Too often, discussions about the deficit are laden with the perceived inevitability of austerity cuts. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic ramifications are in no way different. Unsurprisingly, amidst this unprecedented health and financial crisis—the full effects of which have yet to be seen—mainstream media outlets are treating austerity as something for which those living in Canada must brace themselves.
Under this logic, workers whom we call essential will have to suffer twice: firstly, by serving as the backbone of our care, grocery, delivery, and agricultural services, and, secondly, in the form of future budgetary cuts to the very sectors revealed to be the most crucial and indispensable (particularly during a global health crisis).
As community organizer Alexandre Rochette Legros puts it, “those most negatively affected by crises are those who enabled our society to continue to function and breathe, but they will also be the first to fall once neoliberal austerity measures are announced.
“The pandemic has revealed that it is socialist policies, which allow communities to breathe, that have come to the rescue of our capitalist system. We therefore need progressive policies to recover our economy.”
On August 5 in Montréal, the pan-Canadian Courage Coalition—together with community groups and unions—hosted a joint press conference in opposition to austerity measures in the wake of the pandemic. The goal of the press conference, according to Courage community organizer and author Stefan Christoff, was to “express the concerns of community organizations, unions, poor people, [and] the homeless communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the realities of the pandemic.”
Essential(ly forgotten) workers
Though shaken by the intense disparity laid bare by the pandemic, these realities were far from surprising to the speakers at the conference.
“It’s been a ‘told you so’ moment for us and many of us gathered here today,” said South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWC) organizer Dolores Chew. SAWC’s community work spans four decades, and has provided multilingual frontline and settlement services—as well as support for first generation immigrants and their children—on issues of interpersonal violence and education.
What surprised Chew was the Liberal government’s initial response to the COVID-19 crisis. “We saw [the relief measures] as a positive sign and a potential harbinger of what was possible: a world where everybody counted regardless of skin colour, status, and gender, where systems could be put in place to support equality for all.” This initial pause in generalized austerity for poor and working class Canadians, as Chew put it, was nothing more than a “honeymoon period.” She continued:
As governments sang the praises of the so-called guardian angels, many of them without status or marginalised in low-paying, low-status work because of their immigrant status, it sounded like governments would finally put the recognition for these essential workers that they deserved. We didn’t hold our breath.
Not all exploitation and privation are created equal, however. According to Chew, there is a difference between risk and vulnerability. While we are all at risk, both physically and economically during this uncertain time, we are not equally vulnerable.
“When you look at the maps and the demographic distribution of the hotspots,” said Chew, “these are in areas of racialized, low-income populations that are marginalized through economic processes, immigration, non-recognition of education and so on.”
With the fear of being fired if they do not show up for work, many immigrant and non-status workers are trapped in a vicious cycle whereby, Chew described, “they go to work, they get infected, they come back, they bring it to their families, and it spreads.”
SAWC has worked closely with Montréal’s Immigrant Workers Center (IWC) during the pandemic to address this problem and support vulnerable workers. Canada and Quebec have seen an increase of migrant workers since the 2007-2008 financial crash, and, according to IWC board member Manuel Salamanca Cardona, this has meant an increase in temporary employment agencies. “We have witnessed in the fields all the abuses that they suffer,” he said, “and still we are trying to make their voices heard.”
Unlike those who could collect the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), many migrant workers have endured a sustained period of vulnerability, despite being labeled as “essential.”
In a discussion about the $343 billion federal deficit for 2020, Salamanca Cardona, a postdoc student in sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said that he has not heard “any voice from these groups, because there is no space for them” Proposed budgetary solutions, he added, could create “more inequality, putting the burden of the solutions towards the exploitation of these vulnerable workers.”
As an immigrant himself, Cardona points out that, historically, the proposed solutions for ballooning deficits have fixed the economy for the rich while generating more inequality for the working class. “We’re not going to accept the repetition of this story,” he said.
Thibault Camara from Le Québec c’est nous aussi, a non-partisan citizen movement, concurred that the provincial and federal governments’ management of the crisis has clearly shown the fragility of migrant workers’ citizenship status. All the while, said Camara, “the Quebec government is taking advantage of the crisis to try to pass a useless and dogmatic reform of immigration, the Programme de l’expérience québécoise,” not to mention the Bill 61, which champions expropriation and environment de-regulation under the guise of economic recovery.
Acts of solidarity and harm reduction sustained by SAWC, the Immigration Workers Centre, and Le Québec c’est nous aussi, have worked to save lives during the pandemic. Similarly, Resilience Montréal, a non-profit day shelter situated on the corner of Atwater and Sainte Catherine in Montréal, has been in the streets to provide resources to the homeless.
“We’re very conscious that there is a second wave coming and we are doing everything that we can to help and support them,” said Nakuset, Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montréal. “We are literally giving out 500 meals a day. We also have a tent where we give out blankets and sleeping bags and underwear and socks and shoes and ponchos. Whatever it is that they need because they can’t go anywhere else.”
In July, two homeless women were hit by cars due to a lack of safe places to stay during coronavirus quarantine. “Today we will be doing a memorial at Cabot square to honour them,” said Nakuset, “because they need hope to know that the community cares about them and that we are fighting for them.
“You have had to have gone through an enormous amount of trauma to end up on the streets, but to live on the streets through this pandemic has been incredibly difficult.”
A just recovery
The antithesis to a vision of austerity and increased privatization is the set of principles endorsed by hundreds of community organizations and groups across Canada known collectively as a just recovery. The pandemic has shown how crucial investments in communities and public services can be to lift vulnerable folks out of poverty and contribute to stronger public health outcomes.
David Bleakney, a representative of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, argued that any stability felt during this crisis has been dependent on frontline labour, including healthcare workers, postal workers, or those on the front lines of warehousing in the gig economy.
“We need new terms of value in our recovery,” he said. “We can’t continue to have frontline people used as fodder and sacrifice. We can’t continue to punish women. We can’t continue to treat indigenous people like they’re just an add-on to white society.” When speaking about consumer choice, Bleakney said that, in our current system, choice is virtually nonexistent:
Why can’t Canadian communities have a choice of a postal bank? Why don’t give people the choice where we’re not paying executive salaries and making people multimillionaires who are running banks while they represent multibillionaires? Why don’t we create a place where people could choose or where those salaries are far more reasonably invested back into the communities we represent? We could be turning the post office now into an engine of the next economy. We’ve seen its value during the crisis as being in every community and being able to provide a myriad of services if it were only allowed.
Over the last six months, shutting down much of our economy and paying people to stay at home has been in the economic interest of the country. Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in mutual aid, community care, and expressions of collectivity, solidarity, and interdependence in our society. The goalposts of what is economically possible, along with our expectations of what our post-pandemic economy might look like, have shifted.
Such a dramatic realignment has no doubt frightened elites; accordingly, the argument in favour of austerity makes the “return to normal” possible for the top one percent who have made much of their fortune through disproportionate influence over government policy. It is culturally dangerous in the eyes of the rich, then, that ordinary Canadians are now demanding more, and that the approximate $80 billion in corporate subsidies provided by the federal government are being criticized as a bailout for capitalist employers.
“We need to use this COVID situation as a learning moment,” confirmed Chew. While reinvesting in the public sector was an obvious course of action for the speakers at the press conference, the Trudeau government has shown a tendency to pursue neoliberal solutions—the most recent example of which is the now cancelled agreement with the WE Charity to administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program.
Of course, immigrants and precarious workers are not responsible for the current economic crisis. Quite the opposite, emphasized Camara, “we are those without which our society would not have stayed afloat.” Indeed, as Rochette Legros warned, “we must not be convinced by the government and by the concerted effort of certain media outlets, that the debt caused by the pandemic belongs to all of us equally.
“If someone has to pay back the deficit, we should start by targeting tax havens.”
The ideas raised at the recent Courage press conference urge government officials and journalists to consider the importance of essential workers and vulnerable communities, not only during the pandemic, but in Canada’s economic recovery. Only by taking stock of their concerns and demands, as the organizers and participants showed, will Canada be better prepared for future crises.
Community-based mutual aid and choruses of “ça va bien aller” will not be enough for the most vulnerable in our society, said Rochette Legros, “we must reclaim the conversation on austerity before it’s too late.”
Poet and activist Christian Favreau is based in Montreal (Tiohtiá:ke) where he organizes with Climate Justice Montreal, the Courage Coalition, Our Time, and La planète s’invite au parlement. He has written for Canadian Dimension and Graphite Publications.