Ashima Arora was three months pregnant when she began looking for child care in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
Today, Arora’s son is 15 months old, but she’s still waiting for a space — on seven different waitlists. On the longest list she’s No. 198 in line, while the earliest available space might not come until September, she says.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Arora, 35, as her son Mankaran wobbled across the floor of their Chilliwack, B.C., apartment, squeezing a Peppa Pig toy. She said she’s had to delay returning to work because she hasn’t been able to find child care.
Parents across Canada are facing long waits to access child care — and experts say those waits are growing longer, even as Ottawa delivers on a long-held promise to invest in an affordable child-care system.
In 2021, the federal government announced it would invest $30 billion over five years to reduce fees for parents across Canada, earmarking about $3.2 billion for B.C. The goal was to increase access to $10-a-day child care.
B.C. began testing $10-a-day child care with 1,300 spaces in 2018 as part of an election promise by the NDP. Backed by federal funding, that number has grown to 13,200. Other efforts to drive down daycare prices include a fee-reduction plan for more than 80,000 spaces.
Advocates say these investments have been life-changing for many families, lowering some fees by half — but, ultimately, there still aren’t enough spaces to meet demand.
Sharon Gregson with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C says while there are about 130,000 licensed child-care providers in the province, 75 per cent of children age 0-12 aren’t able to access them.
In fact, as fees dropped, waitlists lengthened, Gregson said. Now, some daycares are even closing their waitlists.
Using the provincial government’s B.C. Child Care Map, which lists child-care centres and vacancies, CBC News looked at providers who are part of the fee-reduction program and admit children under 36 months.
The map showed 122 of 755 child-care facilities had spaces free on Jan. 18, but it wasn’t clear how many spots were available in each. The province says the accuracy of available spots on the map depends on whether child-care providers have updated their information, and they do not include $10-a-day child care providers.
Gregson said spaces sit empty because there aren’t enough educators to staff them and many people are struggling financially, meaning they simply can’t afford child care — which, outside of government programs, can cost a median of between $1,000 and $1,625 a month in B.C. for kids under 36 months, according to a provincial document from August 2023.
The province says $10-a-day spaces make up just nine per cent of the total number of child care spaces in B.C.
Frustration with waits grows
The long waitlists are frustrating for child-care advocates as well as parents, despite acknowledgement that the price-reduction programs are a positive development.
In 2023, the average amount Canadian parents paid for their main full-time arrangement was $544 per month, down from $649 in 2022, according to a new Statistics Canada report.
However, the number of parents who say it’s been difficult to get child care increased from 53 to 62 per cent, according to the same report.
“I feel that it is an ongoing struggle,” said Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Childcare Now, Canada’s national child care advocacy association.
She says part of the solution is working with local governments to open up daycares in public spaces like schools, while helping current operators expand.
“They are having a lot of trouble getting access to the kinds of capital funds required to actually either renovate space, expand existing space, or build new centres on space,” Ballantyne said.
Calls to fund more staff
Shining Star Daycare director Michelle Johnson echoes Ballantyne’s point about support for expansion.
Since the facility in Coquitlam, B.C., began providing $10-a-day care in 2022, interest soared to the point where it had to close some of its waitlists, Johnson said.
“We didn’t want to give the parents false hope.… There is zero chance of them getting in, ” said Johnson, sitting in one of the facility’s nine classrooms as children sang in the hallway.
She says about 200 families have not made it into their programs, and some parents are facing a three-year wait.
Along with more support for expansion, Johnson says the government needs to fund more child-care staff.
“If daycares can’t find the spaces … can’t staff the spaces, all that money is not going to do any good,” she said.
A November 2022 report by the Early Childhood Educators of B.C. (ECEBC) found 45 per cent of employers are losing more staff than they can hire due to reasons such as low pay and a lack of benefits.
In 2018, the government said it will need an additional 12,000 child-care professionals over the next 10 years to expand affordable child care.
A bursary program launched the same year is helping cover up to $5,000 in education costs for those hoping to work in the sector.
More than 12,000 bursaries have been rewarded to students between the winter 2021 and summer 2023 semesters, according to ECEBC executive director Emily Mlieczko.
“We continue to see a huge increase in students accessing this fund and other opportunities through government initiatives,” she said.
The Current20:09Childcare spots getting harder to find, research shows
15,000 new $10/day spaces by spring, province says
The Ministry of Education and Child Care acknowledges there is still work to do.
One way it’s reducing waits, it says, is with the New Spaces Fund where a local government or school can get funding to help open a new child-care centre if it offers reduced fees.
The ministry says it has funded more than 33,000 new licensed child-care spaces since 2018, and more than 15,000 of these spaces are now open.
B.C. will be funding about 15,000 new $10-a-day spaces by this spring, it adds.
The province also says it’s supporting more child-care staff in multiple ways, including paying higher wages and helping with education costs.
But parents who are still waiting to access child care say those changes aren’t happening fast enough, leaving them either unable to return to the workforce, working fewer hours, or scrambling to find babysitters.
“I have to stay home, I have no choice,” Arora said, adding she’s declined four job offers to care for her son.
“It hurts when you don’t have enough resources.”