Illustration by Michael DeForge
By now we are long past the shock of COVID-19, the virus that shut down the world, the economy, the relative predictability of life. You and I are just one virus exchange from illness and potential death. Millions of Canadians have lost their ability to earn a living. They risk eviction, mortgage default, food insecurity, homelessness and mental health struggles. Those who still have a job either find themselves on the frontlines risking exposure to the virus or they work from home, perhaps isolated, maybe also caring for young or aged family members, or both.
Without the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), that overnight replacement for employment insurance during the economic shutdown, millions of Canadians would have been desperate. The $2,000 monthly CERB cheque saved lives, reminding us of how governments can place public health and safety above all else when they choose to. Public servants, and politicians working across partisan lines, created this safety net in the middle of a cold spring, working from their homes, with children underfoot. They moved mountains. Doing so allowed people to shelter down: service, retail and accommodation workers, artists, hair stylists, massage therapists and many others could get by, if for a time.
Canada is a stable country as a result of the CERB and other federal and provincial support measures. Canada is not the United States. So far, we have managed to keep COVID-19 outbreaks relatively in check. For the most part, we are not turning on each other. But the virus is still among us and we will continue to face a great amount of uncertainty for a long time to come. Will I get the virus? Will someone I love get it? There is so much we cannot know, including when or whether a vaccine can pull us out of this.
But some things we do know. We know the social determinants of health reveal the interconnections between racial, income and health inequities. COVID-19 has compounded those inequities. People in racialized and low-income communities in Toronto and Montreal, for instance, have been harder hit by COVID-19. In July, the Toronto Public Health Unit released data showing 83% of COVID-19 reported cases in Toronto identified with a racialized group. In Montreal, racially diverse neighbourhoods have a higher rate of COVID-19 cases.
We know that women are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as they tend to work the frontlines of hospitals, public health units, long-term care homes and grocery stores. Women risked and continue to risk their lives to keep us safe, often on low salaries or no salary at all.
Women are also overrepresented in sectors like retail, tourism and accommodation that have not yet recovered and may not for some time. And for many women, the only path back into paid labour is through the availability of child care. So we know that universal, publicly funded, affordable child care is a necessary part of Canada’s just recovery.
We know that CERB guaranteed everyone out of work what is essentially a basic income. We know that people who are on social assistance and people with disabilities also face constraints and added costs as a result of the pandemic, but provincial income support programs remain inadequate to the task. The time to address the punitive, intrusive, inadequate aspects of social and disability assistance is long past due. We have a social responsibility to ensure that everyone has the tools they need to live a life of dignity.
We know all of this. And yet still we tolerate government policies that perpetuate poverty among women, families, single adults, people with disabilities, immigrants, and Indigenous and racialized peoples. We need to move from complacency to action to ensure a just recovery.
There are myriad ways to break the cycle of poverty and this is our moment. The toolkit includes but is not limited to:
- basic income standards for people who are not in the paid labour market;
- a minimum wage that’s a living wage;
- affordable and adequate housing;
- food security;
- affordable universal public child care;
- pathways into higher education, skills training and jobs;
- expanded access to the Canada Child Benefit and EI (post-CERB);
- employment and pay equity;
- labour protection for all workers, particularly migrant and temporary foreign workers who are vulnerable to exploitation;
- the right to organize a union; and
- a strategy to address anti-Asian, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and discrimination.
These solutions, and many more, are laid out in detail in the CCPA’s Alternative Federal Budget Recovery Plan released during the summer. They require heightened and sustained federal, provincial and municipal government leadership and even more funding commitments than we’ve already seen in the COVID-19 crisis.
History will judge the CERB—and the federal government’s decision to protect people’s lives by delivering this basic income during a pandemic—as the right thing to do. History will also judge provincial governments that did little or nothing to protect people, or those that cut funding and laid off public service workers in the middle of a global crisis.
Future generations will judge us, too, if we do not demand our governments prepare for the next wave of COVID-19 and a protracted economic downturn.
To ensure a just recovery, we must make clear that government austerity is not the answer; it will do more harm than good. For months now, conservative governments and think-tanks in Canada have been making the case for government cuts. Time-worn tropes have been hauled out, including: We can’t leave this debt to future generations.
Yes, the federal government has incurred a tremendous deficit and will be required to continue to do so because the government has the duty to protect us. We also know that the government has the ability to continue borrowing from the Bank of Canada at historically low interest rates while also addressing the revenue side of the equation.
And here I present to you the elephant in the room: 25 years of tax cut politics forces governments to go into deficit in any crisis, be it an economic recession, a climate emergency or, in this case, a pandemic. As we adjust our expectations of each other, of our lives and of our governments, the time has come to reckon with the politics of tax cuts. To kill the beast.
When Canada faced crises of similar proportions in the past—world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Great Recession of 2008-09—governments spent our hard-earned tax dollars to provide us with the support we needed. Because that is what governments are supposed to do in times of crisis. In every case but the Great Recession, governments eventually raised taxes, particularly on the rich and on corporations, to ensure that those who had the most contributed to recovery and to societal well-being.
We don’t know yet what will come of small, independently owned restaurants and retail businesses working with razor-thin margins during a pandemic, but we do know that some major corporations saw COVID-19 as a licence to print money. Grocery empires, we are looking at you. Two major chains, Loblaws and Metro, reportedly saw a huge surge in first quarter profits this year compared to last, yet they both scrapped bonus pandemic pay for workers prematurely in June. There is clearly room for the government to raise taxes on major corporations that made money over a pandemic. The government has a social responsibility to do so and corporations have a social responsibility to contribute more, to be a part of the collective solution rather than simply cashing in.
Of course the most assured path to a just economic recovery is sustainable, decent work for all. We know this too: the old model of economic growth has failed us. The global, just-in-time economy rewarded some businesses and workers while forcing a growing number of workers into precarious, low-paying jobs. In fact, the pandemic threatens to expedite the growth of precarious work. We already see it with the rise of delivery services through online platforms that gouge restaurants and the workers who use their own vehicles to deliver the food.
I’m most interested in jurisdictions that are seriously implementing inclusive economy tools to create more stable jobs for people who are marginalized, disadvantaged and sidelined from the labour market. In Cleveland, for instance, The Democracy Collaborative is creating social enterprise opportunities for marginalized and racialized workers who otherwise have no foothold into the labour force.
We can create similar opportunities here in Canada, leveraging government procurement and infrastructure dollars to create a more inclusive economy. For instance, turning a government infrastructure investment into a community benefit agreement that employs marginalized workers and trains them to work their way into the skilled trades—the future middle class—benefits everyone.
In Toronto, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT became the first large-scale infrastructure community benefit agreement project in Ontario. Its goal has been to give historically disadvantaged communities and equity-seeking groups apprenticeship and journeyperson opportunities. Similar initiatives are underway for other government-funded infrastructure projects, powered by groups like the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the Windsor/Essex Community Benefits Coalition, and Inclusive Economy London and Region, to name a few.
These projects also attempt to draw on the power of public anchor institutions to direct their procurement and contract funds toward local social enterprises, which is good for workers and for the local economy. COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains and strained the old economic model. We are in a period of transition and must be open to new, more inclusive ways of organizing an economy.
And as we rethink our economy, we can draw inspiration from New Zealand, where the government has committed to well-being budgeting. Yes, economic growth is still included as a measure of success—but it is not the only measure. These budgets also take into account ecology, Indigenous inclusion, public health and mental health. That New Zealand is a model of how to handle a global pandemic is a testament to a strategy that puts well-being above all else. It works.
One could argue that the federal measures enacted in the response phase of COVID-19 this spring and summer were part of a well-being budgeting approach, albeit ad hoc and considered temporary. They exposed how dependent the economy is on public health, not the other way around. We must remember this lesson for future generations, because if we do not, the biggest debt we saddle them with will not be financial—it will be social and ecological.
Let’s face it: before COVID-19, Canada grew complacent. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world. There was never an excuse to ignore child poverty, family poverty, adult poverty, seniors’ poverty or feminized and racialized poverty. There was never an excuse to ignore an increasingly unaffordable housing market, growing homelessness, an opioid crisis, racism, xenophobia, climate change.
There was never an excuse to ignore child care costs that have grown into the size of a mortgage, university and college fees that saddle youth with greater debt than previous generations, growing household debt with exorbitant interest rates that trap people. This all happened on our watch.
It is time to press the reset button. COVID-19 gives us that opportunity. It’s not like we don’t have the answers. This year’s AFB Recovery Plan provides the blueprint for change that we need.
Many Canadians will not be able to return to their job anytime soon due to the impact of the pandemic. The AFB proposes major reforms to expand eligibility for income supports and ensure greater income adequacy once the federal government transitions CERB recipients to the EI system. These reforms have long been needed; COVID-19 renders them urgent.
For those who do return to the labour market, the availability of affordable child care is key. The AFB lays out a plan for a fully publicly funded, accessible and affordable child care system across Canada. It also seeks to fulfil the historic vision of a fully comprehensive and universal health care system that includes pharmacare, improved long-term and home care, and access to disability and mental health supports—all more important than ever because of COVID-19.
The blueprint for racial and Indigenous justice, for improving housing and food security, and to save our planet from climate change is there in the AFB Recovery Plan, informed by experts and social justice movements. It is the ultimate well-being budget, and it’s a tool that we all can use to press governments into action.
In those moments in history when Canadians demanded their governments think big, we won important improvements to the social safety net, new workers’ rights and workplace protections, a universal public health care system, public pensions and affordable university tuition. Most of these things have benefited me over the course of my lifetime. Being the first in my immediate family to get a university degree was life altering for me. It was personal and it was collective: people like me who benefited from a public education and other public programs and supports strove to build a better world—not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
I am an ardent child care advocate not because I require child care. It’s because I know that early learning and child care is an upstream solution. This public service gives children the early start they need to succeed and it enables women to join the paid labour force and raise the quality of life for themselves and their family.
For similar reasons, I have come to embrace the idea of a basic income standard for the unemployed and people receiving social and disability assistance. I know their standard of living would improve, their hope and trust in the future would grow, and their ability to participate in the things some people took for granted before the pandemic would increase.
But I also know that income alone isn’t the solution—we need a basic services guarantee that helps every Canadian secure affordable housing, nutritious food, pharmacare, dental care, mental health care, and specialized support for people with complex needs.
These goals are personal for me, but they’re also a challenge to all of us. It’s about rising with a collective voice to promote transformative change. Let this be the one good thing to come out of a global pandemic—that we tackle the underlying problems that divide us and threaten our health and safety, as well as the planet.
Trish Hennessy is director of Upstream, a project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.