A decision by Champlain Township council to divest itself of childcare services has upset many parents. The selection of a French-language service provider by the Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l’Est Ontarien (CSDCEO) to replace the bilingual service the township currently provides at École élémentaire catholique St-Grégoire in Vankleek Hill and at École élémentaire catholique St-Jean-Baptiste in L’Orignal has left many of the parents feeling uncertain about future of daycare access. Daycare employees are likewise uncertain about their future employment.

About 100 daycare parents and employees attended a boisterous information meeting at St-Grégoire school on September 28.

As of August 31 2023, there were 83 children enrolled in Champlain Daycare programs offered at St-Grégoire and St-Jean-Baptiste. Out of that total, 40 children were enrolled in preschool/toddler programs and 43 children were enrolled in before and after school programs at those facilities.

In a separate interview with The Review, Champlain Township Mayor Normand Riopel explained that the effort to have the municipality end its role as a childcare provider began in the spring of 2023. Council voted to discontinue the service on June 22. The final day for Champlain Daycare is December 31, 2023. Riopel said the decision was made in a closed session of council because it involved human resources affecting childcare employees. Riopel emphasized he did not want to keep the information from the public but the nature of the subject required the decision making to be done in a closed session.

The Municipal Act requires closed sessions of council whenever human resources issues are discussed.

Riopel said childcare services were not financially sustainable for the township. He said that if Champlain continued providing the service, it would lose $1.7 million over the next four years. The service has lost $65,000 so far in 2023.

According to the 2023 Champlain Township budget, the 2023 operating budget for childcare is $1,447,279, an increase of $64,854 from 2022.

CSDCEO Superintendent of Business and Treasurer Martin Lavigne said that because the CSDCEO is the landlord for the childcare facilities in Vankleek Hill and L’Orignal, it was responsible for selecting a new service provider.

The service provider selected by the school board to take over the childcare services on January 1, 2024 is the L’Association francophone à l’éducation des services à l’enfance de l’Ontario (AFÉSEO). The organization operates childcare facilities in French in all regions of Ontario, including in Hawkesbury. The township publicly announced the changes on September 27, just days after parents and staff had been notified. Parents have been given forms to sign as an expression of interest in having their children continue using the new provider.

“We were completely blindsided that it’s changing hands in the next few months,” said parent Krista Skinner, who has a three-year-old son in daycare.

However, many anglophone parents are concerned about how their children will manage in an officially French-language setting. That issue set the tone for much of September 27 meeting, which Riopel chaired.

“We have the responsibility to prepare children for school in French,” said AFÉSEO Director-General Martine St-Onge.

Parent Shane Jellett, whose son is on the autism spectrum, is in a specialized daycare program at St-Grégoire. Jellett is concerned that his son will now lose that specialized service.

Riopel told the audience efforts that are underway with the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) to expand bilingual day care services nearby at St. Jude Elementary School. However, the province still must give its approval and the enhanced services at St. Jude will not include a toddler program. Champlain Township CAO Kevin Tessier told The Review that the CDSBEO is actively working to have the plan in place for January 1.

Parents are not only concerned about their child being understood in English, but also about understanding any communication they have with AFÉSEO.

“I don’t speak a word of French!” one parent said from the audience.

St-Onge said staff will communicate with parents in English. She noted how AFÉSEO also provides services in Halton Region, west of Toronto where parents often do not speak French or English, but send their children to French childcare centres.

AFÉSEO Special Projects Coordinator Sébastien Dufour said staff will work with children at their level of comfort and knowledge in French but will continually encourage them to learn the language.

“It’s going to be a big transition,” Dufour said.

The decision by Champlain Township to exit the childcare business will result in layoffs for 25 employees, including the Director of Childcare Services. However, all of the Champlain employees may apply for work at AFÉSEO and will be given priority for selection before the positions are advertised publicly.

There was considerable concern among the audience about if the current employees will still have jobs, especially if they do not speak French.

“This is a small town and we give a crap about each other!” exclaimed Jellett.

CSDCEO Superintendent of Business and Treasurer Martin Lavigne said every Champlain childcare employee will be given the opportunity to apply for work with AFÉSEO. He also said he is not opposed to any modifications to the transition process which could make it go more easily for parents and staff.

An audience member asked about severances and compensation for any of the current municipal daycare employees.

“It’s a legal issue; we cannot answer the question,” replied Riopel.

St-Onge assured the audience that every employee will be given a fair opportunity during the application process and interviews will begin during the next two weeks.

“Everybody can apply right now,” she said.

The current waiting list for Champlain Township childcare will be maintained by AFÉSEO in its current form. It will not be merged with any other waiting list and each child on the list will maintain their current standing, regardless of their language status. As of August 31, there were 135 children on the waiting list for services at St-Grégoire and St-Jean-Baptiste. That number included 57 infants, 34 toddlers, 36 preschoolers, and eight school-aged children.

Skinner said parents do not have a long time to decide if they want to continue receiving childcare services from AFÉSEO. They were asked to return their forms by Friday, October 6.

AFÉSEO has indicated October 6 is not a firm deadline and responses are not required before October 31. St-Onge again emphasized that AFÉSEO will work with parents and children during the transition.

“Three months is not a slow transition,” remarked Kelsey Mode, a parent of two.

Skinner expressed interest in having parents explore other options for providing childcare services. However, there was no consensus among the audience about pursuing those options. Riopel, Lavigne, and St-Onge indicated changes could be made to the transition period if agreements could be reached between all parties. The parents did express interest in appearing as a delegation at the next regular meeting of Champlain Township council on October 26. Riopel assured the audience that no changes or further decisions will be made before then.

(The September meeting of Champlain Township took place at the same time as the information meeting at St-Grégoire school.)

Parents had mixed reactions to the outcome of the school meeting.

“I wish we had got a little farther,” Mode said.

“There were lots of grey-zone answers,” Skinner said, in reference to how communication will occur between AFÉSEO staff, English-speaking children, and their parents.

Jellett said he was actually satisfied with the AFÉSEO’s response about transitioning children to learn French and appreciated the willingness from the CSDCEO to consider modifications to the transition process.

When asked if the township could have gone about the daycare changes differently, Riopel told The Review “Hindsight is 20/20,” and said the transfer to AFÉSEO is necessary in order to have an agency providing the service that has the proper specialization. The mayor also apologized for the issues the planned transfer has caused involving language.

“If council would have known, maybe it would have been a phased-in transition instead of a three-month transition,” Riopel said.      

In a conversation with The Review, St-Onge emphasized English-speaking children will not be ignored and that respectful, educationally sound methods are used to help children learn French.

“We work with each child,” she said.

Once Champlain Township stops operating public childcare services, the City of Clarence-Rockland and Russell Township will be the only other municipalities in Prescott and Russell providing public childcare.

Champlain childcare meeting photos by James Morgan