-a-day child-care campaign, said the province is now behind other parts of the country in implementing the program: only 11 per cent of child-care is at a $10-a-day site in the province.

“Like in other provinces, there’s been a lot of dependency on the federal government to carry out a bigger share,” she said.

According to a chart provided by the ministry, federal investment in B.C.’s child-care sector has significantly increased since 2021/22. And by next year the federal government will be contributing more to daycare funding in the province than the B.C. government.

On May 14, Premier David Eby announced the province will begin a pilot project using existing school space as well as school district resources and staff to provide child care. Mr. Eby said the model will start in three school districts with 180 spaces but is designed to grow.

The care will be provided by CUPE BC members, including early childhood educators, early childhood educator assistants and education assistants. The union’s president, Karen Ranalletta, said such a move will attract education assistants back into the sector by supplementing their schedules, given that many of them do not work full-time hours.

Mary Sweeney would be grateful for any kind of quality daycare spot for her three-year-old son.

The Nelson, B.C., resident has been searching since 2022 for a facility that can accommodate her son, who has cerebral palsy. She said she has been rejected four times by small, privately operated centres, who told her their limited resources mean they can’t take him.

A larger, publicly funded facility would be more appropriate, but she hasn’t been able to get a spot there either.

As a result, she has been commuting 16 hours per week to the Okanagan, where her mother-in-law cares for her son.

“It just makes no sense to not have kids like mine in these larger daycare centres where there is zero priority and everyone’s waiting for a spot,” she said.

“There’s really not a lot that anyone can do; everybody’s basically powerless.”

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