Written by YWCA NWT staff

Child care services in the Northwest Territories (NWT) are legislated by the Northwest Territories Daycare Act and regulated through the department of Education, Culture and Employment. To understand child care services in the NWT, it is important to understand the make-up of the territory and how formalized services are distributed.

The political jurisdiction of the Northwest Territories (NWT) is a large and sparsely populated territory, with approximately 45,500 people. The territory recognizes 11 official languages, though there are at least 50 dialects spoken. Sombaa K’e/Yellowknife is located on the traditional lands of Yellowknives Dene First Nation (Chief Drygeese Territory), and more recently acknowledged as the homelands of the North Slave Métis Alliance. It is the largest community in the territory, with approximately 22,000 residents, and where the greatest proportion of formal service providers, including government and non-profit services, can be found. Along with Sombaa K’e/Yellowknife, the other most populous NWT communities are Hay River and Inuvik. Between them, these three communities make up approximately 69 percent of the population, while the remaining 31 percent of NWT residents live in 29 smaller communities.

Access to formalized services is influenced by where people live, and smaller communities have less access to health, education, social and protective services and economic opportunities. Many small communities don’t have licensed daycares and day-homes, where child-care services are run as small home-based businesses. Additionally, due to colonialism, and a myriad of complex and intertwining cultural, historical, geographical, and sociopolitical factors, there exists fewer viable economic opportunities for those seeking employment and financial stability in small communities, which in turn influences the relative access formalized child care and community capacity to open and maintain early childhood education-approved and licensed child care services.

As can be observed across the country, market-based service delivery of early childhood education (ECE) makes it difficult to establish a quality of care across the sector. While there is recognition from the NWT government of the need to develop culturally relevant child care for Indigenous children in the 2030 Early Learning Child Care Strategy, detailed targets are lacking, as this strategy is a brief 27 pages. The Department of Education, Culture and Employment has yet to release substantial targets, apart from the goal of increasing the amount of early childhood programs available, and making them more affordable and culturally relevant.

Current makeup

The child care system in the NWT is made up of unlicensed family day-homes, licensed day-homes, non-profit daycares, and for-profit daycares. Unlicensed day homes are permitted to have four children in total. Licensed day-homes are permitted up to:

  • Eight children over the age of three; or
  • Six children between ages one and three, and;
  • No more than two infants.

Individual child-care centres are encouraged to contact child care specialists with the NWT Government’s department of Education, Culture, and Employment for specifics on how many children are allowed from each age category if there is a mixed age group of children, as these specific details are not published.

To become licensed, day-homes must apply for a business licence, have a business account and insurance, and have the appropriate environment. The primary operator must have completed a post-secondary degree or diploma in child development, or they must intend to complete a degree or diploma program in child development. They must also participate in yearly training and there are incentives for continuing education such as quarterly professional development grants.

Daycares follow the same regulations as licensed day-homes. All daycares and day-homes, licensed and unlicensed, are subject to the Daycare Act. The amount of free and usable space for licensed daycares and day-homes must be at least 2.75 square metres per child, and include only spaces that children can use.

There are wide disparities in the quality of care that children receive and many factors that affect the quality, notably the costs that parents are able to pay.

The cost of child care runs from $800 for unlicensed day-homes to $1,400 for some private day-homes or daycares. Some private facilities tend to have better access to building maintenance than non-profit daycares, which leads to better pay and better workforce development as non-profits often have to balance infrastructure costs with other expenses that influence the quality of care children receive. Many non-profits also lack appropriate infrastructure for their programs in general. Some funding exists for start-up expenses for daycares that rent their space, but tenants have no access to infrastructure funding that may help them improve their space. Largely, the discrepancy in the quality of care lies in parents’ ability to pay for better wages, supplies and equipment to child care providers.

Another discrepancy between non-profit and private daycares is that non-profit daycares face more financial scrutiny to ensure revenues are appropriately accounted for, and non-profits don’t receive additional revenue for administration fees. Similarly, some day-homes and more affordable private daycares may also struggle with appropriate administrative support. If a single person is running a day-home and watching children from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., they must input their data after these hours.

In understanding the wages that child care providers receive, it is important to first understand what living wages are in the NWT. In 2022, the living wage was calculated at $23.28 in Yellowknife, $21.32 in Hay River and $22.59 in Inuvik. These calculations use the methodology of the Canadian Living Wage Framework and are a living wage for a two-parent, two-income household with two children. The minimum wage in the NWT is $15.20 an hour.

The rates of pay for child care workers are generally between $19 an hour and $25 an hour for staff who have child care education. For licensed private day-home operators, they may receive similar wages, but their actual income may be closer to or even less than minimum wage depending on the quality of supplies and food they provide to the children. Licensed daycares, including non-profit child care providers, are eligible to receive a staff grant from the NWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment. This grant is calculated based on the number of hours worked per three-month quarter and differs based on the education level of the worker. For example, for senior leaders at the YWCA NWT after-school program, the top-up is an additional $4.11 an hour, on top of a wage of $22.47 an hour — high wages for the sector.

kids at school

Existing workforce

The child care workforce in the NWT differs from community to community. In Yellowknife, the workforce is made up of largely low- to middle-income women. Many are recent immigrants, though there is also a broad makeup of people. Staffing child care facilities is a challenge and turnover tends to be high as staff may find higher wages at other workplaces. COVID has exacerbated an already challenging situation, and some child care programs were forced to close during the pandemic.

Demand for child care dramatically outpaces supply and securing child care in communities with formal child care options must be done well in advance.

Concern arises when the number of spaces available is prioritized over the quality of care children receive.

A contributor to this is the treatment of ECE’s as babysitters and not educated teachers. This concern is greatly exacerbated in child care settings in small communities, where staffing is more difficult. There are also structural challenges in the administration of ECE, as there are only three early childhood consultants for the territory. These three consultants are responsible for overseeing roughly 100 programs across a vast territory.

kids at school wearing masks

Workforce development

In terms of educational opportunities, workshops are provided to child care workers in person on a yearly basis. In addition, child care workers who enrol in an early childhood degree or diploma program may apply for a scholarship through the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, valued at $5,000. Other educational funding may be available to an individual based on the number of years they have lived in the NWT and if they are indigenous to the NWT.

a girl with her drawing

Bilateral agreement

The NWT has signed on to the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan, the federal-provincial funding agreement to reduce parental child care fees to $10 a day by the end of 2026. As a result of the bilateral agreement, the NWT has begun working towards implementing a Child Care Fee Reduction Subsidy. This subsidy has been publicly announced and parents are expecting to receive back pay from January 2022 to the present. Unfortunately, the rollout of this program was premature and most child care providers were unable to perform the administrative tasks necessary to complete subsidy applications. The subsidy rollout therefore has been pushed back and it is unclear when the sector will have the capacity to release these funds to parents.

A 2030 Early Learning and Child Care Strategy has been released. The strategy is somewhat brief in that it lays out a mission and values for developing the sector, but details in how to achieve measurable and targeted outcomes remain vague. According to the strategy, a primary measure of success “will be an increase in the number of licensed early learning and child care programs and spaces throughout the NWT over time.”

In order to further develop the sector in the NWT and create more quality childcare programs, ECEs need both administrative supports to ensure that governing bodies are responsive to the challenges that they see, and financial support to ensure they can remain in the sector. They also need help with infrastructure and the funds to create additional spaces.  Additional child care specialists working for the GNWT are needed, as well as other supplemental staff to help with administering initiatives like the Child Care Fee Reduction Subsidy. In addition, the NWT does not have a professional association for ECE’s. A professional association could help to create a collective voice for ECEs to help inform decision makers and advocate for ECE’s and the children, parents, and communities they serve.