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Opinion

We must act now to keep the windows of opportunity from closing again

Published on 29/06/2020

The windows of opportunity to push for enduring, systemic change are open.

While the COVID-19 pandemic might seem like a force out of our control, how we respond to it isn’t. The pandemic has highlighted some deep inequalities in our society. The numbers of infections and deaths have been much higher in neighbourhoods that are poor and where people are already struggling. Many of them are from racialized communities.

Those who are most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn are also most likely to be affected by another pandemic – anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Unlike COVID-19, however, how systemic racism has persisted and shaped our society has always been within our control.

Too many lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have been lost as the quest for racial justice has too often been superficially addressed. Although established with the best of intentions, some commissions, special inquiries, and corporate statements of concern have not delivered on these intentions. These efforts have not brought about the change that people have been fighting for.

We can no longer pretend that we are not aware of how deeply rooted systemic racism is in Canada. For the last month, we have yet again seen protests in the streets of Canadian cities, calling out instances of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism across the country. These were not the first and they won’t be the last.

To change the systems that create and perpetuate racism, we need to determine how best to translate these calls into policy, legislative, and cultural change so that the structures that govern our society are anti-racist in themselves.

We have a long road ahead of us. As windows of opportunity open, we have to make sure that they don’t close.

Many have been working on poverty and systemic racism for years, decades, and generations. But these efforts have too often resulted in tinkering at the edges. Stakeholders invested in the status quo have prevented deeper transformation and serious change. Governments, employers, unions, and private interests, including private foundations, are powerful forces that can limit – or bring about – serious change.

We are in a moment when people in positions of power and influence are increasingly open to long-overdue, difficult conversations. We must also be open to self-reflection – about our own organizations, leadership, and personal attitudes towards power and privilege. We need to reflect on our actions and how much they contribute to – and how much they hinder – change.

At Maytree, we are striving to ensure our work aligns with these imperatives and are continuously interrogating how we do our work. Who are we partnering with? How are we working with them? Are we getting out of the way and amplifying the voices of people and organizations already doing this work? How are we using our own positions of power and privilege to bring about the system change we collectively envision? How do we help to keep the windows open?

Critically, our focus on human rights helps to direct our work. While civil and political rights are enshrined in Canadian legislation and policy, we know that they can only be realized when economic and social rights are realized. We will continue to focus on strengthening the protection of social and economic rights, and this means looking to where the gaps in the systems are, where they have been shown to be deep and particularly precipitous, and who is left behind.

For example, we will focus on what happens after the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) comes to an end and how we can build a strong and well-functioning safety net. Decades of changes in our labour market, and a parallel retrenchment of our social policy infrastructure, have disproportionately impacted and left behind Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC). We will not achieve racial justice without structural change. Building a strong and well-functioning social safety net is not just about good social policy, but inherently, about anti-racist policy.

We will continue to call attention to tenants with low income, many of whom are BIPOC, who risk losing their homes when provincial moratoria on residential evictions are lifted. We must address the human rights crisis of homelessness, and ensure investments are made in affordable and deeply affordable housing, in perpetuity. We have to look to acquisitions, smarter use of capital, and long-term solutions to chronic homelessness. Our work needs to focus on building the systems and the infrastructure that will effect real change and challenge the status quo and interests that it protects.

This moment can be a catalyst for broad and enduring structural change. Or, it could lead to more tinkering around the edges.

The windows are open. We must act to keep them open.

Summary

We can no longer pretend that we are not aware of how deeply rooted systemic racism is in Canada. For systemic change to occur, we need to determine how best to translate the strong calls for change into policy, legislative, and cultural change so that the structures that govern our society are anti-racist in themselves.

Topic(s)

Civic engagement, Human rights