Before the pandemic even started, 1 in 8 households in Canada were struggling to put food on the table. 5.9 million people were estimated to be living in poverty. While data for the most recent years is limited, we know that poverty and precarity have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Poverty is a complex and multifaceted reality. Far from simply “falling on hard times”, millions of people living in poverty face multiple compounding systemic barriers based on their class, race or ethnicity (including Indigeneity), gender identity and sexual orientation, (dis)ability, age, family status, immigration status, and other forms of exclusion. This results in disproportionately high rates of poverty and disproportionately low levels of well-being among certain groups whose rights and interests are not prioritized or upheld by our current systems. For example, Indigenous Peoples in Canada experience disproportionately high rates of poverty as part of the enduring and continued legacy of colonization, forced relocation, and residential schools, as well as ongoing racism, violence, and intergenerational trauma.
Our existing laws and social policies create multiple, overlapping barriers for many people, such as kids with disabilities living in rural and remote areas, or a racialized single mom newly arrived in Canada with precarious immigration status. This challenges the narrative of Canada as a welcoming, inclusive society where all have equal opportunity to thrive, a Canada that champions human rights and equality.
Canadians also like to think of our country as a welcoming place for those fleeing war, violence, civil unrest, and persecution. Each year, millions of people leave family and friends, the lands they love, good jobs, and their material belongings in search of safety. When they finally arrive in Canada, many—especially those that enter the country at “irregular” crossings—are detained in prison-like conditions. Most refugees are eager to work when they arrive in their new home, but may first have to learn a new language and wait to process their work permit, which can take many months. Their education, professional credentials, and experience may not be recognized. They are also likely to face discrimination based on their language, ethnicity, or religion. These and other barriers to workforce entry often exacerbate the economic insecurity of refugee families. Canada must strive for real inclusion and opportunity for newcomers. We must also do our part to reduce the likelihood that people will be forced to leave their homes in the first place.
We couldn’t have imagined the devastation of the last two years, even if we’d tried. But what if we could set out to imagine—and build—a better future?
Increasingly, climate change is a driver of international migration. As of 2020, there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people globally. Of these, 20.7 million are recognized as refugees by the United Nation Refugee Agency (UNHCR). According to the UNHCR’s 2020 Report, “In 2020 alone, disasters triggered 30.7 million new internal displacements around the globe… This is the highest figure in a decade and more than three times as much as the 9.8 million displacements triggered by conflict and violence.” The same report noted that “95 per cent of all conflict displacements in 2020 occurred in countries vulnerable or highly vulnerable to climate change.” Climate-related displacement and migration will continue to be a challenge for years to come and it is critical that Canada bases our response in human rights and acknowledges responsibility for our historic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
According to the most recent data available, Canada emits about 1.5 per cent of total global GHG emissions. Though a seemingly small percentage, this puts us among the world’s top ten emitters. It must also be remembered that these numbers don’t capture the emissions from all of the “stuff” that we import into Canada (China holds the bag for most of that). We’re also in the global top ten for historic emissions (cumulative emissions since the industrial revolution) and emissions intensity (GHG emissions per unit of gross domestic product-GDP). In other words, we bear significant responsibility for the climate crisis.
Now, in addition to the persistent impacts of rising temperatures in the Global South, the Arctic, and low-lying small-island states, the ravages of the global climate emergency are being more acutely felt across Canada. This summer’s “wildfire season” started early and has brought devastation across the country. The fire that destroyed the village of Lytton, BC and surrounding First Nations communities on June 30, continued to burn seven weeks later (when this bulletin was published). At the same time, thousands of people from remote Indigenous communities were being evacuated as fires also raged in northern Ontario and Manitoba.
Will Canada’s next federal government have the vision and the will to make the policy change and drive the investment required to emerge from this current moment a more resilient, more just, and more sustainable nation?
Additionally, Indigenous homelands located in what is now Canada face continued threats from federal, provincial, and territorial government projects as well as corporate interests that continue to push for urbanization and resource extraction. This disregard of Indigenous rights to self-determination, the right to free, prior, and informed consent, and the traditional Indigenous stewardship of lands, has led to ongoing social and economic exclusion, inequity, and violence, as well as environmental degradation and land appropriation. These losses, of course, are about so much more than material belongings or personal claims of ownership.
Indigenous Peoples view nature with deep respect. Indigenous teachings are grounded in the interconnectedness of all creation. It is of paramount importance to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people and cultures to foster, appreciate, and preserve relationships with both the animate and inanimate; but these relationships are critical to non-Indigenous people and societies, too. Honouring our interconnectedness with one another and with all creation is central to ecological and economic integrity, fostering right relations between Indigenous Peoples and Settlers, and ensuring a holistic, just recovery from the pandemic.
Citizen engagement is key to creating change and the most fundamental way to participate is through elections. Yet during Canada’s 2019 federal election, just 67 per cent of eligible voters turned up to cast their ballot. Voter turnout can be impacted by several factors, including systemic issues like the inability to get time off of work or the inaccessibility of polling stations. Still, apathy remains one of the main reasons cited for not voting.
Governments and civil society alike have a tendency to try to address challenges one issue or program at a time, each with separate mandates, jurisdictions, and budgets. Unfortunately, this approach assumes that each challenge is distinct from the rest; it fails to acknowledge the fullness of people’s lives, the intersections of various identities and power, and the interconnectedness of our society, economy, and ecology. While more holistic measures may be more difficult or complex to develop, they also have the capacity to simultaneously address a range of issues. Energy efficient affordable housing, a basic income that supports an economy in transition, and subsidized childcare to encourage women’s workforce participation, are some examples of holistic policy approaches that address immediate needs and promote equity.
There are many overlapping challenges before us, but we have the necessary tools and resources to confront these crises together. The way communities and various levels of government pulled together at the beginning of the pandemic (despite distinct political leanings) demonstrated our capacity to mobilize the necessary will and resources in the face of emergency. We have the wealth, creativity, and resourcefulness not only to do this again, but to build and sustain solutions for a more resilient future!
What is more, according to a recent survey by Ekos Research Associates, “Once the global pandemic is over, most Canadians say they expect the country to go through a ‘broad societal transformation,’ and believe Canada is on the cusp of ‘transformative change.’” Ekos president Frank Graves further elaborates saying that people “want the country to deal with deep, social-class and racial injustices and broad gender inequalities, which have been laid bare through the pandemic, but they also have ‘a sense of hope’ for the future. Most say Canada should be more ‘societally focused’ on health and well-being.”
Our success will be found in working together and tackling the root causes common to these multiple crises.
At CPJ, we envision a society in which individuals, communities, institutions, and governments all contribute to and benefit from the common good. We value respect, dignity, fairness, and justice. It is our view that public policy should prioritize human and environmental rights, well-being, sustainability, and love.
The questions we propose, then, for voters are:
- What kind of citizenry and civic engagement do we require to achieve this vision?
- What forms of governance and accountability are needed?
- What do we need our federal government to be and do to get us there?