During the early weeks of the pandemic, Sarah Kaplan’s male colleague sent her an email about the academic paper she wrote on the gendered impacts of COVID-19.
How dare you focus on gender right now while people are dying or losing their jobs, he wrote. To that, Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto, replied, “How dare you not.”
The pandemic has exposed longstanding inequities in Canadian society: that unpaid care work predominantly falls to women and is underappreciated despite an estimated global value of US$10.8 trillion; that the consistent underfunding of childcare siphons women from the workforce; and that those jobs now revealed as essential—caring, cashiering, cleaning, catering, and clerical functions—are precarious, low-paying, and largely occupied by women, racialized women in particular. In fact, 56 percent of working women are employed in those roles, compared to just 17 percent of men.
That ups the stakes considerably given a vaccine is—at earliest—months away from being widely available and the longer women are out of work, the more likely they are to pay a wage penalty on top of the “motherhood wage penalty”—if they return to work at all. Late last month, a report from RBC analyzed data from February through October and found that while nearly 6,800 men joined the Canadian workforce, 20,600 women left it. Men “have benefited from some pandemic-driven labour trends,” the report says, while women—some fearing the second wave—have not gone back to work.
In September’s throne speech, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was unequivocal that it would take a feminist approach to recovery, telling Canadians, “We must not let the legacy of the pandemic be one of rolling back the clock on women’s participation in the workforce, nor one of backtracking on the social and political gains women and allies have fought so hard to secure.” The speech promised an action plan to get women back to work, guided by a diverse task force.
But two months later, specifics are scarce and experts worry the government that talked a big game about feminism and equality is liable to botch its handling of this unprecedented challenge—one experts say affords a rare opportunity to address longstanding societal issues.
On Monday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland promised Canada a stimulus plan of up to $100 billion to aid Canada’s post-COVID recovery—money that could shape the next generation of economic progress. But many details—including the promise of “affordable, accessible, inclusive, and high-quality”—childcare are being left to the 2021 budget.
“Canada cannot be competitive until all Canadian women have access to affordable childcare,” the economic statement said.
The problem isn’t government rhetoric. On paper, the throne speech was exactly what Kaplan and her colleague, Carmina Ravanera, were hoping for. In fact, the throne speech appeared to pluck so many points from their plan, a collaboration with the YWCA, that Ravanera thought they’d reached a new success marker: clearly they’d repeated themselves enough the government was now listening.
The problem is the track record underpinning the rhetoric. One of the YWCA recommendations is for the government to implement the calls for justice from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry. An action plan was due in June, but the government says it had to be delayed because of the pandemic—a pandemic that has exacerbated systemic Indigenous health concerns rather than offered a reprieve. Monday’s fall economic update promised $724.1 million for a comprehensive violence prevention strategy.
“What we keep saying about the current Trudeau leadership is, ‘Oh, we’ll see, we’ll see,’” Kaplan said. “But now we’re a few years into it and we’re still waiting to see if some of these promises play out.”
Anjum Chagpar lives in downtown Toronto with her 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Even though the solo mother—she has no former partner to share the load—spent all spring cooped up inside with them with one computer among them, she still felt like the early days of quarantine were a blessing.
As a human factors engineer with the University Health Network, Chagpar’s job was to help create health care tools and systems that are optimized for human behaviour, to help minimize risk. But pre-pandemic she’d been struggling personally with human problems on a different scale: climate change, education, sexism, systemic racism, and how they all swirl together to affect her children’s futures.
The COVID-19 recession distinguishes itself with “the specific, unprecedented blow it has dealt to women,” according to an RBC report charting a quick drop from a historic high for women in the workforce to the lowest low in more than three decades.
While Statistics Canada data shows some people with kids at home have started working more regular hours again, it’s women—particularly those earning low wages—who still haven’t returned in full force. In April and May, 17 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 with kids under the age of 18 were working less than their usual hours, but that figure has since dropped to 8 percent as of September. For low-income women, that figure topped 30 percent in the spring before dropping back to 10 percent in September.
Childcare is a problem that yanks many women right out of the workforce. Chapgar knows she’s been lucky to have childcare and a job with a timely focus, although as a solo parent there was never an option of her quitting to watch the kids while her husband worked.
Quarantine peeled the last strips of varnish off the severely underfunded early childhood care system, but it was the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, 50 years ago, that said childcare would be key to women’s social and economic equality.
Despite that, Canada sunk just 0.3 percent of its total GDP into early learning and childcare in 2018, while most of the 37 countries that also belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development spend around the recommended 1 percent.
That’s a problem, said Maya Roy, CEO of YWCA, because “childcare is one of the invisible parts of our economy that makes it tick.”
Even for families like hers who could afford daycare, Chagpar said the old normal clearly isn’t working during the pandemic. She woke up, rushed her kids out the door, went to work, picked them up, fed them, put them to bed. Repeat. Maybe she’d find a few spare hours on the weekend to escape doing chores.
Chagpar was working 50 to 60 hour weeks, so she liked the idea of the world slowing down, being forced to recalibrate. She thought it might help shift society in a better, healthier direction. During the days, she made activity lists with her children. At night, she toyed with the idea of downsizing and moving out of the city. Day and night, she longed for in-person, adult interaction. She was sometimes short with her kids, but didn’t want to be.
“I feel like we’re not getting at the deeper opportunity,” said Chapgar. The pandemic “really just underscored the priorities of our government and our society, (in that) we don’t prioritize our children…or our future.”
While the throne speech offered “a bit of momentum,” Anjum Sultana, director of public policy at the YWCA said, she worries Canada is missing a window to keep more women from dropping out of the workforce.
“People have been working nonstop,” she said “They’re tired, they’re exhausted, and then on top of that they’re not paid what they’re due. That’s a place where immediately we should see some action.”
As the report Sultana co-authored warns: “Unless the care economy is better supported, a generation of women may exit the labour force entirely, reducing household spending, and deepening the recession.”
History is dotted with an abundance of expert analysis and recommendations for how to bridge gaps in inequality. The pandemic-specific reports advocating for a feminist recovery in Canada draw on that work to make their case.
Underfunding childcare? Well, studies have shown that for every $100 invested in childcare in Quebec, the provincial government gets back $104 and the federal government gets back $43.
Not convinced yet that care work needs funding? Research out of the United Kingdom suggests spending just under 2 percent of the GDP on care would translate into up to 1.5 million sustainable jobs.
Faced with uncertainty about whether some of the pandemic job losses will come back, Sultana said the government should be looking more closely at care work to “transform our economy.”
To do it requires looking at the underlying causes of economic inequality, something that’s evident from the pandemic reports.
The YWCA-University of Toronto report says a truly feminist recovery will require tackling systemic racism, which results in Indigenous and Black communities being shuffled into low-income gigs and experiencing high poverty rates, and—in some cases—struggling to have even their most basic housing and clean water needs met.
So while Kaplan wasn’t expecting an instantaneous federal action plan, she stressed that the government shouldn’t be waiting to design the perfect solution right out of the gate. It should also be mindful of how long these problems have gone unaddressed and how long its constituents have waited to see some of their related promises fulfilled.
“Any waiting is already too long,” Ravanera said. “This stuff should have happened before the crisis.”
Lindsay Mathyssen, the NDP critic for women and gender equality, agrees. And yet, politically, she says it’s still a struggle to get specifics on the Trudeau government’s plans.
“These are things that they’ve been promising for far too long,” Mathyssen said. “They say, ‘We’re in consultations, we have plans.’ Great, but that doesn’t provide women with answers.”
Chapgar wasn’t sure she wanted to send her kids back to school in the fall.
She trusted her daughter, a sixth grader, to use her mask properly but she worried her son, a fresh-eyed first grade student, might slip up. Ultimately, she sent them for the social benefits, reassured after realizing her son’s class size had been dropped to 10 and both kids could come home for lunch.
Buried in so much uncertainty, so much waiting for action, were a few epiphanies.
“The big one was, ‘This isn’t fun, I don’t want to live like this,’” she said.
“I’m not willing to wait and see anymore… I have very little trust in government. It’s clear their priorities are not in line with families, especially those among us who are most vulnerable.”
As the government said in the throne speech, “unemployment is in the double digits, and underemployment is high. Women, racialized Canadians, and young people have borne the brunt of job losses.”
The words in the throne speech were positive, said Jacqueline Neapole, executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, as is the promise “to create an action plan for women in the economy…guided by a task force of experts whose diverse voices will power a whole-of-government approach.”
But pronouncements are easy, Neapole said, what gets put into action is the trickier part. A very important first step, she said, is making good on the “whole-of-government approach” promise.
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) repeatedly declined to comment for this story. On Oct. 28, Marie-Pier Baril, press secretary for the minister for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), said via email the government is “committed to being there for parents throughout this crisis to ensure that they can take care of themselves, their children, and their families.”
However, she would not answer questions about whether the action plan will be based out of the PMO or WAGE, who will be involved in that work, and when it will begin if it hasn’t already. On Nov. 24, two months after the action plan and task force announced, Baril reiterated the government would not be commenting about its work or even clarifying if it has begun.
In its Nov. 30 fall economic update, the federal government put a proposed figure to the action plan—$850,000 over two years—but no specifics, although it did repeatedly call its recovery plan “feminist…to be sure.”
It also includes a plan to earmark $20 million over five years for the collaboration to design and implement a “new childcare vision for Canada.” For those looking for more immediate support, the government is proposing giving low- and middle-income families an additional $300 per year for every child under 6 years old, tax free.
But whether the proposed measures actually become reality remains to be seen, early indication from the opposition parties is they don’t intend to support spending as outlined in the economic update. The reality is that the impacts of the pandemic have been known since the very first few weeks, said Sanaa Ali-Mohammed.
Since then, the government has introduced a host of stop gap measures: temporary salary top-ups for low-income workers, billions for a cross-government initiative for women entrepreneurs, and a Canadian Recovery Caregiving Benefit.
The caregiving benefit offers $500 per week (up to six months) for people who cannot work at least 50 percent of their jobs because they need to look after a child or family member because of pandemic closures or the need to quarantine because of illness. The temporary salary top-ups (which have been criticized as inadequate) vary province-by-province but amount to roughly $4 extra per hour for essential workers. The entrepreneurial support includes $15 million dedicated to the Women Ecosystem Fund, which provided financial support to over 50 projects before applications were closed. It also includes plans to spend more than $92 million over the next four years to support Black entrepreneurs—a move that's also drawn criticism for both its timing and approach.
These measures give a sense that action is being taken, but Ali-Mohammed, a board member with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said she isn’t sure the focus is where it should be: on the most vulnerable.
“There's still a lot of rhetoric around the middle class… when we have large pockets of racialized people living below the poverty line,” she said. Some front-line workers might be in a slightly better spot now, thanks to more PPE or marginal wage top-ups, she said, but “it’s not enough.”
And while there is some leniency for reactionary measures given how few people anticipated the pandemic, Mathyssen said the government has had the opportunity “to make some real, significant changes” and is certainly not wanting for road maps or in need of fresh studies to do it.
“They’re quite happy to continue with all these patchwork approaches and say, ‘that’s good enough,’” she said. “It’s like CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit). From the beginning we said you have to make it universal but they said no and so I’ve seen so many constituents fallen through the cracks, who don’t meet the eligibility but they’re in desperate need.”
Mathyssen said the NDP will continue to push as much as it can while the Liberals have a minority government to see more comprehensive changes pushed through.
Don’t let the clock tick too long on a plan, warned Kaplan.
“If we don’t make very aggressive investments…we’re going to be back in 1975 in terms of gender equality.”
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