“For a few weeks now, lives have been completely changed,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outside his home at Rideau Cottage on Friday, April 3rd.
During his daily COVID-19 briefing, the prime minister stands alone behind a podium, onto which a foam core sign has been attached.The beard he started growing to mixed reviews in the new year is coming in gray. He stopped wearing a tie about a week ago. In front of him is a group of reporters and camera operators, who are protected from the cold spring rain by a large white tent, the kind used for outdoor weddings. They are standing two metres apart.
As he struggles to buck up the nation, the prime minister delivers stern public health messages while announcing the latest emergency programs and logistical plans that government is implementing to help Canada through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Calm and straightforward, Mr. Trudeau demonstrates the qualities we expect from our leaders times like this. But COVID-19 has exposed the weakened seams of the Canadian social fabric, stretched to the breaking point by increasing income inequality.
According to Statistics Canada, “tax filers in Canada’s top 0.1 per cent, who made at least $740,300 in 2017, took home 17.2 per cent more income than in 2016. People in the top 0.01 per cent, who made $2.7 million or more, saw their incomes rise 27.2 per cent – making for the fourth-biggest annual increase in the last 35 years,” reported the Globe and Mail. “The average total income of all tax-filers rose 2.5 per cent to $48,400 compared to the previous year. The average income growth of the bottom half of tax filers increased 2.4 per cent to $17,200.”
The explanation, they said, is likely related to efforts by the country’s highest earners to avoid paying more taxes in 2016 when the federal government introduced a new top tax bracket, the report said.
In global emergencies, the weakened seams in the social fabric turn into gaping tears. The country needs immediate action. It also needs repair.
"We stay home, we do not send children to school," continued the prime minister on Friday. "But some families are having an even more difficult time.If you lost your job. If you’re no longer receiving a paycheque, you’re wondering not only how you can pay your bills at the end of the month, but how you can buy groceries the next day. I’m announcing that the government will provide $100 million to meet the urgent food needs of vulnerable Canadians.”
“We had a crisis on our hands prior to the pandemic,” says Nick Saul, Executive Director of Community Food Centres Canada, whose organization was one of the recipients of the government support. “We came into COVID as an unequal society. If you are struggling, you are not going to be buying extra food. Then COVID comes along and, wham, we go from 5% to 15% unemployment.”
Of the $100 million, $50 million went to Food Banks Canada, $20 million was divided evenly between Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Community Food Centres Canada, and Breakfast Club of Canada, and $30 million was designated for local-level organizations who serve people experiencing food insecurity. It will be administered through the Ministry of Agriculture as part of the Local Food Infrastructure Fund, a pipeline set up last year as part of the government’s new food policy.
“We are very grateful the government is providing such support,” says Kirsten Beardsley, Chief Network Services Officer for Food Banks Canada, which supports a network of provincial associations, affiliate food banks, and food agencies that work at the community level.
“It’s difficult to get up-to-the-minute data while we're filling need, but anecdotally I can tell you, for example, in Whistler, B.C., food bank use went from 40 people a day to 300 people a day. They are hard hit because of tourism.”
National food organizations have been sounding the alarm on food insecurity for years.
“During the 2008 recession, foodbank use went up by 28% and it has never really come down since,” says Beardsley. “We were anticipating the impact of the pandemic, but we’ve never seen this level of government response. The next few weeks will be critical.”
“The pandemic puts the spotlight on people in poverty or on the bubble,” says Lt-Colonel John P. Murray, Territorial Secretary for Communications for the Salvation Army. A recent poll conducted for the Salvation Army by Maru/Matchbox.com found that 41% of people don’t have enough food to eat as a result of the pandemic.
“That’s 12.5 million Canadian who have food insecurity right now.”
The Salvation Army specializes in emergency response, and their reach is significant. They operate in 400 communities, large and small, and run 118 shelters at 64 sites across the country. They are the largest provider of direct social service in Canada.
“We anticipate this type of thing and have pandemic planning in place,” says Murray “and we’re very well situated on the front line with public health messages to people who are not watching CNN and need the information about hand-washing and coughing into your elbow.”
In the world of federal emergency respose, a plan is only as good as its logistical infrastructure.
Saul and Beardsley say funds have been already flowing out to the local level.
“We’ve already distributed the funds to our eight divisions in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Murray. “It was distributed last week, by Thursday. Our food trucks are on the road, going into communities where people cannot get out to go to a food bank."
“We operate in 10 provinces and three territories,” says Daniel Germain, president and founder of Breakfast Club of Canada. “How can we help? Our kids are in school, now they are home, what do we do? Our job was to bring food close to the community.”
Breakfast Club of Canada started an emergency fund as soon as things the pandemic became widely spread and more than a dozen corporate contributors supported it by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars. Community groups can apply for grants, says Germain, to supply what they need to reach people with food. So far, they’ve had 500 applications, 25% of those from Indigenous communities.
“We all worked together to go to government,” said Germain. “It is no longer about a brand or your own organization, and that says a lot about the people we have running the largest food organizations in Canada. When we went to meet with Minister [Marie-Claude] Bibeau, she wanted to know how we could start quickly. This was important to the government. And we could do that.”
“The need started long before COVID-19,” says Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, a food organization that “reclaims” food that would otherwise be wasted.
Just before the pandemic, Second Harvest had completed a piece of comprehensive research that found between 61,310 and 65,434 organizations in Canada currently use food as part of their programming, including 15,207 schools, and require between 9.6 and 15.1 billion pounds of food a year to fulfil their current program requirements.
“That equates to between $30.2 and $47.7 billion,” says Nickel.
“As soon as this all hit, we convened a task force made up of our food partners, the corporate sector and government. And we were able to take this new research to government.”
Coming out of the research, Second Harvest had also developed a web tool, foodrescue.ca.
“We were going to roll it out over two years, but we’re hitting the ground running with it now as a portal to distribute food and funding.”
“In fleeting moments, I think things will change dramatically after we come out of this,” says Kirsten Beardsley. “The coalitions and collaborations in the last four weeks will have to take us through. We are not going back from here.”
“It took seven to 10 days from the day we went to see the minister to the day the announcement was made,” said Nick Saul. “This was done with great speed.”
“While the pandemic is tragic,” says Lt-Colonel John Murray. “how this is causing us to reflect on our humanity is a good thing."
“It’s important to remember that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, the GST credit and the Child Tax Credit are all important parts of the overall program,” says Saul. “It’s not just about food. A fair society starts with a fair economy. We need to find a way to transform compassion into the ballet box. It opens up an opportunity for conversation about a new kind of politics and a sense of social cohesion.”
“I think this will change a lot,” says Daniel German, “What we know is that, realistically, we are in 1800 schools now and when schools come back, we’ll likely have a 60% increase is the number of kids. All year round there’s a crisis."
“We need a different infrastructure,” says Lori Nikkel, “we need to reach people where there is no infrastructure.”
“I hope we can all set targets on food security,” says Saul, “but politics is a contact sport. Many people have different ideas about how society should work. Does COVID mean we talk about people and the planet? There is the opportunity. Instead of asking how much will it cost, we can ask, how much will it save?"