HALIFAX, MONDAY, APRIL 8, 2019
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Suzanne Lohnes- Croft
THE CHAIR: Order. The Committee of the Whole on Supply will come to order.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
KEITH IRVING: Madam Chair, will you please call the continuation of Estimates for the Department of Business.
THE CHAIR: We will continue the Estimates of the Department of Business.
The honourable member for Pictou East.
TIM HOUSTON: Thank you, Madam Chair, thank you, minister. I’d like to ask a couple of questions about the Cunard Block developments.
The RFP for the project stipulated a commencement date no later than January 2014 - we’re now five years past that, with still no shovels in the ground. I understand the developer has indicated there will be a project under way by this summer, but that’s still five years past the commencement date approved by the Waterfront Development Board at that time.
I wonder if the minister can maybe update the House on the status of the Cunard Block site and the planned developments and maybe follow up with the department’s policy if an approved project does not start by the new anticipated commencement date.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, I thank the member for the question. Certainly, with respect to the site the member is talking about on the waterfront here in Halifax, collectively, there are a number of developments we are looking at. They are, as the Leader mentioned, around the Cunard site, there has been some ongoing development. There are a number of projects that formerly the Waterfront Development Corp. and now Develop Nova Scotia have been considering. There are different discussions about what we’ll potentially do there but certainly the development has been taking place.
One of the things that we’ve done recently is moved on the Svitzer property that is there, which is next to the site which was formerly owned by Maersk, so with the Maersk acquisition and the site around Cunard there is some work we are moving through at this point with land acquisitions and development, et cetera, but there is nothing specific that I can report for the House in terms of the actual project that will be
taking place there.
TIM HOUSTON: Madam Chair, my apologies, I should have been specific in the block, specifically referring to request for proposals, number 1835, that’s Cunard Block mixed use development. That was July, 2012, and in that RFP which was awarded, the request for proposals, the schedule for construction commencement was very clearly stated as February 1, 2014, and I can certainly appreciate some delays around weather and what have you, but we’re into a five-year delay at the moment and I just wonder if the minister and the staff can update the development community and the citizens of Halifax on the expected development on this site because to wait that length of time does certainly warrant an explanation. So, I would like to - again, that was a request for proposals, number 1835, Cunard Block mixed used developments. I wonder, can the minister specifically talk to the delay on that piece of property?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, to the member, the Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, there were a number of development issues with the complexity of the site. So, certainly, there was cause for delay and additional funding required, investment, because of the nature of the retrofits and some of the work we had to do with respect to the landing there and the other components of the harbour, certainly in that greater development around Cunard and the Maersk site, so that it definitely caused delays, no doubt about it.
There were a number of project proponents that I’ve met with, potential options that were pursuing that site. Those discussions still are ongoing. We haven’t landed in any particular place yet to update the House on, but the delays were caused by a number of factors, but the site complexities were the major part of that.
TIM HOUSTON: Madam Chair, an RFP was awarded on that particular one, so I’m just seeking some clarification for the delays maybe on the province’s side of passing it over or if maybe it needs to be a new RFP issued. Just for clarity, is the proponent who was successful in the 2012 RFP still the proponent that will move forward with some development on that site?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, at this point, certainly it was Southwest that was the successful proponent. The conversations are still ongoing with Develop Nova Scotia. Again, between the environmental challenges that were found on the site, plus some of the alterations around what was going to be built there with the public space, the private entity that was there, et cetera, again those were the main causes for delays but we’re going to get Develop Nova Scotia down to give some of the specifics if there are any, but at this point, from all of our information, anything that I’ve been privy to so far, that proponent is still in place for this site.
TIM HOUSTON: Thank you, and if the minister can maybe provide any additional information afterwards, that would be helpful.
I’d like to move on to the Summary of Departmental Writeoffs 2018-19. The Department of Business has a writeoff of $10.3 million. The description is Nova Scotia Jobs Fund Equity, Term Loans, Guarantee Loans, Royalties, and Mortgage Foreclosure by Third Party.
I wonder if the minister can provide a more detailed breakdown of the writeoffs that the province made in that account this year?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, thanks to the member for that question. There was a total of nine particular line items associated with that $10.3 million writeoff and seven of the nine were associated directly to the Jobs Fund - they were ACF Equity, Canaqua Seafoods, Co-op Atlantic, Credit Union Loan Guarantee Program paid claims for loss, Rosedale Farms Limited, STELIA Aerospace, MacDonald Peat Moss. They are the seven from the Jobs Fund. The other two, Southwest Shore Development, was a mortgage to the tune of $475,00, and the other was a Cape Breton resort writeoff which is a miscellaneous, it’s $4,400.
We can get that specific list for the member, but that’s the nature and the full extent of the $10.3 million written off.
TIM HOUSTON: Thank you, minister, for that. I look forward to receiving that list.
I want to talk about the film industry. Under the old system, up to 2014, the province used to invest somewhere in the range of $25 million in the film industry, and we know the volume that was generated by that investment, or at least partly attributed to that investment.
I want to ask the minister: How much was invested in the film industry by the province in the last year and how much is expected to be invested this year?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: The number for last year’s fiscal year spend was $23.8 million and we have budgeted $20 million for this upcoming year.
Obviously, NSBI has the direct link in relationship with film and screen and the entire sector, so they are certainly keeping track of what is in the pipeline and what could potentially come down. At this point, the budget line is $20 million.
TIM HOUSTON: Minister, is it now accepted that the $25 million that was traditionally invested in the industry was generating economic activity in excess of $100 million a year - is that a number that would be accepted by the province?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: It certainly would vary over the last 10 years, for example, it would be up and down. We’ve maintained, through all the changes between the tax credit and the incentive fund, 1 to 2 per cent of the national market for film.
With respect to the direct question, I think it is a fair rolling average over those number of years that the number would be $100 million.
TIM HOUSTON: I wonder if the minister can provide some information on the $23.8 million last year and the $20 million projected for this year.
Does the minister have some forecasts of the economic activity that was attributed last year to the $23.8 million and going forward to the $20 million? What type of economic activity can the province expect?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Essentially, we’re still in that range in terms of the long-term average. Because of the multiple year nature of some of the investments and the projects that take place, there is a fluctuation based on what happens throughout the year and leading up to the year end.
Last year I think, we were tracking in the range of about $85 million. The year before was somewhat higher than that, still would have been in that range between $85 - $100 million, but it has stayed pretty consistent. Again, I think that looking at the snapshots in time of multiple years gives you that sort of average. So, last year looks like in the range of about $85 million and still tracking, give or take, around $100 million.
TIM HOUSTON: Before the changes, the $25 million investment generated economic activity, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, of $139 million. According to the department, that economic activity was somewhere between $120 - $180 million. So, $25 million led to quite a bit of economic activity.
Now, after everything that has happened in the industry, we know according to the department’s numbers, that a very similar investment, $23.8 million versus $25 million, has led to economic activity in the range of $85 million.
We’re spending the same amount of money, but there’s a lot less economic impact on the province. So, does the department accept that even though the investment is essentially the same as it was before, that the economic impact generated by that investment has decreased dramatically. From PricewaterhouseCoopers, $139 million or the department’s $120 million at the low end, down to just $85 million right now. That’s a significant drop in economic activity.
Does the department accept that the economic impact of the investment has reduced with the changes?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I think that certainly, I’ll repeat some of this from Friday, the discussion with the NDP caucus regarding the film impact and sort of the collective energy and relationship that has taken place over the last number of years.
Certainly, we are appreciative and respectful of the position that that industry has taken in terms of the changeover. One of the big things that I think is a discrepancy between what the numbers show us now versus what some of these projections were back then, becomes around the nature and the application of the Film Industry Tax Credit.
The tax credit was very much back-end loaded. So, when you would have a tax credit for a project or projects that took place over a number of years, you could see a particular spike based on how the peak and valley sort of rolled out in terms of when that was paid out. So, it was very uncertain for us to project not only the cost that it would be to the coffers of the province, but also of the economic impact in terms of what the actual impact was and when it took place.
That was one of the challenges we had with the tax credit. The Nova Scotia Film & Television Production Incentive Fund is very much front-end loaded, so now the certainty is there. When we pay this out, Madam Chair, we know where it’s going and to what extent it’s going. Not only that but at the same time it’s tied into the certainty around that total revenue projection and revenue impact from the industry. Over time, as we’re into a number of years now with the incentive fund, we’ll certainly see that stability as well. We’re not counting revenue in out years. It all sort of lines up at the same time.
When you’re looking at the revenue projections and the ultimate performance versus the old tax credit, the incentive fund, in our perspective, is around the same and in the same ballpark, but now we have the certainty for the fiscal envelope and the budgeting of the province. Also, for the fact that there is a local content in terms of labour, where the investments take place, and such, in terms of Nova Scotia spend.
All things being equal, there is a discrepancy in the revenue counts, but the ability to forecast that does loom significant for us. And the fact that when you’re dealing with out years, it does throw off that final revenue injection in terms of which year the tax was collected versus when the spend took place.
TIM HOUSTON: I think what I heard the minister say is that there’s a discrepancy in the revenue accounts, meaning the economic impact is smaller for almost the same amount of money, but the government has some certainty over the timing of what it invests.
That’s a concern to me, for sure, because we need to get the most bang from our buck that we can possibly get for investments we’re making. It might be convenient for budget purposes, but if we’re spending the money and we’re not getting the economic impact, then that’s short sighted. That’s what that is.
I think what we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic impact on an industry that had an economic impact, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, of $139 million; according to the department, of $120 million down to $85 million. That’s a big impact on our economy, for sure. I don’t know if that’s a good impact to take in the name of easier accounting.
I’d just like to ask the minister: Does the department believe that there are more people working in the film industry in Nova Scotia today than there were in 2014? Is it the department’s assessment that there are more people working in the industry today than there were back then?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Last year there were 49 projects, so from our perspective, the approvals, the activity is comparable: 49 projects last year and 139 since the incentive fund began. We have never said no to any projects that came our way via NSBI and, again, there has been a comparable level of activity - and the fact that there was always the concern that there would be a cap - I think that has been reassuring for Screen Nova Scotia, in my conversations with them around the fact that there hasn’t been anything denied to this point. Again, tracking at $20 million and the close relationship NSBI has with the sector, we’re confident that that relationship will continue.
With respect to the job numbers and sort of the overall impact, I think one of the biggest things, obviously, we focused on - referenced in an earlier response - was around this idea of the indigenous project. For us the focal point for this investment of taxpayers’ money was that we would ensure that as many Nova Scotia productions as possible had taken place. Again, from our perspective, that activity is very much alive.
The foreign service programs and the foreign service productions that were taking place before and, I think IATSE, the Directors’ Guild of Canada, would indicate that this has impacted their numbers in terms of employee counts. Again, that was the change that had taken place over the course of the lifespan of this incentive fund.
We’ll see what those numbers actually were, and the impact was, clearly, for everyone we want as many people as possible in the workforce. It is also important that we have that focal point being the indigenous projects here in Nova Scotia. Again, I think with the level of investment and activity that we are seeing, there are comparable numbers both in terms of the project numbers and the fact that we still maintain that particular market share of Canadian productions.
There are a number of changing industry dynamics, and I know that the member would have heard some of this on Friday, but the large projects that were part of the foreign service productions, I think, are going in quite a different direction in terms of content. The extent of discussions that we’ve had around this particular industry, it’s incredible how quickly it has changed and to what extent because of the Netflix world. Madam Chair, now - quick content, massive demand, there’s a hunger for content, very much so across the board for shorter productions, for one-offs in some cases, series in others and of course the movie option in terms of Netflix.
Those productions are going to continue to flourish and I think that when we get to the five-year sunset for and the review for this incentive fund, that will be the conversation that certainly is the focal point for screen I would suggest, and for us as well. So, with the indigenous focus for this particular investment, we believe we’re in the right spot.
Again, I think that IATSE, I’ve heard some of their comments around the impact of their workforce but again I think that with the changing dynamics of the sector, hopefully there may be a levelling and a stability around the total number of people who are working in the industry here in the province.
TIM HOUSTON: I do appreciate the distinction between the types of projects; that’s why I was trying to get to the people working in the industry because different projects employ different numbers of people.
Has the industry asked for a larger pot for the incentive fund, or have they just asked for changes to the structure of the incentive?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I certainly can say with confidence that Screen Nova Scotia and the industry across the board, would love for larger funds, so I think it would be inaccurate to suggest that they want to keep it here. In fairness, that’s what everyone who represents people and organizations and associations in a sector should be doing.
They would like to see the fund larger, however that has not really been the focal point for our discussions, my discussions directly with Screen Nova Scotia. One of the aspects was around, in the beginning with the Nova Scotia Film & Television Production Incentive Fund as we rollover from the tax credit, there were challenges with respect to the administration and the red tape associated with the access of these funds.
That was in the very beginning. I haven’t heard that in my tenure with the Department of Business, so by and large, I think that every one of the 49 of the 139 players that have accessed funds from this account, they’re happy with the process itself so the administration works. NSBI has done a good job with that.
What they have asked for is a larger base rate - the percentage that’s applied immediately - they would like to see that increased. Some of the one-off incentives that we’ve identified around local labour or regional focus, for example, would be rolled into that base rate.
Our position on that is that we would be better served to keep those incentives separate so that there is that enhanced focus on Nova Scotia talent, Nova Scotia workforce, and the various sites that would be identified as potential shooting spots for these productions. However, and just another quick note for the member, a lot of the focus is about the base rate and they’d love to see more funds in the line item; but the other part has focused on infrastructure.
One project that we’re happy to support through Invest Nova Scotia is the Culture Link CIC art centre, which is up in the former World Trade & Convention Centre now. It will be a big piece of not only hard infrastructure that many in this sector can call home and utilize in terms of the productions but also, it is that focus from just competing on price, essentially, to an incentive of competing on facilities.
As the conversation has unfolded around film, one of the challenges when you look at the monster jurisdictions like Ontario, Quebec, and B.C., they’re laden with the specific facilities for productions to take place. I can tell you that Screen Nova Scotia has done an incredible job advocating for what they’re calling a sound stage. I don’t want to give too much by way of the negotiation but they have identified a site that they’ve been using, they certainly would love to make that the full-time home of their sound stage.
That’s their conversations that are ongoing and when we looked at the fund and where we’re at in terms of the total investment with $20 million as a line item, we’re encouraged to look at other ways we could add a competitive advantage by way of investment. It seems as though the infrastructure piece and supporting some of the hard assets would be one way to do that for government. With the industry, those conversations are still taking place.
TIM HOUSTON: I understand the cost of a sound stage is the range of $3 million. Is there something in the budget, is the province supportive of assisting with the sound stage this year? Is that something that the minister can clarify, whether the province is supportive of that or not?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I can say, not without pushing the government too far down the road or putting a private sector-led board in any conflict or challenge, but I love the idea. I think it’s great. I think that the people and the players who are supporting that, they know what they’re doing in the industry. I think that when you’ve got that kind of leadership come up with an initiative that basically is being over and above the incentive to bring these productions here, what kind of facilities we need on the ground.
I think it’s incredible. I’ve been sort of working on some of the details just in terms of updates with Screen Nova Scotia, with Mike Volpe in particular, and Laura, with those discussions, however, this is one that is tailor-made for deliberation by Invest Nova Scotia that will be before that private sector board.
I think that for them there are a number of examples where sound stages became unsustainable in other jurisdictions and they had to be subsidized by the respective provincial government. For us and for Invest Nova Scotia, the big piece is that the business model, the case that’s put together around the stability of that, will certainly come into play big time for the Invest Nova Scotia board.
Again, not to prejudice their process, but that has been in the conversations, without question, but there is nothing in our budget specifically that would identify that. That is one we put our faith in Invest Nova Scotia to look through those details and come back with a recommendation that would be their decision.
TIM HOUSTON: Thank you minister for that. It sounds like it is not in your budget, but it might be in the Invest Nova Scotia budget.
Maybe the minister would make a presentation to advocate on behalf of a sound stage. I think he just did a pretty good job there for it, but I certainly agree with you on the importance of that to the industry in this province.
The industry has asked for the creation of an equity investment program at $2 million a year. I don’t think I saw it in this budget. Is there any intention to move forward with any type of equity investment program?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I thank the member for the question. The short and honest answer is no, there is nothing specific in our budget with respect to that. It’s one that is an ongoing discussion because every time we have the sit down with Screen Nova Scotia, they remind us of the importance of that equity fund.
I should say that we basically transferred some of the responsibility around that type of investment in terms of emerging productions, emerging directors, writers, et cetera, to CCH. They have the fund equivalent of $2 million that they would use for some of those types of investments in terms of getting those who are just getting started to have some kind of financial support, however, quite honestly, it’s not in the budget and it’s not an equity fund. This is just a direct investment that would be more targeted, but it wouldn’t be an equity position. It would just be an investment on behalf of CCH and very much streamlined in terms of emerging productions that could take place here.
TIM HOUSTON: Thank you for the very direct answer. I understand with the fund that there are indigenous or the foreign location service productions. I don’t want to put words in the mouth of the government, but it seems like it is heavily slanted towards encouraging more indigenous productions and that would be at the expense of the foreign shoots.
I just want to make sure I understand the numbers properly. I understand that in 2016-17 there were 39 foreign location service productions in the province; in 2017-18 that decreased down to 12; and, as we sit here for this year, right now there are currently none planned for this season. That would lead me to believe that while the industry is growing and while productions are fighting for space, in this province we are actually losing ground and losing production.
I want to ask the minister - maybe not the numbers, although the numbers would be great - but at least the trend is definitely 39 to 12 to really nothing on the books right now. So first off, if we can confirm that, and second, if we can get some comment. Is that okay? Is that okay, because that is a huge concern to me. I’d like to get the minister’s thoughts on that.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: We have an NSBI representative who’s going to come down to give some clarity, if there is anything specific around the numbers.
There’s no question that the general direction is correct. The foreign service productions have decreased. They still will find their way here. The Mist is one that comes to mind. The Lighthouse with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson that was shot in Yarmouth last year was one that was of significant investment. Really, I think when you look at both of those, there were things that were drawing them to Nova Scotia that were outside of the incentive fund and the financial value of coming to this jurisdiction with The Mist and down in Yarmouth with The Lighthouse. There is a specific reason why they came.
We’re certainly not closed off to the foreign service production option, but I think the member isn’t incorrect when he’s stating that our focus is on the Nova Scotia productions. It’s on the indigenous projects, the personnel, the leadership here who would have that direct tie-in to Nova Scotia.
Looking at how we compete, what large-scale productions take place here, there’s obviously with this particular line item, $20 million is a significant investment. It is along that range and has been consistent for a number of years. The reality is that the way the incentives are based, there will be a focus on the indigenous side of this sector, so there’s no question that that is certainly the direction.
TIM HOUSTON: I think the concern of mine is highlighted in the economic activity of 100-plus down to 85, and I do attribute that to the foreign service locations. These types of shoots can have a cast and crew of more than 100 people and they generate a lot of economic impact. That’s where it’s coming from and I think that’s missing right now. I think we’re losing a lot of economic activity by failing to focus on those types of productions.
I know in this Chamber we talk a lot about the impact of the Yarmouth ferry on Yarmouth, but I know The Lighthouse itself, 3,000 hotel room nights just in the shooting of The Lighthouse. I think those people took the ferry to get here, so I think when we’re looking at the economic impact of different investments on the province, we need to be mindful they come from a lot of places and we have limited resources in this province and we need to make sure that we’re getting the most bang for the buck and that we’re honest about where the returns are coming from and we’re honest about where we can do better. For the film industry right now, there’s an opportunity to do a lot better for this province if we focus on some of those foreign location service productions. They’re very, very significant.
I wonder if the minister can just share some information on his thoughts on the split on indigenous productions versus foreign service and whether its time to regroup and put a focus back on some of the foreign service and make sure we’re attracting productions here. They’re going elsewhere, we might as well get them here, and I think it would really help our economy.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: As a point of clarity, I think that we’ll maybe get some further information from the member. We don’t have any indication those numbers have gone quite from 39 to 12 to zero. I know we have a few on the books for 2018-19 that certainly are foreign service productions, so, even to regroup after through staff to figure that out. I know, without question, there are some that will be accessing the incentive fund that are not indigenous to Nova Scotia.
That is one piece, but I think, with respect to the question itself, we have identified that this was the route we will take. I think that four years, and then next year being the fifth year and the negotiation year for the incentive fund, I think that we will have a significant amount of data, a significant amount of the financial information, and the production information that will indicate in what direction the industry is going.
It is a very dynamic, ever-changing industry and I think that, once again, the content world has changed overnight with respect to what is needed by the online content providers such as the big ones being Netflix, Crave, and others.
I think that probably does change the game and I think that in an industry, and I don’t want to sound ignorant or naïve about the industry, but from my perspective watching this unfold the last couple of years and just looking at the sector in general, it seems like - and I’m sure Mike and Laura would disagree - but a relatively static sort of environment.
Now it seems as though the last couple of years, with the new absolute requirement for quick content and consistent, continual content depending on the success of a show that’s on, a provider, I think that has entirely changed the game. That is still a conversation we are having at this point, but I think that is where we are going.
Again, from a government perspective, we stand behind the need to stick and focus on the indigenous productions. At 49 projects approved under the incentive fund last year and 140, give or take, since the beginning of this fund, I think there is going to be a limitation on how we are going to compete with these foreign service productions; because that is just the reality of the fiscal envelope that we can apply to the sector and the incentive fund.
I think that what we have to focus on and support Screen Nova Scotia in terms of understanding, is what other things we can do, whether it is a hard fiscal infrastructure, whether it is the promotion of specific sites like The Lighthouse in Yarmouth; and, of course, I referenced last week, Frontier, which is a successful Netflix show with some being shot in Louisbourg in Cape Breton, at the Fortress of Louisbourg, I think that there is an ever-changing dynamic there.
We are the first to say that if it just becomes about the size of the incentive fund and the fact that we are going to be focused on foreign service productions, it is going to be difficult to jump those hurdles and compete with the larger jurisdictions that we are certainly competing with, that being Ontario, Quebec, and B.C.
We are always looking to advance other options in terms of how we work within this number to figure out what the best play is. I haven’t heard too many concerns around the $4 million per production cap. I know that we had an individual deal with The Mist to have that production here, but the large number cap hasn’t been one that has come up too often in terms of restricting the ability. It always becomes about other things and resources that particular productions require.
I think there is a limited investment that we can make as a province, and I think that, with respect to ease of access, the focus on Nova Scotia, that’s the best we can do from the incentive fund side.
It’s looking at these other ways around the CCH emerging productions fund, around physical infrastructure through boards like Invest Nova Scotia, to figure out what other ways we can augment, supplement, and make sure that the industry is supported, and they can feel that support.
TIM HOUSTON: Thank you to the minister, Nova Scotia certainly has some of those beautiful landscapes and scenery, and I do think that they will come here; we just have to be competitive with the incentive that we have – competitive with other provinces.
My colleague from Inverness has a question.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Inverness.
ALLAN MACMASTER: Minister, there is something - we don’t have a lot of time left here - but in terms of adventure tourism, a gentleman contacted me about adventure tourism in northern Cape Breton Island and this is something I want to leave with you.
He was attempting to get a study done which would form the basis for the creation of adventure tourism in the northern part of Cape Breton Island. I think he got a little discouraged because he was hoping to get support. He was reaching out to the federal government, municipalities, and I think most organizations were ready to come forth and be supportive of the study, but there was some delay with the province.
So, I wanted to raise it. I do think, and in the correspondence which I share with you I did highlight, you know, I think this is something that has to be driven by entrepreneurs. However, I raise it as something here in Estimates, the question would be: Would you consider taking a look at this for the upcoming year, now that there’s a budget passing for the department? Would you have another look at this request to see if it might be something that you’d be interested in supporting?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I thank the member. I’m not too familiar with that particular name; I just asked the member. So, I’d be happy to look at that for sure and then get a lens on it through Michele and the team at Tourism Nova Scotia.
THE CHAIR: Order. Time has lapsed for the PC caucus. We’ll turn it over to the NDP for an hour.
The honourable member for Halifax Chebucto.
GARY BURRILL: The real bulk of our questioning is going to be directed by our critic in Business who’s tied up at the moment with the Justice Estimates. So, just for a few moments before she assumes the steering wheel of this project, I’d like to ask a couple of questions about the short-term rentals business.
As we have said before in our caucus, we believe that the government’s short-term rental bills introduced this Spring are overall a step in the right direction. But there are still a number of concerns, and how effective and positive these new laws are going to turn out to be is going to depend to a great extent on the regulations. So, I want to ask a couple of questions about that to try to get a sense of the department’s thinking.
First of all, there are questions about the registration requirements that are going to be in place for the short-term rentals. We think about Fairbnb - this organization that advocates for fair rules in this area, rules that protect affordable housing and related interests - they’ve studied practices in other areas and they’ve found that if you make the online platform responsible for enforcement that this is key to having an effective system. So if significant fines are levied against the platform itself for any unregistered listing it allows on its site, that this something that is easy then to enforce. It’s easy for the government to check listings, make sure they’re registered, and then to levy fines against the platforms if there are any failures on this front. That way, profitable platforms like Airbnb can use their pretty able resources to ensure that all hosts are registered before they list them.
So, we proposed, in our discussion of the bill, amendments that would have, we thought, accomplished that. But the government voted against that. I want to ask the minister: Can you explain the thinking in the government’s approach in not supporting amendments that would lead in the direction of that kind of a regulatory regime and, whether perhaps in the future if this principle of platform accountability is something that the government might consider?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I do thank the Leader of the NDP for that question. It is an important one and I certainly had the understanding and respect for their position through that amendments process. The member for Dartmouth South had spoken to me about that.
You know, I don’t disagree with the fact that there are - it’s uncharted waters. I think that at this point there are a lot of things that we don’t know in terms of what the impact is going to be. Part of that is, and I think that for the folks in the Department of Business, certainly for TIANS, and for the private sector who are in tourism accommodations, the data is going to be of critical importance for this.
The Leader referenced the registration system, Madam Chair, that really, for us - it’s interesting when you look at this legislation across the board, the regulations that will follow, you really toggle between what the needs were to support this emerging sector, recognizing its importance for Nova Scotia and our tourism goals, and that need to add thousands of capacity nights in terms of rooms - one of the things that we heard so often was this piece around levelling the playing field.
That really came from the traditional tourism accommodations operators who had spent their blood, sweat, tears, every dollar they had to get to a point where there was a real upturn in the tourism sector, which we’ve experienced the last couple of years here. So, for them to have gone through years of investment, years of red tape, regulation, following all the codes that were identified through the very antiquated Tourist Accommodations Act, or face sanctions; for them, it became about levelling that playing field.
I just want to note that the piece around the registration system itself was very much based on giving those operations, accommodations operators, the ability to be on the same level as Airbnb and the share accommodations platforms. So, no more daunting, ridiculous rules to follow by way of the TAA.
They would have the same, not only the regulatory system and burden, and impact that Airbnb have, but the enormous cost for - basically, the TAA associated the licence fee based on room number so, some paid $90, others paid $1,000. So, I think that when you look at the distinction between that, just the cost alone of registering, that wasn’t a level playing field when there was nothing for Airbnb at the end of the day. The registration system was geared on, sort of, that part of it. Really, it was in respect to the challenges that were faced by the tourism accommodation players who are in the game now.
Again, in terms of the registration and its value, we have to have data and information that supports what exactly it is that’s taking place out there. I think that this question about having a regulatory piece that provides us with the ability to change on the fly, so to speak, or recognize problems and challenges, that is something that we certainly can do. So, that’s not off the table in any extent whatsoever.
By following this data, collecting this information on which Airbnb participants are out there, where they’re at in the province, as the member said, we can cross-list in terms of how busy they are, how much revenue they’re bringing in. There are data implications for that and we’ll continue to follow that through, without question.
It really did start at that level in terms of just having the ability to identify those who weren’t using their primary residence, and what kind of activity they were engaged in. So, I think that that really was the foundation for that particular piece around registration and we didn’t find it necessary at this point to build in regulation. I know it would be a general regulatory piece that would allow this, but to have the ability to sanction or you know, chase down Airbnb or any of these other platform providers, because we just feel as though we’re not there yet. As the conversations take place, as the data becomes cemented, then we can see what the direction is. I think that the municipalities are going to have an important role around regulation, what’s taking place on their doorsteps as well.
So, there are a lot of moving parts around this. I think that the point of that particular amendment isn’t lost on any of us. We just think at this point, this is sufficient enough to move the ball forward. TIANS seems to be relatively okay with it. Those who I’ve spoken to anecdotally who are Airbnb operators are fine with it. So, I think this is the step in the right direction, as the member said, and we’ll continue to monitor and if there are changes necessary, we’ll certainly make them.
GARY BURRILL: The member for Dartmouth South is going to proceed with the questioning for our Party.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I am glad to have the opportunity to ask a few questions, although I can bring back my colleague from Dartmouth North at any point, if the minister would like to answer more questions about film.
I am going to shift a little, just being conscious of time, and start with some questions about Develop Nova Scotia.
So, Develop Nova Scotia as we know, has drastically expanded its mandate in the last year, mostly related to the Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust and the plan to bring rural Internet to thousands of Nova Scotians who need it and want it.
We have registered a concern from the very beginning of this process around who the providers will be that are successful in this bidding process. We know that guarantees have been made before by other governments that they would roll out rural Internet, but that essentially poor contracting became a major reason why those efforts weren’t successful.
We’ve raised these issues with the department; we’ve raised these issues with Develop Nova Scotia, and the response we get is, well, there will be better contracts this time. You know, Opposition members don’t really like to hear, “just trust us” because we kind of don’t; that’s our job. So, I want to follow up on that.
One person who was trying to bid told us that Develop Nova Scotia is using public money to concentrate monopolies. That’s the concern. That’s the view; that we have these big telecom providers and that they are going to be the folks who are successful in these bids because these bids are basically about the bottom line. While we definitely respect the need to be responsible with this money and make it go as far as it can, we also want it to be as effective as it can.
I know that Develop Nova Scotia recently received a long letter from Now Lunenburg County registering this kind of concern, talking about getting local community involved in this situation and community-owned broadband networks and how successful they have been.
I think in that letter – and we were copied on it, so I’ve seen it – they are asking Develop Nova Scotia to really consider community-owned providers as a model for service delivery. I know that the response to them and the response to us, when we raised it, has been that no one is excluded from bidding and that it is really the outcomes that matter.
I think Now Lunenburg County and other providers have done their research and what they are pointing to is that number one, the community options are going to be much more likely to deliver on the objectives because they actually care.
I think, as I’ve said before a few times in this Chamber - and pardon my long preamble, I will get to questions, I promise - we can’t solve the problem with the same thinking that got us there. We are talking about a market failure, but that market failure is still a market failure, so a bidding process is a little weird when nobody really wants to bid on it and that’s why there’s no Internet there, if that makes any sense. That’s why we believe that community-owned infrastructure is really a way forward.
We have examples, the Valley Community Fibre Network, in Kings County - West Hants, Windsor, Wolfville, and Berwick, they have partnered with Acadia University and the NSCC - it’s non-profit and it allows small providers to compete with Eastlink and Bell. And we have other examples which we have discussed.
To get to my questions. The main issue I’ve heard from municipalities and smaller providers that they’d like to partner with is that some of the set-up of the request for qualifications in the bidding process actually excludes them from the jump. In particular, by requiring financial and insurance qualifications for the pre-qualification process, before the service regions have been defined, has blocked small providers in municipalities from that pre-qualification round. Multiple sources have sort of told us that the process was backward. I know a couple did manage to put applications together, but many others didn’t.
I would like to ask the minister: Can he tell me why the pre-qualification was designed in that way, and whether there was actually consultation with those municipalities and those small providers on that process, so that they would have the best advantage to come forward as a successful bidder?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Just trust us. Just kidding. That was a shot back for the film joke from the member for Dartmouth South.
I’d like to welcome Jennifer Angel here. Jennifer is the CEO of Develop Nova Scotia, formerly Waterfront Development. She has been the person who is largely the architect, along with Monique Arsenault, their team developed the board, of course. It’s a heavy process, Madam Chair. It started really, at a place where there was no mechanism or platform or template in Nova Scotia, it really doesn’t exist anywhere.
The good news is the fact that we’re one of the first jurisdictions to have $200 million laid out to invest in broadband; 95 per cent of Nova Scotians is the target and that’s the official target. Really, it’s even higher than that.
There was a lot of work to be done, no question about it. It has taken time because it had to take that time. I remember with the legislation for Develop Nova Scotia, some of the focus was around the fact that it was Waterfront Development and they are sort of downtown Halifax, what do they know about broadband? Those were a couple of things.
We already had a corporation in place, a Crown corporation that had experience in working with communities, dealing with the type of major projects because of the place making some of the infrastructure work that they did, that there would be an affinity there.
I think that with Jennifer, the team she has built around her and the board members who are there, who were there, and who are coming in now certainly speak to the strength and understand the importance of getting this right. I think that’s the theme of the member’s question.
To be crass about it, we really don’t care who gets any of these contracts, they just have to do it right. What that comes to is having the expertise, the understanding, the skill to make the infrastructure investment that is required but also to maintain it and to keep it going, sort of in perpetuity, of course.
I don’t know a whole lot of details and everyone sort of hears dribs and drabs of the previous contracts that were put out there. Certainly the perception is that it wasn’t a smooth process and we didn’t get where we hoped to be, even with those investments prior to our time, since 2013.
I think we have to get this right and we can’t mess it up so Jennifer’s role and Jennifer’s responsibility, obligation, was that we build out a process that would not miss anything. So, whether it be a community-owned co-op, municipal partnership with one of the municipalities, or one of the private sector providers, that we get this right.
I know the member wasn’t insinuating anything personally, so this isn’t sort of a criticism or an attack on her preamble, but I think that I spoke with some of the big players and I don’t think it’s that they don’t care. I think they are concerned about getting this right and no question, the member hit it when she said that a market failure is a market failure, that’s absolutely true.
The importance of this particular process and this investment is, the market failure in a lot of the times with these places that we’re trying to get to in terms of stable broadband access, the capital cost is significant. From a business model perspective, it’s not worth that investment to reach those customers, so that’s where we come in. We help build that out, whether it’s fibre ops, satellite, wireless, we build that out. That’s our investment - that is the market failure - and that’s what we’re responsible to do because that’s the only way we’re going to get broadband to some of these areas. There is no business model that makes that work and that’s where we are.
I think in terms of being a partner and having not only a role to play in terms of their expertise but also with the private sector players that they can have access to some of those markets and like everything else, it will be supply and demand. If people are unhappy, they’ll make decisions accordingly.
I think that with respect to the private sector operators, they are in this for the long haul as well. But having said all that, we just finished the process by way of who meets the obligations and meets the requirements for participating in this process, and to Jennifer’s information, no one has been excluded, there hasn’t been anyone bumped out of the mix.
I think if the member has any clarification on that, I think we would certainly be willing to hear that and understand exactly what happened there. To our information, no one has been ruled out yet, they’re still going through the deliberation process on who is in and who is out, in terms of providing this service. That’s where we are at this point.
I think that again, we’re focused on the outcomes here. We’ve got to get broadband to 95 per cent minimum Nova Scotians and whoever can get us there, that’s who we’ll go with.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I thank the minister for that answer and I think, you know, we will go back and see, because certainly we have been approached by people who have said that they felt blocked from applying. What that technically means, we’ll have to clarify.
Those weren’t conversations I had personally, but one example is NCS Network. They’re a non-dominant provider who have lots of experience providing Internet in Lunenburg, Queens County, Colchester County, all over the province; small, rural networks are their specialty.
Now, they didn’t apply for the pre-qualification because of the way it was designed and because of, they say, the frustrations they had trying to get answers. Now, I want to acknowledge the ramp-up efforts that Develop Nova Scotia has had and all those staff coming on board; I’m not criticizing the work of staff in any way. But it is a large project and, again, we had hoped that there would be an orientation towards those smaller providers because, back to the market failure question, I mean, I have to believe that anyone who gets the contract is going try to fulfill it, but the community providers have skin in the game, right. I mean, these are municipalities. These are non-profits. These are people who live and work in these communities and that’s the point that I was effectively making.
Back to NCS Network, as a small provider, they worked with their bank to try and give them financial insurance and information that the pre-qualification required. But because the actual projects aren’t designed yet, and they don’t know what the municipal and provincial contributions are, they couldn’t give their bank the business plan they required to get the financial backing.
Because they’re small they’re not working with a bunch of working capital, right. They need to get a loan for this, but they can’t get it because they didn’t have enough information. Just for the pre-qualification process, they would have had to buy $11,000 in insurance; now, they say they would have done that if they thought that they had a chance of pre-qualifying, but they didn’t know if they did, given the way it was designed. Our understanding is that this has happened to other small providers as well.
I guess my question for the minister is whether he has any concern that the pre-qualification process has shut out experienced providers and somewhat limited the field?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I guess the short answer is, from our knowledge and experience with this, that hasn’t been the case. I think that, again, the whole focus of this was to ensure that anyone who could compete with any of these individual projects or collective as a group, would be here as partners and potential partners moving forward.
Again, I hope this isn’t divulging too much information or anything sensitive, but the member had mentioned NCS Network. Our understanding is that they are part of a bidding group. They are sort of plugged into a project but, if the member wants to follow up with that one particularly, we’d certainly like to get that information. That’s Jennifer’s understanding and, secondly, Jennifer also pointed out that there’s no minimum requirement in terms of investment. I don’t know what NCS Network would have taken to their banking institution but there are obviously requirements for insurance and things of that nature.
I don’t think it would be prudent to have anyone sort of advance for the next round if they didn’t have something like that in place in terms of insurance for the project. Maybe that’s what it was, that they were looking to secure financing.
I’m not exactly sure, but I do specifically remember that was part of the discussions in crafting the requirements, would that there would be no minimum amount that would exclude anybody from participation. Again, I think that, with the outcome focus, NCS Network sounds like they’ve got an understanding and an appreciation for the importance of this and I certainly don’t discount or deny that the community involvement piece is significant. If I was to name a stakeholder, obviously individuals, but a stakeholder that was the most interested in this, in getting the money secure but also in the process, it would have been the municipality.
I think that any chance that they’re going to have to partner and sort of have a collaboration and be involved in the potential bidding for some of these contracts is significant and it’s important. I think that there would never have been any effort to exclude anyone other than putting formal requirements on the list of qualifications that make sure that if they are successful, they can carry out the function and maintain it as we move forward.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I appreciate the minister’s answer and I’ll endeavour to get more information on that one.
I guess the overall point was because, and you know, this may be a bigger issue, but I guess the perception has been that because there is a lack of enough granular detail about the project, that people - I think what they said is, we would get the insurance, but we didn’t have any sense that we were going to make it through this process because we couldn’t get the capital we needed to pre-qualify financially. So that was a clarification, but I will go back and get more details on that.
I want to ask the minister: Can he tell me how many applications were received and/or qualified? I don’t know if the qualifications have been done yet.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: Obviously, we haven’t made any decisions, Develop Nova Scotia hasn’t made any decisions in terms of the qualification, who is qualified at this point.
In terms of the submissions, her information is that there are 11. That is sort of a moving number that we can certainly clarify, but at this point the number that we have is 11. I can confirm for the member that there is certainly a mix of large and small proponents that are part of that list of 11, so far.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: If the minister can share, are Seaside or North Nova proponents on that list, or are you not divulging that list at this time? If not, when would you be?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I certainly do not have the list, I haven’t seen it, and Jennifer doesn’t have it here. I don’t know if it would be okay to release any specific details even if we did have it, but I don’t; I haven’t seen it.
Certainly, the list of those who did qualify will be released to the public in short order, so as soon as we have it, we will get it back to the member and the House and make it public.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you. I want to ask about service regions. I guess my first question is, my understanding is that the service regions have not been determined. Is that accurate? If they have, can the minister share what they are?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: That is all being designed at this point and Develop Nova Scotia is focused on being in the market by May. So, in very short order we will have a breakdown of how the regional basis is going to work.
At that point we will also know of the proponents who will qualify to bid on that work; all, sort of, in design and being worked on by Develop Nova Scotia and they are certainly under the gun to ensure that they get that completed and out to the public as soon as possible.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, and I look forward to seeing those. Are you able to say whether those will be defined by municipality? I guess there is some concern that municipalities could be split, so I am wondering if there have been efforts so that won’t happen.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: The official answer is that we can’t say that for sure; however, I think that the whole mandate and the focus of this particular aspect was that we identify the technical requirements and what is needed.
When we are looking at a region, our approach to this, by and large, is that we would look at areas or regions as a package and have those that would be relatively, from a technical perspective, attainable with those that might be more challenging and therefore there is a financial implication to those, as well.
Really, the boundaries so to speak, or the areas, will be defined from the technical need perspective. It certainly just wasn’t as definitive as just identifying county lines, municipalities, and things like that. We will continue the design piece of that, but the focus is more on the technical requirement.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, I appreciate your answers. One last question on this bid piece. Our understanding is that there was a requirement in those pre-qualifications for 10 years of service and there was some concern, again, that that would favour Bell Aliant and Eastlink, particularly. Can you comment on that or address that concern?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I can’t specify that it is 10 years, although certainly, again, Jennifer’s articulation of this is spot on. We can’t have an ISP come to the table with technology that’s fantastic on day one and bad by year five; there is sort of a long-term commitment around the upgrading of the technological piece and also just on the consistency and the maintenance of the service. We are going to check that as well.
Ten years actually does sound reasonable that that would be the case, so we think that it could be in that range. We can verify that. It is a relatively long-term sort of commitment that we’re looking for from the ISPs that will participate.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I want to move on to a question about affordability, and this was also a question that I’ve raised directly with Ms. Angel when we met and that we’ve asked in this Chamber.
We’ve been told that the aim is to have comparable pricing across the province. But we know from looking at examples like Kings County, who have a non-profit co-operatively owned network, that they’re able to actually provide significantly lower pricing. We also know that consumer capacity in rural Nova Scotia is different than in the urban areas.
I guess I have two questions. One is, have you thought further about the affordability question, particularly as you move into more deeply rural areas in Nova Scotia where people may have less ability to pay, and whether you have specific targets in terms of affordability, generally?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: The bottom line is that we certainly have thought about that the whole way through and in broad terms, the focus will be around having comparable prices to the urban market. It is staying within that range. We haven’t identified what that plus or minus would be, but it’s got to be in that range. This is a pretty frivolous exercise if it’s not attainable in terms of the cost.
I think that the important thing to note here, and I said this to the member at one of the previous responses, that one of the realities of the capital build and the market failure is that the cost that’s charged per customer is a direct function of the capital that’s required to build it out. In essence, that’s the government and that’s the taxpayer’s contribution to that price and cost control for residents. So, when we’re taking the financial load, the burden, of the capital requirements, that gives these ISPs the reality and the requirement to stay within reason in terms of the pricing.
So, when we get into the contribution agreements and the agreements that come around the service levels, we’re certainly going to have some requirements by way of what that range is going to be. Again, there will be market factors, no doubt about it, but we’re not going to have taxpayers shoulder the load in terms of the capital and then have an unaffordable mechanism and cost structure for those ISPs in particular areas.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I guess the last question for now, and this is around cell coverage. So, I know some of my colleagues in this Chamber have asked about this, particularly those with more rural constituencies that have significant issues with cell coverage.
Obviously, this project and its size and scope does seem to lend itself to also looking to address the issue of cell coverage, which oftentimes can have all the same impacts that the lack of wireless has for rural communities.
Our understanding is that cell coverage basically needs more fibre laid, and that’s one of the ways that this wireless could be extended, it could be fibre, or it could be Wi-Fi. Again, from the research that we’ve done, it seems that community-owned open access fibre would actually make it much more affordable to build those cell towers in rural areas. But my core question is: How do you see this Internet subsidy project interacting with this issue of cell coverage, which I know came up in a lot of the consultations?
GEOFF MACLELLAN: To the member, really good question, important question and there are two ways. The first way is by the investment which will be, I think it’s fair to say, a significant portion of the capital investment will be on the middle mile, the fibre-op, the hard cable. That will certainly drastically increase the market viability of providing the service. So, in that essence, in and of itself, this will provide better access and an opportunity for ISPs to participate and provide additional cell coverage. So, that’s one way.
Secondly, one that I believe she may have asked the question to me last session around this, the Department of Municipal Affairs, the minister has undertaken a cell coverage map discussion and scan. So, as we said, if there are opportunities when we go through this process, and there is a requirement for us to build towers with respect to the broadband coverage, we would be happy to. Obviously, it would make perfect sense that those investments in the towers would directly contribute to increasing the overall cell coverage we have in the province. So, Develop Nova Scotia, and my colleague with Municipal Affairs, the minister, have worked really closely on figuring out how that aligns. Once that map has been completed and that work has been done, it will give us a much better sense as to where those gaps significantly are although, anecdotally, we could probably find out pretty quickly by talking to members of this House; public consultation has indicated that as well.
So, this is our opportunity. If we’re investing in towers, this will be the way to help the cell coverage issue as well. So, through the fibre-op investment and the towers in consultation with that coverage map, we hope to improve, drastically, the cell coverage reality here in the province.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I guess then we can get back to roads, if that happens. There will still be lots of things to ask questions about, but here’s hoping.
I want to move on for a minute to rural jobs. So, we know that since 2013, rural Nova Scotia has lost 9,000 jobs, notwithstanding the rosy job prospects.
Thank you, to Ms. Angel for helping with those questions.
This government likes to talk about the low unemployment rate, but for the most part, some of that unemployment rate is because we’re losing our labour force faster than we’re losing jobs. In response to a question from last year’s Estimates, the minister wrote to me and said the department doesn’t track job creation numbers from department initiatives because the department isn’t responsible for job creation, it’s responsible for business ecology, to attract investment and promote exports.
We hear a lot and heard a lot in the budget about ecologies and sandboxes and incubators and all things that sound just as fit for a science lab as a business ministry, but we’ll take your word for it.
If we’re attracting investment and promoting exports without producing more jobs and better paid jobs, then it sort of begs the question of why we’re doing it. I kind of want to register my disappointment, based on that response, that the department doesn’t track those numbers because it does seem to be a central indicator of success or failure. Are those programs working? When everyone is done playing in the sandbox, are they employed?
I would say that losing 9,000 jobs in rural Nova Scotia suggests that maybe the economic development numbers are not very successful. I mean that may depend on your view, I know there are people out there who just believe that it’s inevitable that everyone will move to HRM in the next 10 years and that’s how our province will go. Certainly, I think I know more people who resist that idea, who live outside the urban core, than who embrace it.
I wonder if the minister could speak to what the department will be doing specifically to target revitalization in rural Nova Scotia.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I thank the member for the question. There are some, I think, differences with respect to some of the labour force indicators. Our data and information we have says that the labour force is actually growing. Of course, the unemployment rate is at 6.2 per cent, its lowest since they began tracking it. I know that certainly there’s an impact on metro and we’re talking about rural, so I certainly again wouldn’t disqualify that.
There are a number of pieces, and I know that the member has heard them, but this is going to be the bulk of the answer, the most ever full-time jobs, population growth. The fact that youth, especially for us in Cape Breton, the fact that there are more youth staying than going is of huge impact for us. The international student impact has been significant in terms of the rural economy and the rural culture society; the universities, the post-secondary education institutions, have certainly built up that strength in terms of cultural connection but also the economic impact of that.
Again, close to me is what we’re doing in terms of the rural economy. I think we are seeing a population growth in and of itself in many rural counties, which is a good sign in municipal areas. I think that’s enormous.
Some of the things obviously we’ve spoken about at great length, our investments in terms of financially but also of course policy-wise around tourism, have impacted the rural economy. I’ve learned so much around the reality of the importance of exports for this province that I really didn’t understand prior to be part of the trade portfolio.
Our exports with respect to wine, of course, but tires, seafood being our number one export; how aquaculture, agriculture, these sectors are going to impact us. It has a significant impact in rural Nova Scotia, Madam Chair, as you can appreciate as well. That is of significant importance for me.
I look at some of the investments, the Innovation Rebate Program through NSBI has had a significant impact on a number of major employers and, unless I’m missing one, I think all of those are located in rural areas. I think that’s a big component of what NSBI has done, in addition to their tremendous support on the export and trade files.
The member just asked a series of questions about broadband which again for rural Nova Scotia - the safety aspect and again she referenced that in terms of cell support and the fact that just from a societal perspective and a quality of life - people should have broadband Internet access, there’s no doubt about it. But the impact it has for an economy is significant as well.
Obviously, it’s no secret that the economy and the private sector enterprises have changed so much for high-growth enterprises; you need the Internet to survive and when you have a good, solid Internet and those supports, you can participate and be located anywhere. So that’s another big part as well.
I just think that the networks of support around innovation and what we’re doing here on the peninsula, of course, but in metro greater, in Yarmouth with Ignite, in Sydney with Momentum Cape Breton and all the innovation districts that are beginning to emerge I think that is having a significant impact.
Again, one that hits close to home for me is the reality of the impact that infrastructure investment will have. I think one of the most significant things, I’ll always carry this with me, in recent times when we are talking about some of the different projects that are taking place in Cape Breton, one of the challenges - I don’t think it will be a challenge or concern - but one of the ones that when you just look at these projects on paper and the magnitude of some of the things that are taking place, having access to the skilled tradespeople who are going to actually fulfill these jobs is something that we have to be sure we have.
When you have an area like Cape Breton, that the bulk of it, the list of projects suggests that we may not have enough skilled tradespeople and we have to work from the labour front with Department of Labour and Advanced Education, the local trade unions and such to make sure that we have the people trained and ready to go when the shovels hit the ground, I think that’s a significant investment.
That’s one that I certainly hold close to me in terms of investment that isn’t business policy related, but it is one that, as a government, we’ve made, and it will certainly have an impact on rural population, rural economy, and our ability to keep people home.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I want to use most of the remainder of my time to ask a few questions about tourism.
To start with, I’ve had a number of conversations recently with a number of different people, in a sort of coincidence, about the seasonal tax break. We know, and this is also, of course, connected to the rural economy, that a key element of our tourism strategy is developing a year-round industry, right? We want to do that. We want to revitalize our communities. We want the restaurants on Main Street to be open all year round, not just when the tourists come.
Currently many of those businesses get a seasonal tax break and they only get it during tourist season. What that sort of does is de facto discourage them from extending that season. The reality is, given the much lower volume, at least right now in the off-season, it would stand to reason that extending that tax break isn’t going to cost anyone very much money; they are not, right now, bringing in a great deal of income. It would allow these businesses to stay open all year or encourage them to stay open all year.
The tourism industry of Nova Scotia has a long-standing proposal to address this by allowing the seasonal businesses to keep that tax break for an interim period, while they transition to a year-round business model. I know that was only for seasonal businesses, but expanding that tax break could, in fact, encourage those seasonal businesses to become year-round businesses.
To me, and to us, and to many of the people I’ve talked to of various stripes and various industries, that proposal makes a lot of sense. I wonder if minister can explain the reluctance to act on that suggestion.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I thank the member for the question. That is a really good point and one that is in our crosshairs.
When the member looks back at the legislation around the Airbnb and the share economy, there is a connection there whereby the residential rate being applied to some tourism accommodation operators will actually give them the ability to not pay commercial tax, therefore making it drastically easier for them to stay open year-round.
Around the assessment and the tax credit associated with that, because we are going to have the consultations and we have a year to have those discussions, it gives us a tremendous opportunity to talk about the seasonality of our tourism sector.
The fact that with Tourism Nova Scotia tie-ins with the stakeholders who are out there, they’ve gone far down the road in terms of how we develop the seasonal tourism sector; the fact that we don’t stay within the lanes we’ve been in traditionally because there is so much to do in what is now the shoulder season. We don’t want to have a shoulder season, so it is important that we do whatever we can.
Tourism and our team will do their part on that side. If there is policy that better reflects what has to happen to promote the year-round sector, then we will certainly be interested in that; it will be part of the discussions for our consultations as we move forward on the Airbnb legislation.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I want to thank the minister for that answer and I am glad to hear that it is in their crosshairs. It certainly does seem like a very reasonable proposal and again, one that given the rationale behind it, isn’t going to cost government a lot of money; it is just going to be an incentive to keep those businesses open year-round.
I want to shift a little bit to work and wages in the tourism industry. There are about 1,000 more jobs in accommodation and food services now than there were in 2013, by our numbers, but the actual total number of hours worked has been stagnant and it’s a little bit lower than in 2013.
So, despite these strong years for tourism, it’s not translating into more work for those key tourism sectors. So, I’m wondering if the department is doing something around actually encouraging work in those sectors and jobs in those sectors and, you know, jobs with good hours and good pay.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I thank the member for the question. First and foremost, this is one that’s absolutely top of mind for TIANS and the industry association players that are concerned about this.
Again, it’s great to have that meteoric rise and the trajectory moving on, but you’ve got to have the people; you’ve got to have the training; the right people and programs in place to train people to work in this sector. It is of critical importance to have the right people with the right experience and right knowledge base to do the best we can in terms of tourism.
Certainly, for us, the attachment program, Graduate to Opportunity, has been successful in bringing youth into the fold; it’s across a number of sectors. Certainly, that is part of it and seeing the uptake of that has had an impact.
Quality improvement around the post-secondary education institutions - any of the tourism marketing programs, the culinary programs that we have - they do impact the ability to provide additional bodies to that labour force which is of critical importance.
The member mentioned the full season reality and that seasonal now limits our ability to grow the tourism sector; absolutely 100 per cent accurate. So, the more effort we have in terms of that and supporting a fuller, round-the-year seasonality to tourism is significant.
Upgrading experiences and making sure that we’re targeting specific travellers, the upgrading of the unique experiences as we’ve said many times around the data. One example would be with Yarmouth ferry travellers is that the yield, the spend, is of critical increase over the traditional tourism visitors that we see. So, what that does is create additional revenue in the sector, which provides more opportunity to have wages, benefits and packages that are attractive to the workforce that potentially could be out there.
Of course, the other aspect of this is that, again back to the Airbnb share economy platform, having this residential rate in place will impact a significant number of participants in the tourism accommodation sector. This will in turn allow them to have savings that will be, as we always see, reinjected into their operations which always has a component of labour to that.
So, I think that when you look at all those things collectively, a lot of our efforts support the idea of increasing the workforce that we have in tourism. It is a significant issue for the industry association and the sectors that are concerned, the stakeholders around the tourism complement. Also, you know, the wage thing is not lost on anyone; I think that by way of the natural market, the more coveted the workforce becomes I think that obviously will have an impact on wages.
We’re not looking at setting anything specific for that obviously and not mandated to do so. It is a question and a concern, and we’ve got to make sure, as we continue to build the tourism foundation here in the province, that we have the right people in that sector to make sure that all visitors, and especially high-yield visitors, come back time and time again.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I know the minister will be disappointed, but I would like to leave him time to close and read his resolution.
I’ll just say that, for what it’s worth, we like the idea of a $15 minimum wage. We think that the department could do some work around wages because although the tourism sector is increasing, and we are seeing some good statistics, we are not seeing anything coming out in terms of wages. Wages have been very stagnant, if not dropping, and that is concerning in terms of getting a good workforce, retaining that workforce, and keeping industry strong. So, I’ll thank the minister for his answers and let him give his closing remarks.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Queens-Shelburne.
KIM MASLAND: As much as we’d love to keep this going tonight, the PC caucus has no further questions.
THE CHAIR: The honourable Minister of Business for closing comments and his resolution.
GEOFF MACLELLAN: I’ll thank the members opposite for their participation tonight and on Friday for Estimates; certainly, they’re important conversations.
The myriad of topics we’ve covered in the four hours here are significant for Nova Scotians; it’s reflective of all of the MLAs in this room because it’s reflective of all Nova Scotians. I think that’s of critical nature to get these things right. I think that when you’re talking about the many aspects of the economy and where we’re going it represents a big part of how we pay the bills as a province. I think that holding government’s feet to the fire and being accountable for the decisions we make, the investments we make, and the policies we craft is of tremendous significance.
It’s an important exercise for me and the fact that we get to come here and answer those questions and be on the record with where we’re going is certainly recognized. I appreciate the Opposition participating in this and pulling me into the Chamber for very significant conversations.
I’d also just like to thank the many staff, my bodyguards, up in the gallery. It’s amazing and I know that all members of the House, Opposition or government, recognize the work of the Public Service and the bureaucracy that make these things move all day, every day. Every question, any question that we have, no matter how complicated, how challenging, it’s the men and women who work in the Department of Business, Trade, Service Nova Scotia for me, but all departments that carry the mail. So, we can’t thank them enough. They believe in what they do.
They could be successful in any aspect of life, in any job that they would pursue, but they come here and work on behalf of Nova Scotians. So, I just want to thank the people who support my departments each and every day. Their work matters and we’re lucky to have them here in this province. So, I would like to thank them for that.
THE CHAIR: Shall Resolution E2 stand?
Resolution E2 stands.
Resolution E37 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $89,113,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Service Nova Scotia, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E45 - Resolved, that the business plans of Tourism Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Innovation Corporation (Innovacorp), Develop Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Business Incorporated, be approved.
THE CHAIR: Shall the resolutions carry?
The resolutions are carried.
We will take a short recess and your staff may leave.
[6:55 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[6:59 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
THE CHAIR: Order. I call the committee back to order. We will now proceed with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
KEITH IRVING: Madam Chair, would you please call the estimates for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Resolution No. E5.
Resolution E5 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $1,429,342,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Education and Early Childhood development, pursuant to the Estimate.
THE CHAIR: The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development for opening comments and introduction of his staff.
HON. ZACH CHURCHILL: Thank you very much, Madam Chair, and thank you for the opportunity to stand here today. I am pleased to speak about our commitment and investments for children, students, and their families in this year’s budget.
Our focus in 2019-20 will build upon our continued commitments in four core areas: to support children and their families in the pre-school age years; to increase and enhance inclusive education supports for students; to improve the classroom conditions that will help support teachers in their work to help our students improve their learning and well-being; and to ensure the future success of children and students in being able to thrive in a strong and prosperous Nova Scotia.
Before I begin, I would like to introduce the folks in the department who are here with me today. We have our Deputy Minister Cathy Montreuil, who has been an incredible addition to the department. We also have the wonderful and marvelous David Potter here, as well, from Financial Services.
In the gallery we also have two great staff people. Pam Menchenton, our Director of Communications, and Donna Macdonald, who basically deals with any issue that we have in the department.
I am really happy to have these staff with me today. They are some of our best and brightest in the Public Service, I believe, and they are helping us achieve great things for students in our department.
If there are any questions we cannot answer today, we can provide the members with information in a timely manner, so we do have staff also watching and listening to the proceedings back in the department who can help us track down any info that we might not be prepared for today.
Budget 2019-20 will focus on the success of our children and students. This year we will invest $31.6 million more than last year, which brings our overall increase to the budget of education since we began government to about 30 per cent. We’ve increased this budget by approximately 30 per cent, which is very significant, considering that we have been in a period of enrolment decline overall. This is the first time we’ve actually seen funding not fall in line with changes to a decreasing enrolment.
That will bring our total estimated budget for this year to almost $1.43 billion dollars, and the 30 per cent increase is about $300 million, I think over $300 million we’ve seen in increased investments since our government has been in office.
We will make these investments in a comprehensive, Early Years system that will ensure that children continue on the path of success when they reach our public education system. We will also make investments in quality education supports, services, and improved conditions for teachers that will create the conditions for future successes of our students. When we invest in the conditions that support success, we invest in the future prosperity of our province.
I’ve had the opportunity over the last year to meet with Nova Scotians who are passionate about the education of our children. I’ve had the opportunity to visit our classrooms, our pre-Primary sites, and our child care centres across the province. It is those visits and those moments that are always a highlight for me as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and as a parent because I can see the quality of care and support our children and students are receiving daily.
This budget will continue to invest in growing and strengthening an Early Years system that supports our children from infanthood into school. The early childhood experiences that children have in the first five years of life have a significant impact on their successes over the course of their lifetime.
In Nova Scotia we believe in a comprehensive approach to early learning and care. The changes we have made will improve affordability, quality, and access to early-learning opportunities in pre-Primary and in the regulated child care sector, as well. More importantly, whether it is pre-Primary or regulated child care, our investments in these areas give families choices that best meet their individual needs.
We will invest more than $110 million this year as we work towards building a comprehensive Early Years system.
We will invest $10.2 million to expand year three of the pre-Primary program to more school communities. We will have an announcement on that very soon. This is in addition to the $24 million we will continue to invest to maintain years one and two of our pre-Primary sites, which have obviously already been implemented.
By September 2019, pre-Primary will receive close to $35 million in funding and provide play-based learning opportunities for thousands of four-year-olds in our province.
Currently there are 185 pre-Primary classes in 145 school communities across the province. I look forward to announcing the next round of pre-Primary locations in the very near future.
Our commitment to pre-Primary becoming a universal program across Nova Scotia is nearing its completion. We will achieve this goal by September 2020. We know this is the right move for children and families in Nova Scotia.
We hear from our early childhood educators and parents comments, feedback and excitement and praise about this program. It is not only parents we’re hearing from but also other family members, like a grandmother who recently told one of our early childhood educators that her granddaughter and her friends are incredibly lucky to be immersed in kindnesses, creativity, and a learning environment that is structured for all the important things when you are only four.
Along with the pre-Primary program, the regulated child care sector will also receive millions of dollars in direct investment this year. A total of $67 million will be invested this year. The province will contribute $55 million, and the remainder will come from our three-year, $35 million Early Learning and Child Care Agreement with the federal government. This investment will support the provision of high-quality, inclusive programs through grants for training, wages, and professional development for early childhood educators and reduce the cost for many families across the province as well.
We have demonstrated time and again how our investments in this area have helped children and their families and strengthened the workforce. We have heard and seen the difference that pre-Primary has made in the lives of Nova Scotians and the difference that increased access to regular child care has made for families with younger children.
I would like to take a moment to highlight some of those achievements. We’re making child care more affordable through investments in the child care subsidy program. The changes to the program over the last several years will result in greater access. More families are now eligible for the program or will receive more subsidy than ever before. We’re also making child care more accessible and affordable for Nova Scotians through grants and opportunities like the Space Conversion Grant, Strategic Growth Initiative and the Program Enhancement Grant. In December 2018, I announced additional funding for child care centres to respond to the needs of families and their communities.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the exceptional work of our early childhood educators. They are the heart and soul of child care in our province, and we will continue to invest in recruitment and retention and training opportunities for early childhood educators. Last year we worked with the Nova Scotia Community College to create 135 new seats in their early childhood education programs. The total investment in this partnership is $1.45 million over three years. We also partnered to launch a new pilot program that will give 20 Mi’kmaw early childhood educators a culturally relevant early childhood education learning program.
Through our provincial-federal agreement and in partnership with the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, more than $360,000 has been invested and partnerships secured with Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey and the Nova Scotia Community College to incorporate Mi’kmaw language, culture, and perspectives as part of their early childhood education training. We will also continue to offer bursaries in 2019-20 for Nova Scotians from Indigenous, African Nova Scotian, Acadian, francophone, and immigrant communities who are interested in becoming early childhood educators.
Our schools welcome more than 120,000 students every day. To ensure our students have quality learning experiences, we have added 926 new teaching positions and 381 non-teaching student support positions since 2014.
Our students come from various backgrounds with various perspectives and with various learning needs. Diversity and inclusion will continue to be priorities for our department this year. In her 2017 report, Dr. Avis Glaze recommended that there be a stronger voice for Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotians at the senior levels of our department.
To support this recommendation, we have added and filled two new positions. Carola Knockwood is our new Executive Director of Mi’kmaq Services, and she brings a wealth of experience from her previous role working at Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey coordinating, delivering, and evaluating literacy programs and provisions of support for science inclusivity in schools. Her work in education is guided by the Mi’kmaw ways of knowing and being and what the Mi’kmaq call two-eyed seeing. Marlene Ruck Simmonds is our new Executive Director of the African Canadian Services Branch. Marlene’s experience in teaching and educational leadership at the school, regional, and departmental level makes her the ideal candidate to ensure the education system is equitable, culturally responsive, and a safe learning environment for all children and youth.
Our inclusive work and partnerships include partnering with the Youth Project, for example, to create safe, inclusive and welcoming school environments for LGBTQ2+ students in Nova Scotia. A three-year $750,000 investment announced in early March will help the Youth Project to deliver programs, training and workshops for youth, teachers, and staff.
We have also heard from parents who want help for their children and from teachers who want supports to manage complex classrooms. This year we have invested an additional $15 million for the continued implementation of the recommendations highlighted in the Commission on Inclusive Education’s report Students First. This is in addition to the $15 million invested last year to hire child and youth care practitioners, autism teacher specialists, program planning specialists, speech language pathologists, and other supports. In total, we have hired 191 new inclusive education staff. We are investing in inclusive education professional development opportunities for educators as well. The changes and investments we are making in this area will help us raise the bar and close the achievement gap for our students. This we are certain of, Madam Chair.
We will continue to work with our Regional Centres for Education and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial to ensure this investment is made in an impactful way for the most benefits possible to our students. A new allocation model will shift the distribution of funds away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a model that balances enrolment, targets supports, and ensures more help is directed to support closing the gap for students not yet experiencing the success that they are capable of reaching.
We are already beginning to hear the success that our investments are having. In the Annapolis Valley, for example, our new programming planning specialists work with staff and students to help implement and adjust the student’s individual plan. Susan Moore is one of the new program planning specialists, and she has seen the difference her work makes. Earlier in the year, she had a student with complex behavioural needs who spent most days in the resource room. Through focus on inclusion and collaboration with teachers and other school staff, this student now spends most of the day in the classroom, participating and learning alongside peers. This year alone, Susan has supported 43 students in 26 schools in the region.
Travis Sampson is one of the new child and youth care practitioners we introduced last year, based in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education. Travis works with students who are struggling in a classroom setting with negative impacts on their learning and the learning of other students. Through focused activities that build on co-operative competition, Travis was able to motivate these students to work together to solve a problem. The skills Travis helped these students develop carry over to the classroom where they can now contribute in a more meaningful and productive way. In Travis’s words, a big part of youth care is about building relationships. A lot of kids are struggling in school because they don’t feel connected to somebody in the school. Sometimes that connection can be all they need to get them on the path to success.
I want to thank Travis, Susan, and their colleagues for helping us do a better job for our students in Nova Scotia.
There are other examples as well from around the province. In the South Shore, the Middle Level Connect Centre at Hebbville Academy is a new alternative education program that engages and teaches students in ways that meet their unique needs. With a strong focus on individualized programming for each student, the program helps students to learn the skills they need in a safe, supportive setting at their own pace. One 13-year-old student was having such a difficult time attending school that his anxiety stopped him from going. Working with the family, transportation was arranged so the student could attend the centre. Now he is attending the program every day and is transitioning back to the previous school to take some classes there.
There are many, many more stories that highlight the success our students are achieving with help from these new supports. This year, we will also invest in two programs that, by September 2019, will be completely rolled out province-wide. Reading Recovery is a research-proven program that quickly closes reading gaps for Grade 1 students. This was a program that was cut under a previous government, and we’re really excited to have this program rolled back into our system. It provides individually designed and one-on-one lessons, helping most students read at grade level within the first 20 weeks of the program. We will invest $1.4 million in the Reading Recovery program this year to make it available to all students across the province, getting this program available for 100 per cent of our students who require it. This will bring our total annual investment in this program to $12 million.
We will also invest $1 million to complete the rollout of the SchoolsPlus program for September 2019, so every student has a place they can turn to access resources and support. SchoolsPlus brings a range of services together, including mental health services, where students and families can easily access them. When fully implemented, SchoolsPlus will be in 372 schools, through 43 hub sites, in every county across the province. There will be 33 facilitators, 54 mental health clinicians and 66 community outreach workers who will serve Nova Scotia’s more than 120,000 students.
SchoolsPlus isn’t just there when class is in. Sharon Steeves is the SchoolsPlus lead in Halifax Regional, and she tells us that their child and youth care practitioners are full-year staff. Steeves says they are here during March Break and during holidays to cover the times when students’ lives continue and classes are concluded.
In the summer of 2019, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education will run free transitional camps for students. These camps will support students who are transitioning from elementary to junior high and from junior high to high school. They will help to reduce anxiety for students who have showcased behavioural or relational issues in their current school year. This helps them prepare for the upcoming change. It also helps staff to get to know these students better for when they start at their new school in September.
This year, we will expand experiential-based learning programs and opportunities for students by investing an initial $2 million to launch the Technology Advantage Program pilot. The program will support up to 80 students who, over the six-year program, will acquire the skills they need to step into careers in Nova Scotia’s growing technology sector. This program is innovative, unique, and designed to fit students that will help them to succeed in their careers. Inspired by IBM’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School program, known as P-TECH, our made-in-Nova-Scotia approach to this program will include a tuition-free, two-year diploma program from Nova Scotia Community College, positioning the students for success in Nova Scotia’s workforce.
As we look forward to the year ahead and the important investments we will make, student success is at the core of every single decision that we make in the department and as a government. Whether it’s in a classroom or in a child care setting, whether it’s supports for families or our regulated child care centres, our decisions and our actions will be focused on the success of Nova Scotian students and children.
The future is ours and it rests in their hands, which is why we’re doing this, Madam Chairman. That’s not to say our work is done. We know there is still a lot more work to do, but in five years, I think we have been able to start to turn the tide around on our education system, make the necessary governance changes that have been long overdue, invest in the areas that teachers have been telling us they need investments in, and ensure we have an early learning program that’s going to help give our kids a better start and better chance of success in school and beyond.
With those few words, I will take my seat and accept questions from the members opposite.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Queens-Shelburne.
KIM MASLAND: I thank the minister and his staff for being here tonight so we have the opportunity to ask some questions. My first question is concerning SchoolsPlus. I must say it was really nice to see further investment put into SchoolsPlus once again. The collaboration that’s in that program is absolutely amazing. We’re hearing from students and teachers how successful the program is, so it’s nice to see further investment.
The 2016-17 budget invested $500,000 for three SchoolsPlus hub sites and expansion of CSAP services. Now we’re seeing a further investment of $1 million to complete the SchoolsPlus expansion province-wide by September. With only a $1 million investment, it seems like there aren’t many sites left. My question is: Can the minister please advise how many locations are still needed to ensure we have full implementation across the province?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Once we reach the 2019-20 year, we will be at 43 hub sites total, and they’ll provide 100 per cent coverage in Nova Scotia.
KIM MASLAND: I’m wondering if the minister could clarify what a hub site is.
ZACH CHURCHILL: The hub site is the school where the staff are located, and from that school, they service the wider school community or family of schools. Working within our budget, we have to have these folks located in one area, but they can reach out and ensure that many more students in their collection zone are covered.
KIM MASLAND: Moving on to inclusive education, last year the $15 million investment into inclusive education focused a lot on staffing. Is the same expected this year with the further $15 million? Is staffing where that money will be focused?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The majority of funding from last year’s announcement did go into new full-time non-teaching positions. This is how last year’s budget was allocated: 100 new student and classroom supports, which included 60 educational assistants and 40 child and youth care practitioners; 70 specialist teachers, which included autism specialists, behaviour support teachers, and learning centre teachers; 11 parent navigators; four student health partnership nurses; and six new school psychologists and speech language pathologists.
That story is actually incredible. Just adding those new six FTEs in the system has allowed us to reach close to 700 more students with those services. That’s the impact that some of these FTEs are having.
Beyond those FTEs, there are also investments in some really important areas that I do want to highlight for the member, because it wasn’t all for full-time positions. There are eight alternative education programs, so for those students who are not able to achieve their full potential in a normal classroom setting, we have alternative learning centres that are proving to be very beneficial for a certain cohort of students. We have extended that program by eight.
We have two new Achieve programs, a nursing services operation fund, and applied behaviour analysis training. Professional development is also really important for the implementation of inclusion.
When the Commission on Inclusive Education went into the field and sought feedback from our workforce, two-thirds of our teachers told us that they didn’t feel adequately prepared to meet the complex challenges of the classroom. We also have a really heavy focus on professional development.
There is money for professional learning. There is also money for assistive technology, money to help increase the psychology and speech language assessments, money for workforce development, and money for skills expansion, so there is also money that is used in a really helpful way to help train staff and extend programs.
We have not announced how the $15 million for this round of inclusion is going to be spent. We are ironing out the final details of that now. However, I can tell the member that there will be a focus on new positions and new bodies in the system, because we know that they are needed.
KIM MASLAND: Thank you, Madam Chair. It’s great to hear that new bodies will be put into the system, because they are needed.
Some of the things that I’ve been hearing from parents and staff are that some of the staff who were hired last year were not adequately trained to handle students who have advanced behavioural needs, and they had to seek additional training.
My question to the minister is: Have lessons have been learned from that, and what will the hiring approach be with these new bodies that we speak of tonight? Will there be a change to make sure that that advanced behavioural training is included?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you for the questions. We do have a host of new support positions that are in the system now.
Child and youth care practitioners, as an example, have never been in the system before, nor have parent navigators. Of course, in year one of implementing new positions and bringing new professionals into the system, you do require a learning curve.
We are taking the information feedback from the sector this year and making sure that we are able to enhance these supports heading into year two.
KIM MASLAND: We know the inclusion rollout is a five-year rollout, and my question is: We’ve seen $50 million last year and $50 million this year. Will the investment continue to be the same, and what is the feedback that you’re hearing from parents? Has the department consulted with parents to make sure that they’re happy with how the investment is rolling out?
ZACH CHURCHILL: This is year two of a five-year rollout of the inclusion report. The figure that the commission had estimated was around $80 million over five years, so the financial rollout is in line with what the recommendation was. If you look at the history of our government in education, we have increased funding to education every single year that we’ve been in government, and in really important ways that we know will be beneficial to our students, from curriculum enhancements and coding to all the inclusion supports and new programming that we do have available. That is a pattern that I think the member could anticipate will continue.
The feedback has been extremely positive overall. I met recently with the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The feedback on the inclusive education supports has been very good. We’re targeting these investments in areas where we knew teachers need the support - so behavioural autism, helping students deal with emotional and behavioural issues, taking that pressure off the classroom teacher. These have been going into areas that we know the sector has been asking for and that the sector needs and that our students need as well.
I mean, that’s not to say everybody’s satisfied, because this is year one of a five-year rollout, but the feedback thus far has been good. We’ve also heard feedback that is telling us we don’t have enough yet, but I think as a sector experiences another infusion of new investment and new people, they will continue to see the benefits of that.
We’re already hearing back from Primary teachers on the impact that pre-Primary has had for the first cohort of four-year-olds who are entering the system. That is really exciting. We’re hearing already that pre-Primary students are demonstrating better self-regulation abilities, better social and emotional abilities, and increased ability to focus and learn. In the first cohort of the pre-Primary students, we’re actually starting to see some of the feedback that we were anticipating. That’s really, really encouraging to me, and exciting. That’s not to say that the work is done. We have a lot more work to do, and we know that, but I think we’re off to a really, really good start.
KIM MASLAND: In the investments last year, two new sites for the Achieve program were opened up at two NSCC campuses. Do the investments this year include widening that program?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I appreciate the member’s excitement to get this information. I don’t want to get ahead of our own announcement on this, but we are in the process of finalizing where these investments are going to go. It is based on feedback that we’re receiving from our professionals in the sector and our evaluation of how year one of the inclusion rollout has happened, but I do anticipate that there will be welcome news and we’ll have more to say on that in the not-too-distant future.
KIM MASLAND: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and I thank the minister for that response. I am excited, anticipating that, because I know it’s a really good program.
Moving on to pre-Primary, pre-Primary is needed in 118 schools before September 2020 to meet the implementation deadline. When pre-Primary is added to a school, how does that impact the budget of the individual school? Is it a separate fund or does it come from their school budget?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There’s no impact to a school budget with the additional pre-Primary class or classes. It does impact space, of course. Classroom space is a key criterion we look at before we decide on pre-Primary locations, but it does not impact the budget of the school. It is funded through the budget of the pre-Primary program itself.
KIM MASLAND: I’ll just take that a step further. Schools that needed upgrades or repairs done to accommodate pre-Primary, where did that come from? Did that come from the school’s capital budget?
ZACH CHURCHILL: It is not funded through a school budget. It is funded through the province. We do have lines in our budget for capital improvements, maintenance, and new capital builds, so that is where the member would find those dollars allocated.
KIM MASLAND: There have been rumours that some of the sites for pre-Primary in the next announcement are going to be at high schools. Naturally, this is concerning for parents who don’t want their four-year-olds in school with 18-year-olds.
I would like to ask the minister: Can he confirm that pre-Primary will be maintained at only elementary school sites?
ZACH CHURCHILL: No. We do have pre-Primary locations right now in, I believe, junior high and in some high school locations. They are separate locations and they have separate recess and lunchtimes, and so far, the feedback has not been anything but positive on those sites that I’ve been made aware of.
Student safety is obviously paramount, and we trust our professionals to take care of the safety of our kids in these settings. I know that there is an intuitive sort of concern about this, just because of the age difference, but I don’t believe that is a concern that should prohibit us from putting these programs in communities where they are needed.
Space is an issue with the delivery of this program in many communities, but not all communities. We do have to utilize the space that we have available. Our number one priority here is to get more four-year-olds into this program, particularly for those kids who might not have all the supports they need at home, who might not have the learning base as they enter our P to 12 system. We know this is really important for them, so we are going to utilize the space that is available. We are going to do it in a way that is safe for our students and make sure that we are using good, high-quality spaces to deliver this program.
KIM MASLAND: Has any of the money allotted been earmarked to allow transport on the school bus or for expanding the after-school pilot outside of the eight current sites?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We do not have funding or capacity for busing at the present moment. Our focus is on getting the full implementation, and then we can start looking at potential ways to improve the program or to respond to concerns in communities.
The number one issue that has been brought to our attention from parents isn’t on the transportation itself, but on the before- and after-school component of pre-Primary.
We are running 10 pilot sites right now across the province, working with the regulated child care sector to deliver before- and after-school programming for our pre-Primary kids. We look forward to receiving the data from that. That will help inform how we approach before- and after-school heading into the future.
We did have some early-learning sites that we rolled into the pre-Primary program, some of which have already been delivering after-school or before-school programming. We are using the data from those programs as well to help inform how we approach this.
KIM MASLAND: The immigration stream to attract ECEs seems to be achieving only moderate success. We know the demand for ECEs. While 330 were invited to apply, only 187 received nominations.
Are there any other plans to fill the ECE staffing shortages, or is the department simply hoping that the immigration stream picks up?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Not at all. We are creating 500 new jobs in the province in this space. That’s 500 new positions for early childhood educators, with competitive wages, wages that are now at or above the national average. In our programs, there are also benefits involved with that, and I think there are many private and not-for-profit regular child care centres there are providing it as well.
Obviously when you are creating this much new space in a sector, this many new spaces for children, and creating this many new jobs, that’s going to create some labour-market pressures, so we’re approaching that through several key ways, immigration is one. As I mentioned in my opening comments, we’ve also expanded the training opportunities. There are 135 new seats that are funded at the NSCC. We created new bursaries for Mi'kmaq and African Nova Scotian and Acadian francophone individuals to get into the system as well because they are underrepresented in the early childhood education sector.
We’re also recruiting inside the province and outside the province. We actually have more people who are trained as early childhood educators in Nova Scotia than we need. Because of a history of non-competitive wages and lack of competitive opportunities, we’ve seen a lot of those folks pursue careers elsewhere. We’re trying to get some of those folks back now that there are all these new opportunities, if they do want to get back into this meaningful career work.
I think if you look at our success to date in terms of hiring, filling positions with minimal impact to the regular child care sector, we’re running the regular child care sector at the same time we’re growing pre-Primary. We’ve had some success but, of course, there are going to continue to be labour-market challenges. We’ll keep working with recruitment training, immigration, to make sure that we’re filling that labour-market need that we’re creating in the province.
KIM MASLAND: I’m going to move on to talking about the Glaze report. Now that it has been a year since the implementation of the Glaze report, the governance structure of education should be set. Where school boards used to have their budgets approved, what is the budgeting process for each education centre now in the new system?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The budgeting process, the boards used to have to vote on their own budgets that were funded by the department. Now those budgets are approved at the department level as a result of this. We’re not looking at having nine independent budgets approved. We’re looking at the budget being approved by the department and the funding flowing into our regions in a way that’s consistent with our policy direction and focuses. That was not something we could achieve while there was a different, convoluted governance structure in place.
The budgetary process is much easier now, it’s much more streamlined. It allows the department to ensure the dollars are getting to the students in a way they are intended to. I believe over time we will see this result in positive improvements for student achievement and well-being in the province.
KIM MASLAND: I apologize to the minister, I’m going to go back to pre-Primary just for one question that I missed. My apologies. Pre-Primary educators recently received a letter from the Department of Justice informing them of a grievance filed by the NSTU and as a result that they may lose their jobs. This grievance involved NSTU claiming that Bachelor of Education-qualified teachers must be incorporated in the pre-Primary program, along with ECEs because it’s NSTU bargaining position. The government said they oppose this grievance but I’m wondering what actions are they taking specifically to protect the ECEs who are in pre-Primary now?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Just to be specific, the grievance actually said Bachelor of Education holders should be providing the pre-Primary program instead of early childhood educators, that’s what the grievance is. So, we as a government, take a firm stance against that grievance. This is not an academic learning environment for these kids; this is a play-based learning environment. We know, based on the literature, based on the programs that ECEs are given in terms of training, that they are best positioned to deliver a play-based learning environment and to help us achieve our goals of giving these kids the best start possible.
We as a government stand firmly behind our early childhood educators and we will protect the integrity of this program, recognizing Bachelor of Education holders are not trained in early childhood education, only early childhood educators are. We believe in the training programs at the NSCC and the other post-secondary institutions in this province. We will make sure that we uphold the integrity of those programs and the integrity of the pre-Primary program as we continue to deliver it.
KIM MASLAND: Now that the move has been made to a multi-year capital plan, what is the process for schools in need of urgent repairs or renovations? Is there any way to expedite the plan, or do they have to wait until the next cycle?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There are two main capital streams. There is the multi-year capital plan, which is our five-year capital plan. That includes new builds and major renovations, I think, over $0.5 million if I’m not mistaken? Okay, over $150,000; I was mistaken.
Those major projects are encapsulated in the rolling five-year capital plan. However, there are also maintenance requests that can come in through the department. That process hasn’t changed much. The regions provide their maintenance priorities and identify them in relation to their urgency and then the government responds in the best way we can in relation to our budget.
KIM MASLAND: I promised the folks back home I would ask this question. The staff at Liverpool Regional High School have been dealing with a leaking roof now for many, many months. There is mould in the school, there are puddles on the floor, the gym floor is being destroyed, and students are slipping in the water. Is there some sort of contingency plan that would allow them to get through? I guess it would be the maintenance report request they would have to file that through. Is there a limit on that fund that they would apply for?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We’re actually in the process now of compiling all the requests that come in from the regions for our next phase of all our alterations and improvement programs. So, there will be, I think, an announcement coming out. I won’t give a specific time on that, but we’re in the process of collecting that right now. As soon as we get our budget approved, we’ll be able to make an announcement on that, but obviously repairs that are deemed urgent get a higher prioritization on the list.
KIM MASLAND: The 2018-19 business plan for the department shows that the high school graduation rate has increased every year since 2009, with a 92.3 per cent graduation rate in 2016-17. This would be a great statistic if our literacy and numeracy rates in the province weren’t so low. Staff at the Dartmouth Learning Network have said there is a developing trend in people under 25 registering to get their GEDs, who do not even know how to do their multiplication tables.
Does the department intend to continue focusing on increasing the graduation rate or will they accept a reduction in the graduation rate as a result of more thorough programming?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I mean, we need to give credit to the previous minister who put a lot of focus on literacy and numeracy and our curriculum focus and programming focus. We’re also bringing in Reading Recovery again, which was absent from the system for too long. We are starting to see improvements in literacy. Our numbers in math are still a bit stagnant or consistent. I’m happy all the literacy supports that the previous minister has put in place are starting to achieve some of our desired goal, but we still have more work to do on this front, without question.
KIM MASLAND: Speaking of the Reading Recovery, how many schools right now are without the Reading Recovery program?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There are only 10 schools right now that are not receiving coverage for Reading Recovery. They will be covered come September 2019.
KIM MASLAND: I’d like to talk a little bit about the EXCEL after-school programs. If the minister could advise, what is the daily cost of the EXCEL program?
ZACH CHURCHILL: As I understand that, that’s a cost-recovery program, so parents are paying for the service and that’s what funds that program for their kids.
KIM MASLAND: I’ve been hearing from teachers about the sad state of literacy in our province. Thirty per cent of Grade 3 students are not meeting benchmark and one in five students have dyslexia, so the problem would appear to come from, possibly, instruction.
Nova Scotia uses a whole language or mixed approach, but literacy research shows that an approach that utilizes multi-sensory, systematic, phonics-based instruction works best. Are there any plans to update the province’s approach to literacy to raise literacy rates in the province?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We are in the process of continual evaluation and upgrading of our literacy programming. We know that to be successful, we need to tackle sensory phonics and a number of other areas to make sure we’re doing what we need to do here.
The good news is we are seeing improvements. The trend is moving in the right direction, but as with any of our curricula or programming, we need to continually evaluate it and improve it to make sure that we’re adapting to meet the ever-changing needs of our students.
KIM MASLAND: I want to talk a little bit about busing; $1.9 million was invested for 37 new buses for HRCE. Does the department, based on the feedback they’re getting, anticipate this number going up?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We’ve just completed our public consult on busing. That was a province-wide consult; we had over 9,000 participants. We’ve also engaged our SACs and other stakeholders including the Provincial Advisory Council on Education, as well as the unions that represent our bus drivers.
We’ve learned that we do have some very specific issues here in HRM that are very different from the experience elsewhere in rural Nova Scotia or in even other urban centres in the province. We do need to come up with some policy solutions to address these specific issues. We’re in the process of reviewing all the information that has come in and we’ll be evaluating our policy and operational options imminently and have some changes in place for next Fall.
KIM MASLAND: When the transition was originally made from school boards to Centres for Education, the existing superintendents became executive directors. Now that we’ve seen multiple staffing changes, shuffles, and resignations, what is the process that the department has for hiring an executive director?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We have just recently gone through that hiring process. Obviously, it’s moved from a local board-based decision where they would each hire a superintendent who would report directly to the board. We are integrating a system so that it’s more cohesive and responsive. As we’ve mentioned in this House, that was a result of feedback from three independent reports that indicated that the governance structure was creating some issues in relation to student achievement and well-being and policy and operational and programming implementation.
For this hiring process, we did go broad. We opened it up Canada-wide and sought applicants from across this country. Our deputy chaired a hiring committee that involved other deputies as well. They went through a process that involved short-listing candidates based on their resumes and references and letters to interviews that I believe were presentation-based, where the candidates had to develop a presentation and answer questions of the hiring committee.
That concluded, and we’ve hired three individuals. Their resumés speak for themselves. They’re really quality people who have experience here in Nova Scotia, and we know that their leadership will be to the benefit of their region. They’re Chris Boulter in Tri-county, Paul Landry in the Strait, and Dave Jones in the Annapolis Valley - three outstanding individuals who bring a lot to the table.
KIM MASLAND: The pilot attendance program is scheduled to end next year. We’re hearing from local schools that some workers are responsible for up to five schools, and they’re feeling like they don’t have enough manpower to do the job and what needs to be done. Has the department measured the success of this program, and is there any indication that we’ll be looking at this program going forward?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions is extending that pilot. They’re also responsible for evaluating it. We’ve just conducted an analysis of the attendance policy, as well.
I should add that we’re actually seeing improvements in attendance across the province, mostly, which is really exciting. You always love when you implement a policy, you have a budget to support the implementation, and you actually start seeing the results that you’re looking for. Those are really exciting moments for us in Education and Early Childhood Development.
KIM MASLAND: I want to talk a little bit about PACE. Have any of the recommendations from PACE been implemented, and if so, what is the actual process for those to be implemented?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The first recommendation PACE has made is that any recommendations coming into the department have impact measures, which would mandate us to evaluate what the impacts would be before implementation. That’s their first recommendation, and it’s one that we’ve accepted.
KIM MASLAND: Where would the budget come from to implement a PACE recommendation?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We go through a budgeting process every year. That entails developing a budget based on our priorities in the department. The process involves going through Treasury Board and making sure that department priorities are aligned with government priorities and making sure that there is funding to invest in our projects.
We have been lucky to date that each year we’ve gone through that since 2014, we’ve had increases in the education budget. Those investments have gone into really important areas like non-teaching supports and hiring more teachers - 1,300 in total in both of those categories - pre-Primary, and also the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions priority areas, which included implementing a class cap from Grades 6 to 12, where we had previously implemented one from Grades P to 6, and hiring support teachers for high school and to help implement the attendance policy.
We have seen some major investments over the years. Treasury has been very gracious in ensuring that we do have dollars to invest in our priority areas.
The first recommendation that came forward from PACE does not impact budget. It impacts how we look at recommendations. If there are any recommendations that come forward from PACE that do impact the budget, as happened with the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, then they get evaluated based on the priority areas that we have as a government and based on assessing what the financial capacity is.
KIM MASLAND: We are hearing from many of our educators about the substitute shortage. It is a very serious concern in our schools. I’m wondering if the minister can give me some indication of what his department is doing to try to address these ongoing sub shortages?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There is indeed a substitute pressure in Nova Scotia. It is a direct result of the hires that we’ve had. We’ve hired basically the entire substitute pool into permanent employment in the department. We have hired close to 1,000 teachers, plus the close to 400 non-teaching supports, so that has obviously created sub pressure.
We are dealing with that in a number of key ways. We have worked with the union to allow retired teachers more days that they are able to sub without it impacting their pension. We have worked with the union in the majority of our regions to allow degree-holding subject matter experts who are non-B.Ed. holders to come in and provide subbing. For example, someone who is a musician can come in and help if they are approved through the hiring in the region to sub in music class. That would be an example.
We are obviously recruiting in other jurisdictions. Ontario is experiencing the very opposite phenomenon happening here. Where we are increasing investment and hiring more teachers, there are major budgetary cuts coming in Ontario and teaching positions that are being impacted.
We are in the field right now marketing to Ontario and trying to encourage those folks to look at Nova Scotia as a great jurisdiction to come where there are new jobs opening up every year. We are also allowing B.Ed. grads to sub.
Right now those are the main areas of focus for us to tackle this issue.
KIM MASLAND: Thank you, Madam Chair. I am going to pass my last bit of time to the honourable member for Argyle-Barrington.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Argyle-Barrington.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Argyle-Barrington.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Si possible, j’aimerais poser quelques questions en français comme porte-parole des Affaires acadiennes quand ça vient à des services et programmes en français, si c’est bien. Donc, je poserai la question au ministre, s’il est confortable de faire une discussion. Il n’a pas besoin de répondre en français, mais au moins je peux poser les questions en français.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Mais, bien sûr, je vais essayer, et si je ne comprends pas la question ou je ne peux pas répondre en français, je sais que le membre est okay avec moi parler en anglais. Si je ne comprends pas la questions parce que il y a le français standard et le français de Pubnico aussi qu’on a besoin de balancer (Rire) Si j’ai un problème avec compréhension, je vais te laisser savoir.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Merci beaucoup. Oui, l’accent de Pubnico, des fois, ça me gêne un petit peu. Je vais essayer mon mieux d’utiliser mon français assez standard. Mais je dis que l’accent de Yarmouth me donne un peu de trouble aussi.
Quand ça vient à des services en français, donc Page 7,10, ça parle des programmes et services, et je vois une dépense de $10,187 millions. Je veux te poser la question de qu’est-ce qui sont les programmes qu’on voit là. Je ne pense pas que ça inclut tous les argents qu’on donne au CSAP. Donc, c’est seulement les services.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Je pense peut-être que quelques mots en anglais vont nous aider ici parce que le député, monsieur Potter, ne parle pas français. Alors s’il y a du travail qu’il a besoin de faire pour moi pour répondre, ça va aider avec notre habileté pour répondre. S’il te plait, est-ce que tu peux donner quelques mots en anglais pour cette question?
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Under French Program and Services on Page 7.10, it talks about a total budget estimate of $10.187 million. I was just wondering if that includes the CSAP numbers. If it doesn’t, where do we find that? What does that buy for us, that $10 million that’s listed under French Program and Services?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There are two funding envelopes that CSAP gets funded through. One is on Page 7.11. That’s the operational budget of the CSAP, which is funded through the department. The budget line on Page 7.10 that the member referenced is flow-through money that comes from the federal government, which also supplements the budget of the CSAP. That’s the difference there.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Donc, à la Page 7.11 on parle de P-12 Base Funding - Operating Grants. We see an expenditure of $944 million there. What would the CSAP amount be? Quel sera le montant pour le CSAP-même?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The $944,106 that member referenced is the overall operating grant. That includes everybody - the regions and the CSAP. The budget for the CSAP is not finalized until June, when they vote on it. That budget is based on the assessment of their enrolment, their needs, staffing, and operations at that time. We won’t know what their final budget is until they vote on it in June.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Je comprends ça. I can understand that a little bit. If I remember correctly, when we used to have independent school boards, there might have been a different way to account for that. You don’t want to give them their budget right off the bat, but at the same time we have to know.
The CSAP is set up differently than the school boards used to be set up because of their attachment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the responsibilities held thereunder. From an accounting standpoint, I think it would be nice to see a little more of a breakout of what those amounts are, understanding though there is a still a negotiation to be done with them once the provincial budget is done. What was the total expenditure last year?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The budgets of the regions and the CSAP aren’t finalized until they collect all the data they need to collect, primarily from an enrolment perspective. That happens every year in June. I believe that’s consistent even with the previous process when the boards were in place. The budget for the CSAP last year was approximately $76 million.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: So, $76 million. Quelle sera l’inscription de CSAP? How many students do we have in the CSAP, and where do we see the float this year? Are there more kids or less kids in?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The early numbers coming in on enrolment are estimating that there would be an increase of 150 students.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Donc, comparé aux autres - je ne sais que l’appeler en anglais. The Regional Education Centres - I don’t even know what the French version of that is. Compared to, let’s say, the Yarmouth Tri-County or more rural education centres, what are we seeing there? If there is an increase in the CSAP, are we seeing a higher or lower number in the other systems?
ZACH CHURCHILL: In terms of the projected enrolment figures right now, CSAP and the Halifax region are the only ones that will be increasing. In every other region of the province, we’re looking at either consistent enrolment or moderate decline in enrolment.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Serait-t-il possible de voir l’inscription pour la région du sud-ouest, la région de Par-en-Bas, ou la région de Clare pour voir comment ça va - the Clare and Argyle areas to see how they’re doing there?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The breakdown of those numbers, the CSAP does not provide us. I’m not sure how they collect that data. That’s not data that we receive from them, that’s broken down to that level.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Je trouve que, quand ça vient à Argyle, le nombre tient à augmenter un petit peu. La région de Clare commence à diminuer un petit peu. Je pense que les autres régions de la province - ici à Halifax, je pense que c’est une augmentation dans les deux systèmes qu’on voit, mais dans les régions de Chéticamp ou la région de Richmond, c’est peut-être assez fluide ou pas si tant. Donc, la une question est si le ministre peut trouver ces informations-là du CSAP et si peut-être il pourrait les donner à une autre date.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I can definitely ask on the member’s behalf if that data is collected and if the CSAP is able to share that with us.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Donc, une de mes choses favorites c’est la nouvelle école à Wedgeport. On parle de possiblement commencer la construction l’année prochaine. J’aimerais que le ministre parle de la nouvelle façon de trouver un site, de trouver comment est-ce qu’on va construire une nouvelle école dans une petite communauté qui est importante, comme Wedgeport.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I’m very excited for the new build in Wedgeport. I know that that has been a priority of the CSAP from a capital perspective for a number of years. In terms of the new site selection process, we’re moving from one which was driven by preferred sites provided to the department for analysis from the community to a process that’s a bit more streamlined, that’s technical in focus at the early stages before we go to the public for feedback.
It might vary with the CSAP because they might have a say on where they want that school to go, but generally speaking, we’re looking at a process where we evaluate the current site of the school to see if that is adequate. If that’s the preferred site, then we go there. If not the current site, we look at other Crown land in the catchment area of that school or municipal land that might be available and that would be able to be serviced. Then, if there are no options there, we go out to the broader public. The technical analysis for getting power and water, everything that’s needed, will happen in advance. Then we go to the community for feedback on that, and we do that through the municipalities.
The SACs would be involved in that, and of course the broader community as well. Involving the municipality is particularly important because it impacts their capital planning as well, and we want to make sure that there’s alignment with where our schools are going and with where the municipalities envision their communities growing as well.
The community will also be thoroughly engaged in the design part of this process as well. That’s where you actually see a real kind of excitement and enthusiasm for being involved. I know that in Wedgeport, they’re really interested in having a cultural centre there as well. I think that the CSAP and the community are looking for avenues to fund that through the federal government. That is something we could account for in the design process in the RFP that we send out for the school build. Right now, we do believe we’re on track to start the process next year.
CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Comme le ministre le sait, c’est une communauté qui est vraiment intéressée à continuer la discussion, à connaître tous les enjeux, à trouver une façon d’essayer de le cheindre dans les frontières de Wedgeport. C’est une grande question d’où la mettre.
Il n’y a pas vraiment une grande discussion du site même de l’École Wedgeport, mais s’il y a besoin de déménager à quelque part assez proche, une petite école comme Wedgeport est vraiment importante pour la culture acadienne. Elle est vraiment importante pour essayer d’apporter le français aux enfants de la région.
Une dernière question : On parle vraiment du catchment de l’École Wedgeport, mais l’École Wedgeport va à Yarmouth jusqu’à Lower Wedgeport, je pense. On n’aimera pas mettre École Wedgeport dans Yarmouth ou quelque chose du même, donc la région de Wedgeport même - une vite question.
ZACH CHURCHILL: The CSAP would need to be consulted on site selection as well. They still do have their ward. I have not chatted with the chairperson directly on any preferred sites. The way our process will generally work is, the current site will be evaluated first then Crown sites or municipal sites in close proximity.
I share the member’s desire to have the school built within the community. That seems to be the whole point of this exercise, but the technical evaluation or the site priorities of the CSAP might impact that in some way. That is yet to be determined at this point. I would encourage the member to chat with the CSAP to see if they have any thoughts on the site that might impact the process as we envision it in the department.
THE CHAIR: Order. Time has elapsed for the PC caucus. We’ll move over to the NDP caucus.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: My standard French and my Pubnico French are both pretty poor, so I’m going to go ahead and ask the member questions in English. (Interruption) Yes, the minister did well.
I’m going to start by asking a few questions specific to budget lines. On Page 7.2 of the budget, there is a decrease in the budget line, Childcare and Licensing. That’s a line we have been watching. Is this a reduction or a transfer of funds? I’m curious if the minister could tell us what it means in terms of any reduction or changes to staffing or programming.
ZACH CHURCHILL: The way I understand this is that those dollars are in relation to the federal funding from the agreement we have with them. We were late negotiating the final agreement with them in 2017. The number for 2017 is supposed to be $11.8 million a year, over three years. If the member will look, she will see that there’s a lower number in year one; and therefore, we had a higher number outside of the $11.8 million in year two of that funding agreement; and then in year three, we brought it back down to the established amount. It was just a matter of us not signing that agreement earlier in that year and that impacting the budget in 2017-18, and the dollars that weren’t spent in 2017-18 were then spent in 2018-19.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Just to confirm, then, it’s just an amortization of those amounts over three years, but there have been no changes to staffing or programming in that area?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The short answer is yes.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I assure the minister that I am not in a rush. If there’s a longer answer, that would be interesting. Maybe later I can hear about that.
Turning to Page 7.7, this was one that really caught our eye, and that is the reduction in the amounts for Education Innovation Programs and Services, in particular the lines for Innovative Curriculum Development, and Career Exploration and Experiential Learning.
My understanding from talking to folks in the department and teachers and even the Teachers Union is that curriculum is a real centre for excellence for us. So while almost everything has been - we’ve had a kind of black-and-white conversation of, “Is our education system in crisis? Is it fine? Do we need to make all these changes? Do we not?” - we’ve had lots of differences of opinion, but I don’t think we have a difference of opinion on this point. I think we agree that we do excellent work in the area of curriculum development, so it’s troubling to see those reductions.
I wonder if the minister can tell us why those amounts have decreased and what particular impacts those decreases will have.
ZACH CHURCHILL: There has been no reduction in there. If the member looks at Page 7.11, she’ll see the increase in expenses in that area. It’s just a matter of how we’re organizing the grants as they’re disbursed to our regions. If the member looks at Page 7.11, she’ll see the overall number going out and that number being increased.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I guess just a clarifying question. What I see here is a significant reduction, particularly around Innovative Curriculum Development, Education Innovation Programs and Services, and Career Exploration and Experiential Learning on Page 7.7. Now Page 7.11, which the minister draws our attention to, is general Public Education Funding, so maybe just a deeper explanation of how that money is appearing there and not in the other place?
ZACH CHURCHILL: According to Mr. Potter, this is an exercise to achieve process improvement. There has been no cut in this area. If the member looks at Page 7.11, she’ll see the overall number, and that will show that there has actually been an increase in funding in this area. This is just a matter of front-end loading these dollars so that our regions can better plan - accounted for the dollars differently.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I hate to belabour this point, honestly, but at Page 7.11 I see generic grants, so P-12 Base Funding - Operating Grants, I assume that’s what the minister is referring to? There’re also Non-Formula Program Grants. Presumably those grants aren’t required to be used for the purposes outlined on Page 7.7, which are Education Innovation, Innovative Curriculum Development, and Career Exploration and Experiential Learning specifically.
While I appreciate that the overall number might be staying the same, can the minister confirm that, in fact, the allocation or the restrictions around that money might be changing? That could be relevant because where a system is finding itself strapped for cash, where it has general revenue, it’s going to use that for the things it needs to use it for which I understand, but it does appear to be a difference in the specific funding allocated for those line items.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I can assure the member that those numbers aren’t changing, and we still have the same reporting requirements on those initiatives under those line items. The way I understand it, it’s an accounting procedure to improve the flow of funding in these areas.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: If there is an opportunity to table any of those reporting requirements just so that we can see because the numbers look different here. I acknowledge that they may not be, but there’s nothing I have in front of me that shows me that, so if there’s something that could be provided, that would be really helpful.
I’ll move on to Page 7.12 and it will show that the budget for portable classrooms is significantly higher than it was last year. I want to ask the minister: Why the increase, to start with, and also whether the minister is aware of how many schools in the province have at least one portable classroom?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There is an increase in that expense line and it has to deal with population pressures. Mostly with some school communities here in Halifax. We do not have a list of every school that has a portable, but that is something I think our capital staff in the department can track down for us.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I appreciate that. We’d like to see that list. I know that my colleague in the Official Opposition was asking about pre-Primary and space. We’ve heard lots of reports that older students are ending up in portable classrooms to make way for pre-Primary students, particularly, as the minister says, in the urban core. I wonder if the minister could comment on that.
Also, when the department is canvassing whether there’s space in a facility - I know there was a discussion last hour of sometimes there may not be space in an elementary school, but there may be space in a junior high school or a high school - what are those requirements? How is it determined whether there’s space? What we hear from a lot of administrators, off the record, is if they say there’s no space then the response is that they need to make space. I understand and supported the rollout of pre-Primary, but we want to ensure that’s not at the expense of either our licensed child care providers, which we’ve talked about and probably will talk about more, but also students who are currently enrolled in our school in P-12.
ZACH CHURCHILL: We are aware of that happening in some circumstances. I don’t have a number I can provide the member, and I don’t know that portables are tracked in relation to pre-Primary impact.
I don’t know if that is something we have, but I do want to recognize that the member of the New Democratic Party caucus did vote in favour of the pre-Primary program, although I don’t know that they were supportive of the rollout, necessarily, but I think they are supportive of the program in principle, which is different from the other Opposition Party on this front.
We recognize this is one of the things that I think, as a government, we are most excited about in terms of social spending we are engaged with. We know based on not just the evidence around the benefits of early learning to the students, but also, they are really great in developing evidence around the impact to the economy in labour participation of parents, and single parents, in particular.
We know that this is a really critical and important thing we want to move forward with, so our priority is always to get this into communities. Our focus has been on getting this into communities where we know, based on EDI data, that it is needed, and also where there is a lack of regulated child care.
That has been the focus criteria in the first couple of years. We are going to get into years three and four where space has become more of an issue, where there is more pressure that’s going to be put on the regular child care sector, for sure, but we are working with them to help make sure that we can address those pressures as well as we can.
We’ve been investing heavily in that sector. We’ve been growing that sector at the same time we’ve been implementing pre-Primary. Sometimes that will require that a class does move out of the school into a portable. I personally believe that that is a sacrifice that’s very much worth getting a pre-Primary program into these communities.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I am disappointed to hear the department wouldn’t be tracking the use of portables because while those students are still getting an education, certainly on a constituency level, I hear a lot from the parents of the students in those classrooms that, for better or for worse, it’s not a sacrifice they want to make.
I mean, the department is going to decide, in the grand scheme of things, how things will shuffle around, but it is certainly something that is upsetting to a number of parents.
In terms of having the capacity for the rollout, the other thing we hear about all the time is that this government decided, after the rollout - I think via some substantial government funding flow-through, there were some funds added, sort of infrastructure funds - for child care centres to build infant spots, but those four-year-old spots are disappearing, and so I think there are a number of licensed child care centres under the purview of the . . .
THE CHAIR: Order. Order. There is too much noise in the Chamber and it is very distracting to the presenters.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, Madam Chair. I would suggest there are a number of licensed child care providers in many communities, particularly urban communities, who would be happy to take a cohort of four-year-olds.
I would like to ask the minister if he could comment on whether he has explored that or not?
ZACH CHURCHILL: On the issue of portables, generally speaking, people don’t like portables. They are necessary in some instances to deal with population pressure or, in a really small amount, might be impacted by pre-Primary. We know people don’t like that. They are, hopefully, temporary solutions as we deal with the broader capital pressures we do have and population pressures that are impacting capital investments.
We do have the first five-year rolling, multi-year capital plan that we’ve ever had in the province. That is to try and address these very situations to do a better job planning to meet the demographic needs of our school communities and make sure our buildings are built to meet those needs.
Also, we know that there’s benefits to having pre-Primary students mixed with older students. The feedback we’re getting from the front lines, which is consistent with the literature, that actually enhances the learning experience. In Antigonish we have the O2 program in which they’re building things with the pre-Primary class. There’s some interaction happening there. I think that is to everybody’s benefit.
I know there was a specific question that the member asked that I’m neglecting to remember right now, so I might need to sit down and have the member ask that question again.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Has the minister or the department, where there are space constraints, which are happening throughout HRM, looked at the option of licensed daycare centres, some of which are closing all their pre-Primary rooms where there is still a real need for those for parents like me who work longer than those regular hours?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The first priority is to get it into the school because we know, generally speaking, we’ll have the best transition into the academic learning environment when you have those kids in school, so that is our first focus. Recognizing there are going to be space restrictions, particularly in areas in metro, we are very much open to engaging in partnerships with the regular child care centres to provide the program itself.
We’re running a pilot right now here in Halifax, if I’m not mistaken, to help us evaluate what that partnership can look like and see if it can function in a way that’s beneficial to the program and to the provider. We’re also running a pilot on before-and-after school programming where the regulated child care sector can actually come into the pre-Primary site, deliver before-and-after school programming outside of school hours. Those are two pilots right now we’re engaged with in partnership with the regular child care sector that hopefully will yield positive results that we can then act on because we are very much interested in this partnership.
We do have an invested stake in the success of the regulated child care sector. The challenge here in Nova Scotia is we’ve only had one in four of our preschool-aged kids that have been able to access these critical early learning opportunities and child care opportunities and we want to expand that to make sure there is 100 per cent access to Nova Scotian families for early learning. We’re really excited about working with the regulated child care sector in doing that. Kentville’s the site of the pilot project for the regulated child care centre delivery of pre-Primary. That’s in Kentville, not in HRM, so excuse my mistake there.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I’m glad to hear that. I’m wondering as a follow-up whether the minister is engaging with the regulated child care sector around expanding that pilot, what the parameters of that pilot are, how long it is. Is it one school year? Also, how is the centre remunerated? Presumably that program is offered free in the same way it would be in a school. How is the centre remunerated for offering that?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The idea is that the regulated child care centre would be paid by the department to provide the service directly. We’re currently evaluating the pilot outcomes, recognizing that our priority is to get these in schools but seeing if the outcomes that we’re achieving in the pilot can be consistent with the outcomes we’re achieving in the pre-Primary class. We have yet to determine if an extension of that pilot is needed to gather any further information as of yet.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Can you tell me how much per child that centre is paid by the department?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That’s the point of the pilot. One of the other issues we’re evaluating is the cost. We’re used to doing this in school, we’re evaluating what the cost would be by delivering this in the regular child care centre. That is a question we are still in the process of answering.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: But surely the minister is paying the pilot site something while they decide what they might pay other sites. Can the minister let us know what that pilot site is being paid per child, as a test amount?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We have the overall number at $140,000. We don’t have the per-student cost of that but that is something we can provide by tomorrow for the member.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Maybe we’ll come back to that. I want to move on to some questions about inclusion. We see another $15 million allocated for implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Inclusive Education but we still haven’t seen a plan, a rollout plan. I mean we have the plan that’s in that report but for reasons good or otherwise, the government is determining in its own strategic decision-making, how to move forward on that plan. I’m trying to be very generous tonight.
We’d like to see a plan. I mean it’s great to save $15 million last year, it’s great to save $15 million this year. I think those amounts are roughly consistent with what the commission has advised but we know there are lots of things that the commission has advised that the government has decided not to move forward with, for one reason or another. Most recently we discovered there would be no executive director of inclusive education hired. We only found that out because we happened to ask in the right way at the right time. That’s because there was no plan tabled.
On February 20th of this year, we filed a freedom of information request for the most recent version of the department’s document, Students First Next Steps Gap Analysis and Tracking. That’s where we discovered the executive director wouldn’t be hired, but the decision letter states that the document has not been updated or finalized and remains in draft form.
Given that, I mean seemingly there’s a draft but there’s no finalized plan. We haven’t seen one, the FOIPOP indicates there isn’t one. How are these budget amounts determined? What will specifically be addressed with this $15 million?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The member is right, we haven’t announced where this $15 million will be allocated or how it will be allocated yet. I’m very anxious to get that out in the public sphere as well. We’re in the process of finalizing those allocations, working with the regions to identify priority areas as they see them, based on the assessed need in the regions and that will help us inform where these dollars are spent. We will hopefully be announcing that in the not-too-distant future.
There are, as the member has pointed out, some key areas where there is divergence between what the commission had recommended and with where government has gone, primarily around the Nova Scotia Institute on Inclusive Education. We are pursuing the goal of accountability and reporting to the public and oversight, but we are not doing that by building a new bureaucratic organization. We are doing that by partnering with Inclusive Education Canada to help with oversight and implementation.
I believe we’ve completed the RFP for the third party to do evaluation and reporting to the public, so that component will be done, as well. The reason we are doing that is because we want to find costs. We want to make sure every dollar that we are increasing to investments to the education system, is actually getting into the classroom and getting to the kids.
Our staff costed out the Institute around $1 million a year. We thought we could achieve the goals of an institute at a lower cost, hopefully a fraction of that, so we can get more FTEs into the schools, partnering with Dr. Gordon Porter from Inclusive Education Canada to accomplish that.
The executive director position is another one we did not implement exactly as the commission had recommended, and that is recognizing that inclusive education is kind of everybody’s responsibility; it’s not just a single individual’s responsibility. Those responsibilities have been added to Student Services Executive Director, African Nova Scotian Executive Director, and Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey Executive Director, but really it is more about having a new cultural approach to inclusive education in the system.
Also, I think it is important to note we’ve been consulting with Dr. Sarah Shea, who is the chairperson of that committee. She has provided us feedback on our implementation, as well. To date, she has not indicated any concerns with the rollout plan, even with the, you know, it’s not moving forward on the institute or the executive director.
I think her quote is somewhere along the lines of there are a number of recipes to make a good chili, and she sees nothing wrong with the recipe that the government has put forward, so I take great comfort in that.
I also take comfort in the fact I think we are having the appropriate mechanisms in place to help us have objective third-party oversight and reporting to help us evaluate how well we are doing in terms of achieving our goals and the goals of the report. They are helping us along with the feedback that is coming from the regions to develop the plan for the $15 million disbursement into the system that is coming next year.
As I mentioned, I hope to have some more on that in the coming weeks.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: So, just to clarify, I’ve heard that chili quote, and I agree that there are lots of ways to make a good chili, but in this case, if $15 million was allocated before the projects were decided upon, before the items on which that $15 million was to be spent were decided upon, it’s sort of like you went and bought the ingredients before you decided what recipe you were going to use.
I guess I just wonder if the minister - and maybe you just decided this year it is $15 million, we are going to decide how we disburse that $15 million, and it indicates our interest in this area. Is that what happened?
I would like to ask the minister how was that $15 million number decided upon, if there are no items attached to it yet?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The general blueprint for where these dollars are going comes from the report itself. We do have to go through a budgeting process first to know how much money we do have to invest. That’s a process that every government must go through. You need to know what the Treasury is going to give you before you can announce where you are going to spend the money. That’s not to say we don’t know the general areas where these dollars are going to go. We do have a sense of where we are going with this, but we just don’t have the specific FTEs for each job category decided on yet.
We wanted additional time to seek feedback from the regions on their needs assessment, and also with Inclusive Education Canada, but that’s not to say there’s not a plan. We have not announced it yet so, I know the member will be patient on that and I think she’ll be pleased with where these investments are going to go. I really do think that, and I hope to have this information out as soon as possible.
Yes, in government you do have to get the money first in order to spend it and I hope that the member will join me in voting for this budget this year because we’re going to have a lot of new money going in really important areas in our education system, and I know that she wants to be a part of this great change that’s happening.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: As I consult my magic 8-ball, all signs point to “no” right now, but we’ll see. It might change. I think we could go back and forth on this for a long time, but we’ll leave it right now.
I want to move on to some questions about EIBI. So, last year in this Chamber, in this spot, I asked the minister about the disconnect between pre-Primary and EIBI. One of the responses the minister gave was that he’d have a conversation with the Minister of Health and Wellness about this issue.
As I explained at the time and I’ll explain again, children can’t be in school when they participate in EIBI, that’s one of the parameters of the program. A child can only attend pre-Primary for one year. Now, I’m aware that a child can decide to defer pre-Primary and that the department has taken action that way, so that if they can’t access the program in what would normally be their pre-Primary year, they could access the program in the following year while they’re doing EIBI, but there are limited resources.
There’s a lengthy wait-list and there are many children, including a letter I got just today, who may start pre-Primary with no reasonable sense of when they’re ever going to get into the program, be accepted to the EIBI program somewhere partway through that Primary program, then have a really difficult situation because if they want to take advantage of the full EIBI program they have to delay their school start. They’ve finished pre-Primary and so now they have to go back out into the community, try and find a regulated child care spot, which are diminishing naturally because of the presence of pre-Primary, for a five-year-old with an autism diagnosis.
I guess, you know, whatever the minister would like to say about that would be helpful but in particular, I want to know if the minister did, in fact, speak with the Minister of Health and Wellness about this as he mentioned he would last year, and if he did, what have they come up with? Because the status quo isn’t working.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Yes, I did speak with the minister. The Minister of Health and Wellness and I both spoke on this, more importantly our staff have had follow-up conversations as well. This is a challenge we do recognize needs a solution.
To date what we’ve been doing is working with children on a case-by-case situation and there are some instances when we have allowed for the student to repeat a year in pre-Primary. That is decided on a case-by-case basis. There haven’t been that many that have come forward, but if the member does have any that she does need to make us aware of, there are options there. We have flexibility to try and make sure these kids are getting what they need.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I really appreciate that answer because that’s different than what our understanding was, and you’ll be getting an email from me on a few cases. More importantly, one thing we’ve recommended, which I’ll recommend again and just ask if there has been any discussion on, is that because this will be a universal program, pre-Primary in 2020, it seems, allowing for the fact there’s a lot of complexity involved with the wait-list in the two departments, that if the start of the EIBI program could be synced to the start of the pre-Primary year, you would solve this problem because that’s how it would work. Not all students will be admitted to the program or will be diagnosed by then, but for those students who are, if they could start that EIBI program coincident with their pre-Primary year, they could then complete it and be ready to move on to school. You wouldn’t have a school delay. You wouldn’t have to repeat. Have there been discussions to that end?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I appreciate the suggestion. This is complicated. There are a number of factors that impact this, including rollover in the EIBI program as well.
I think the answer is going to involve flexibility and an ability to respond to the individual cases. We think that’s where we’re going to land. We don’t know if there is one single policy solution to this, but of course we’ll take the member’s recommendation and give it full consideration. Staff are still working on this. I think there is a follow-up meeting next month with staff and we’ll see where staff land with recommendations to both ministers.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: In February, the department tweeted about the Nova Scotia Early Childhood Development Intervention Services, sort of an adjacent program. When you follow the link that was shared on the main page, at the bottom was a large donate button, which threw us off a little bit. I guess my question is: How much government funding does Nova Scotia Early Childhood Development Intervention Services receive, and why is the department asking for donations? Are they not fully publicly funded or what’s that’s the story?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The question creates some confusion because we are fully funding them and we’re not sure why there would be a donate button. Thanks to the member for highlighting that. We’ll look into that and get back to her. They are fully funded at $5.8 million a year.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, and hopefully we’ll get some information on that. I want to turn back to early learning and child care. As I mentioned tonight and other times, we’re watching the number of child care spaces per age group and how that’s fluctuating with the introduction in pre-Primary. Is the minister able to provide a list of the total number of child care spaces in the province by age at a year-over-year? Is the department tracking those numbers and how they’re changing? I assume the department has that information, based on the licensing and whatnot. If not tonight, could we have that information?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We do have the year over year. I will table this for the member. It’s not broken down age by age, but that is something we can get the member. Can I get that back as well?
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you and maybe we can discuss those a bit more when we have a chance to take a look at that.
In December 2016, Auditor General Michael Pickup released a report on his office’s audit of licensed child care and found the department was not managing grant and subsidy programs to make sure they achieved what they were intended to.
In his recent follow-up report, the AG noted that work on this recommendation has not been completed. I wonder if the minister could tell us what has been done to address the problem and how the departmental monitoring and reporting to make sure grant and subsidy programs have or haven’t changed, to ensure that they have the intended results.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Work has been in progress in this area. We believe we will be meeting the recommendation of the AG. Our new funding model for regulated child care was implemented in 2018 and it will be tied to specific accountabilities for utilization reporting and random audits and where centres will be required to participate. We are in the process of meeting that recommendation.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I thank the minister for that answer. The AG also found in the update that although the department has set targets related to accessibility and affordability, that those terms are not defined. Child care in Nova Scotia costs as much as university tuition. I could talk a lot about that, the impact of that on my personal finances but I’ll leave that for another day.
In Halifax, fees have increased at almost the double the rate of inflation. Can the minister provide the definitions that the department uses for both accessible and affordable child care?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There has been a lot that has happened on the accessibility and affordability fronts. Our dollars that we’re spending are really geared towards these two areas. So access as we would define it is having geographical access, having the spaces available in your community and that’s why our strategic growth grants, the investments we’re making in the child care sector, really focused around getting into the regulated child care deserts where these services aren’t available and making sure these communities do have them available.
On the affordability front we’ve actually spent a significant amount of money to increase the subsidy that’s available for families and increase the amount available and that’s in relation to the income of those families. We’ve seen the majority of our money spent in this way, to make sure that this is more affordable for families. The threshold is around $70,000 household income, $70,000 and below. Every household that falls under that financial criteria has seen a significant increase in investment and subsidy in this area.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I think I spoke yesterday a little bit on how in certain ways the government is very committed to reducing red tape and in other ways not so much. One of the positions we’ve had is that it’s better to make a universally affordable system than to have a patchwork of grants and subsidies. I think we all - at least I do and some of my colleagues do – have people who come to our office who have no idea how to navigate those grants and subsidies, how to apply if they are eligible. They feel strange applying, they don’t know if they want to.
Has there been any consideration to a universal, low-cost child care program for maximum accessibility and affordability?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Just to follow up on the first part of the member’s question, we’ve increased the income threshold from $35,000 a year to $70,000 a year, so we’ve doubled the amount of income eligibility. Hopefully that has been beneficial to families. We’ve also increased spaces from an access point by about 1,000. There have been 1,500 spaces that we’ve increased the regular child care sector by on the accessibility front in those child care deserts, it has been about 1,000.
We work directly, our staff works directly, with the regulated child care sector to support them in grant applications, understanding the criteria associated with each of those grants. I know in the last two rounds of grants we advertised for, 100 per cent of the folks who applied received funding. That’s a good indicator to me and that tells me that our staff and the department are doing a really good job reaching out to our stakeholders and engaging them in a meaningful way.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I guess I was referring more to the fact that parents who want to access child care at a lower cost are required to apply and fill out paperwork for subsidy, in order to have their children eligible. There are a number of parents for whom that is challenging, who aren’t aware of it, who don’t want to do that. Again, that feels a little bit like red tape, why not just lower the cost? We’re not arguing for a higher income bracket but we’re just saying, has there been consideration to lowering the costs across the board so there isn’t that added layer of bureaucracy?
ZACH CHURCHILL: By increasing the subsidies to these programs we are lowering costs to participants in a really meaningful way. We’ve also capped the increase of fees for parents at three per cent so at no time are they able to see more of an increase in costs than three per cent.
The member does speak to a valid point, and I’m sorry I misunderstood, I thought she was speaking to the regular child care applications for grants, but yes, for the subsidies we’ve heard from users or from our clients there are some challenges in applications, some confusion there. We are working on an improved IT process to help clean that up.
THE CHAIR: Order, the time allotted for consideration of Supply today has elapsed.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I move that the committee do now rise and report progress and beg leave to sit again.
THE CHAIR: The motion is carried.
The committee will now rise and report its business to the House.
[The committee adjourned at 9:10 p.m.]