Regional Municipality of Waterloo. WikimediaTo understand why over 9,000 children languish on wait lists for child care in the Region of Waterloo (ROW), Noelle Fletcher says you have to go back to 2020 when the Regional Council made the decision to close five regionally operated child care centers.

“The council had tried to close the same centres five years earlier but the pushback from parents and workers was fierce,” said Fletcher, President of CUPE 1883 representing roughly 900 ROW inside workers, including child care, transit, library, and community service workers. “Then the pandemic hit, and we couldn’t voice our concerns in person when council got a report from KPMG touting cost savings that reinforced all of their assumptions. Council members were so eager in their shortsightedness, voting 12-3 to close the centres right as new funding from the Federal government was coming online.”

A new report delivered to council last month is sounding the alarm about waitlists. The report highlighted the opportunity to transform regionally owned buildings into child care centres. Many of the same councilors who previously voted to shutter centres now cast ballots in favour of the recommendations.

Missing from the report is any mention of a strategy to attract and retain talented staff.

“There is a province-wide shortage of child care workers. Suggesting that the biggest hurdle to providing adequate care is a lack of physical spaces is divorced from reality,” said Carolyn Ferns, Policy Coordinator at the Ontario Coalition of Better Child Care (OCBCC), who was deeply involved in the 2020 campaign to keep regionally operated centres open. “Child care is not just warehousing children in buildings. It’s creative, demanding work and it requires a highly skilled workforce. Publicly funded, publicly delivered services are the gold standard. Short of that, the Regional Council desperately needs a plan that includes a fair, livable wage to ensure there are staff to run any new centres that open.”

The Region of Waterloo is among the most expensive places to live in Ontario – with Waterloo itself costing more than much larger cities like Ottawa and Brampton. Early childhood educators, meanwhile, have a wage floor of just $23.86 an hour with other child care workers – including assistants, cooks and cleaners – earning much less, meaning many can’t afford to live in the communities they work in.

“If we are to keep attracting the kind of talent that helps the Region of Waterloo thrive, we need to make sure that families can thrive and that starts with adequate child care,” said Fletcher. “That can only happen if the council corrects past mistakes and develops a robust plan to expand child care, including publicly delivered options, and ensures decent pay and decent work for the entire child care workforce.”