Pandemic Borders

Where are the immigrants in Canada’s policy debates?

Any social policy after COVID-19 needs to acknowledge the diversity of those whose interests are at stake.

Keith Banting
20 October 2020
Canadian Customs and Immigration sign
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Picture by Kurt Williams / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures 

COVID-19 is the great revealer. It has revealed yawning gaps in Canada’s current patchwork of social programs, which manifestly failed to cope with the crisis. Emergency measures such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and wage subsidies had to be rushed into place simply to keep individuals, families and the economy afloat.

Other fatal limitations soon appeared. Lax regulation of long-term care facilities had tragic consequences for thousands of vulnerable elderly, a crisis which required the emergency deployment of military health personnel in our two largest provinces. More broadly, the pandemic shone a harsh light on inequality in Canada. Many ‘essential’ workers had to travel to work for low pay in infectious workplaces, while the professional middle class worked from the safety of their homes, with little if any hit to their incomes.

These burdens were not shared equally across Canada’s diverse society. The economic and health impacts were greatest in the case of women, recent immigrants, racialized minorities, and members of the First Nations. An analysis by Statistics Canada documents the economic hit. Poverty rates were already high among recent immigrants and racialized communities before the pandemic, but the gaps grew during the crisis, with recent immigrants and racialized communities among the hardest hit. Poverty rates increased most in the South Asian, Chinese, Black, Korean, Arab, Latin American and West Asians communities.

With emergency programs set to wind down, Canadians are engaged in an intense debate over how to ‘build back better’ by improving our social programs. The agenda is larger and more complex than at any time in recent memory.

Income security programs are front and centre. There is pressure to expand eligibility for Employment Insurance to include contingent workers and more of the self-employed. Additional options range from incremental change, such as expanding the existing Canada Workers Benefit, to radical change, such as the introduction of some form of Basic Income.

Other reformers prefer to tackle precarious work, not through income transfers, but through market-shaping policies. Too many workers are in low paying jobs that lack any guarantee of sufficient hours, job security, or sick leave. From this perspective, Canada needs tougher labour market policies, including higher minimum wages and stronger worker rights, to ensure all jobs pay a living wage that can support a dignified life.

Beyond the world of incomes and wages, the social policy agenda extends to the improvement of core services, such as an expansion of childcare and a much stronger long-term care sector. In addition, stronger protections for temporary foreign workers, especially in the agricultural sector, are clearly essential.

Income security, market protections, stronger services: This is a huge agenda.

Canada needs tougher labour market policies, including higher minimum wages and stronger worker rights

Immigrant groups, however, have an ambiguous place in this great debate. With many recent immigrants and racialized minorities working in precarious, low-wage, unsafe jobs, their interests are deeply affected by the political struggle. Many of them would benefit the options on the table. Despite this, the politics of race and immigrant integration are unlikely to play a distinctive, energizing role in the political struggle. The issues are being framed around generic or ‘universal’ workers and their needs. This is the standard way of thinking about social policy in Canada.

The 2015 election provides an earlier example. The Liberal Party promised to raise taxes on high-income earners, cut taxes for the middle class and significantly expand child benefits, which help low-income families most. Strikingly, there was virtually no mention of race and racial minorities during the election debates. Rather, the Liberals presented their package designed to help “the middle-class and those working hard to join it.” Many racial minority families with children, including newly arrived Syrian refugee families, were significant beneficiaries when the new Liberal government significantly expanded child benefits. But racial inequality was not part of the politics that drove policy expansion.

Admittedly, there may be benefits in this generic framing. In the United States and Europe, many commentators argue that ethnic and racial diversity erodes a sense of community, weakens feelings of trust in fellow citizens, and fragments coalitions that might otherwise support social programs. They fear that members of the majority public might be reluctant to support social programs that give money to ‘strangers’ who are not part of ‘us’.

So far, such corrosive politics have been muted in Canada. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder whether the politics of diversity might bring added energy to social policy struggles. The Black Lives Matter movement is bringing much needed pressure on the justice system. But it is not part of the social policy debate. This framing of social policy, with its limited acknowledgement of the diversity of those whose interests are at stake, is a little unsettling, a sign perhaps that Canada is not fully comfortable in its own social reality.

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