An Economy for Everyone

Nora Cole is a Project Manager at Atkinson. She took the above photo in the Don Valley on one of her daily walks. Text reads: A park for the employed. A park for the unemployed. A park for the underemployed. The mural artist is Will Kwan with Evergreen’s Public Art Program.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone these past two weeks. And walking. And on the phone while walking. 

I think that any crisis calls for us to reach out to those closest to us. Are you okay? Everyone healthy? Do you have enough toilet paper? Maybe that last one is COVID-19 specific. But as a person who lives alone and is lucky to be able to work from home, it also means I spend much of the day by myself and inside. So getting out for a walk at least once a day – while practicing physical distancing – is important for me to continue to feel a part of the world. 

In these walk-and-talks, I have spent a bunch to time talking to friends and family about how they’ve been impacted so far: one friend was laid off from her nonprofit job almost immediately; another was warned of the possibility of layoffs if her employer didn’t get assistance through the announced work-sharing program; and a self-employed family member who has had to stop working relayed how she had woken up at four in the morning, stressed out because she wasn’t sure if she would qualify for the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit but still needed to pay her mortgage. 

As a person whose job is to think about decent work and a fair economy everyday, I can’t help but worry. I’ve tried to help through sharing any of my knowledge about Canada’s income support systems, promising I will look at the proposed programs and provide advice. 

But these people are only three of the 2 million Canadians who have either lost their work or at risk of job loss since the crisis began. 

These are unprecedented times. It doesn’t all feel bleak though. 

I was on a walk-and-talk with my brother recently. He is a small-scale organic farmer and a carpenter. Our conversations are always expletive-laden political rants, where we also do a lot of laughing. The day before, the Prime Minister had announced major parts of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. We were talking about the scale of it – then worth $82 billion, now over $107 billion. 

He said “I hope when this is all over we remember how quickly we can change our economy.”

He was talking about providing income supports to people not eligible for employment insurance (himself included). We’ve known for decades that our EI system has major structural problems, including that it only covers about forty per cent of Canadians and for many, provides inadequate benefits. Within a month, we will have a program that covers many more people (though still not everyone). 

He was talking about all the supports for businesses so quickly announced in such big numbers. 

He was talking about the always looming threat of climate change, and what it will mean for every person on this planet. What if we took that threat as seriously as we are taking COVID-19? What would be possible? 

A few days later, I was walking alongside the Don River after closing my home office for the day. There is this long wall of concrete coming up out of the river with various statements starting with “a park for …” – they are usually opposite ends on a spectrum. The one in the photo at the top caught my eye. 

A park for the employed. A park for the unemployed. A park for the underemployed. 

We tend to agree that a park is for everyone. 

What if we thought of our economy as for everyone? What if we thought of our social safety net as for everyone? 

What if we made the changes needed, deep in our governmental and economic and social and environmental systems, to make these a reality?

Times of crisis are moments of reckoning – as we work through this moment I hope that all of our leaders and all Canadians are paying close attention to who our systems work for and who they don’t. And I hope that we remember how quickly this can change, when we care.