The recent federal budget was an opportunity to make significant progress to establish a new normal to create a stronger, more equitable Canada. Racism, poverty, inadequate and unaffordable housing, and scarce mental health resources are all pre-existing pandemics that put equity-seeking groups at greater risk than others.
This budget correctly rejects the idea that a better future can ever be achieved through austerity or through putting the demands of business lobbyists first. It speaks to the need to address the social determinants of health, and to build our way to recovery. It makes meaningful investments into rebuilding from the bottom up, which is the best – and only effective – path forward.
The government has chosen to put their emphasis on significant improvements in child care, and we congratulate them for their ambition to reduce the financial burden on all Canadian families, improve quality, increase access, and better support early childhood educators across Canada.
Along with so many others, we are eager for early and sustained progress on these priorities, and we call on all provincial and territorial governments to agree, now, to move this agenda forward. It is the right thing to do, and it is long overdue. If provincial governments are hesitant to do what is needed – if they seek to water down or eliminate the standards for affordability, quality, access, and workforce pay and benefits that are so desperately needed – the federal government should directly fund municipalities and civil society who are ready and willing to step up and deliver.
The government’s short-term goal of reducing fees by 50 per cent should be commended. We urge them and their provincial and territorial partners to ensure that all low-income families can access free or truly affordable, high quality child care as soon as possible – this program should, in time, become universal and barrier-free for all, and those who need help the most must get it first. The federal commitment to measurable standards should include a clear focus on ensuring in particular that low-income, Black, and other racialized families are able to access care of excellent quality, equal to what our highest income families can buy.
Early childhood educators are disproportionately racialized and female, and they must be brought to the Thriving Income so that they can afford to be healthy. Our country’s inequities have been highlighted throughout the pandemic. When we don’t have healthy incomes, we all suffer. Those who care for our children must be able to thrive and be healthy at work, or they will not be able to provide our children with the best possible future.
Our Priorities for a New Normal
In advance of the budget, we laid out four priorities with a focus on equity and health. We recognize that one budget will not solve all of our collective failures of equity all at once, and that progress must be built upon year after year, and are heartened to see progress on some of these measures. But better is always possible, and we must provide opportunities to improve as we build towards a new normal together.
First, we and many partners have called for a new social contract for mental health – a ten-year plan co-developed by governments, business, and civil society to reduce the reported rate of pre-pandemic emotional distress by half, decrease the number of children exposed to adverse childhood experiences that lead to poorer mental health by half, and reduce the suicide rate by half.
We are very pleased that the government has definitively accepted that the social determinants of health must be addressed in order to improve mental health and wellness. Poverty, racism, income inequality, and other social determinants must also be addressed – but that will not be enough. We are pleased to see some specific steps forward on mental health and well-being in the budget through increased investments in Veterans’ and Indigenous mental health and well-being, in COVID-19-specific mental health and trauma, and to develop national mental health standards. We are disappointed there were no specific investments to improve the mental health and well-being of Black and other racialized people, and urge the government to address this in-year.
While mental health and well-being are primarily within provincial jurisdiction, the federal government should build on, and make real, their commitment to national standards by taking a leadership role in bringing our provinces and territories, municipalities, businesses, and civil society, together. We must all co-develop a ten-year plan to achieve measurable outcomes, and take clear steps, that everyone in Canada can come together to achieve. This budget begins to create a federal framework, and it is time for federal leadership to build a better mental health and well-being future for everyone in Canada.
Second, we called for housing for everyone in Canada to be safe, affordable, and healthy. We applaud this budget for proposing increased investments in housing, and welcome in particular the government’s recent and continuing commitment to rapidly house as many Canadians as possible, which recognized the acute threat that homelessness represents in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ongoing and new investments in this budget must ensure equity-seeking groups, particularly Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ2S+ Canadians, will make equitable and significant gains in access to housing they can afford at every income level. We urge the government to swiftly address these gaps through the implementation of their current programs and proposed new investments.
We are gravely concerned that all levels of government continue to refuse to adequately address the coming crisis of residential evictions. For some, the federal COVID-19 income supports are the only program to address this, and they are not enough for many renters in high-cost areas. All levels of government must ensure COVID-19 and associated recession evictions are prevented through income supports, rent subsidies, arrears relief or forgiveness, and landlord-tenant policy reform. Failure to do so would financially devastate those who have managed to keep their homes through the pandemic, damage their health, and stunt the economic recovery for all. Interjurisdictional wrangling and finger-pointing must not be allowed to get in the way of immediate action to prevent this calamity.
We applaud the budget for reiterating the government’s commitment to ending chronic homelessness, which is a crucial social determinant of health, a key driver of poverty, and a daily crisis that disproportionately damages the health of equity-seeking groups in Canada. However, we cannot solve problems we cannot measure, nor can we solve them through inputs – dollars and numbers of new units alone. All levels of government must provide plans, together or separately, that will measurably eliminate homelessness on a short time frame. Pandemics are indifferent to blame or jurisdiction, and our federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments each bear joint and individual responsibility to end our homelessness pandemic, which has been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They must all show those living in their jurisdictions precisely how they will dramatically reduce homelessness for each one of the coming years until the job is done.
Third, we called for an end to poverty. The economic damage from COVID-19 has disproportionately fallen on low-income workers, their families, and their communities, as they lost income, jobs, homes, and loved ones. We applaud the budget for proposing investments into areas including the Old Age Security pension, the Canada Workers Benefit, housing, and child care, and for proposing to raise the minimum wage for federally regulated workers to $15. All these efforts will make a difference and help low-income earners survive. The current government has already moved many Canadians out of poverty, and every step counts.
However, the measures announced in the budget will not end poverty, and that is the goal we must all be committed to and must achieve together. We urge all governments to immediately heed the call of the National Advisory Council on Poverty to ensure a coordinated robust social safety net in Canada by ensuring they collectively provide income support that is at least above the level of Canada’s official poverty line.
Ending poverty must be seen as our first step towards ensuring everyone in Canada has the ability to thrive. We need all levels of government to commit to achieving a Thriving Income, one in which wages, benefits, and social supports are all adequate for good health. It is not enough to improve the devastating health impacts of impoverishment. Everyone in Canada deserves a healthy life, and we can achieve it.
Finally, we called for job creation efforts that would ensure progress on good jobs. Bad jobs mean bad individual health (which our society cannot afford) and enabling and allowing bad jobs to proliferate will hinder our recovery. Everyone in Canada needs a Thriving Income, a safe and healthy workplace, a workplace that supports good mental health, anti-racism and anti-discrimination, they must also have control over their working lives, and decent benefits.
Our public dollars must not go towards bad jobs – jobs that do not meet a real, reasonable standard for income and workers’ rights. This must include the new funding announced in the budget to encourage rehiring and to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. It should include all government funding for child care, and long-term care – and the entire care economy. It must eventually include all government programs and benefits for corporations and the non-profit sector.
All governments must track where their investments and tax expenditures go and ensure we are building a society we can be proud of. They must ensure that the economy created by their rules and their investments on our behalf is one that prioritizes health and equity.
We look forward to discussing all of these crucial health issues with governments at all levels, our partners, and the public.