Government funding:

🕔Jul 28, 2006

If she had her way, a banner over the door at Norma’s Ark Playday Centre would tell the true story of what she describes as British Columbia’s child-care crisis. “This daycare facility will close on March 31,” it would read, sending a clear message to Victoria and beyond, all the way to Parliament Hill.

But inside, it’s business as usual. Norma Stokes stands at the helm of the Telkwa daycare she has operated for the past 15 years, an island of calm in a raging sea of toddlers. For 10 hours each day she wipes noses, plays games and produces captivating stories on cue, like a magician pulling bunnies from a hat.

Only in recent years has Stokes started to bring in any kind of significant profit, last year earning $21,000. Ironically, that’s exactly the amount Norma’s Ark stands to lose in the face of uncertainty over government funding, marking the difference between turning a small profit and running her business for free.

“Five years ago I earned $5,000, and that’s before they put the Childcare Operating Funding Program in. I’m not willing to take a wage cut,” she says. “Quite frankly, I could go be a camp cook and make more money. But I wouldn’t be nurturing the lives of these wonderful children, and providing a service to the community that’s very valued.”

“So we’re going to try and find another way to maintain quality programs.”

As part of a five-year, $5 billion commitment to fund daycare, Paul Martin’s Liberal government signed an Early Learning and Child Care Agreement with B.C. last September. The following month, the B.C. government further instilled confidence by raising the annual income level for subsidy to $38,000 from $21,000—along with the subsidy itself, which rose from $368 a month to $550.

When the Conservatives took power early this year, they promised to honour the deal for two years, translating to $178 million in funding for B.C. On March 31, 2007 that agreement expires and the future of the province’s child-care hangs in the balance.

Cori Dewijn, president of the Bulkley Valley Child Care Society and owner of A to Z Playhouse in Smithers, fears that the first to get axed will be the Childcare Operating Funding Program, which was implemented in 2003 and is allocated on an enrollment basis.

For Dewijn, the additional funding has meant an extra staff member and enhanced programs for the children, such as Spanish classes, music, cooking and soccer. Without it, A to Z brings in just enough to pay her salary and rent.

“It’s a really neat program and this is what’s probably going to be cut. We’re assuming this is going to be cut as of next March,” she says. “I think it has increased the children’s experience here. They are doing more than they did prior to the funding. It’s going to hurt the children most.”

What the Tories have committed to is a $1,200 annual grant for children under the age of six, ostensibly to be spent on child care. But as Dewijn points out, not only are parents free to spend the money as they please, the amount doesn’t come close to matching the current $550 monthly subsidy.

As it stands, Dewijn now rolls excess operational funding back into helping parents who struggle with the additional $50 it takes to match the facility’s monthly $600 full-time child-care fee. “If there’s only $100 a month for these high-needs families, they just won’t go,” she says.

Apart from a commitment to work with the federal government in trying to provide the best possible child-care to B.C. residents, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children and Family Development says it is still unknown what the face of daycare funding will look like in B.C. as of next spring.

“Essentially, from our perspective, we feel we need to recognize the current reality,” says communications manager Matt Gordon, citing the Conservatives’ decision to go with the $1,200 family grant. “At this time there will be no changes to existing funding levels and we’re going to work with the federal government to get the best deal possible for B.C. families.”

But for Stokes, who describes her facility as “extreme daycare,” the roughly $20,000 she receives each year in operational funding means the difference between simply being a child-care facility and providing life experiences for young people. It helps to cover liability insurance for activities like camping, rock climbing, hiking and swimming. It also covers the cost of a van to transport the children.

“Kids need to play and be in the woods,” she says. “They learn through play, and if we’re just in a building with paper and crayons, we’re not necessarily giving them the opportunity for exploration.”

Unwilling to offer a mediocre child-care experience, Stokes has been searching for creative ways to get around the potential funding issues. One option she’s toyed with is creating a society that would take over running the facility, making it non-profit and eligible for government grants.

“Then the Ark would stay afloat,” she says.