Labour shortages and processing backlogs have sparked lively debates about the impact of COVID-19 on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). These debates also highlight the need for greater access to information. Through a collaboration with expert Andrew Griffith, the ICC is bringing monthly immigration and citizenship data to the public through a new dashboard.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan Hiebert (University of British Columbia) and Howard Ramos (Western University) were speculating about the possible impact of COVID-19 on immigration and citizenship in Canada. These discussions highlighted the unique value and importance of data and ultimately led to monthly tracking of IRCC data across the full range of programs: Permanent Residents, temporary workers, settlement services, international students, citizenship, and visitor visas.
The importance of data was made visible during the citizenship backlogs in the early 2000s and 2010s, which prompted the respective governments to increase funding to IRCC to reduce large backlogs.
We were curious how COVID-19 would change the complex set of push and pull factors that incentivize migration. Put simply, source countries have attributes that make life look more attractive abroad and host countries have features that attract newcomers. For instance, a weak economy or poorer quality of life at home compared to good jobs and good health abroad.
Monthly tracking of data would allow us to observe the downstream impact of COVID-19 on the number and origin of people moving through Canada’s various immigration and citizenship programs delivered through IRCC.
As it happened, the data revealed that COVID-19 did not significantly affect immigration source countries apart from China, where Chinese government restrictions and policies resulted in an ongoing decline compared to other countries.
In the end, it was the Canadian government’s immigration policy response after the initial shutdowns and restrictions that had a much greater impact on immigration and citizenship than our relative handling of COVID-19.
The government’s response included both short-term measures to address particular pressure points such as seasonal agriculture workers, greater flexibility for international students for remote study, and perhaps most significantly, the vast expansion of temporary residents transitioning to permanent residency (TR2PRR).
Picking up on earlier plans stalled by the pandemic, the government took full advantage of the opportunity to implement substantial increases in immigration levels, with the most recent plan committing to welcome 500,000 new permanent residents in 2025.
The citizenship program, briefly shut-down, moved to a mix of virtual and in-person citizenship ceremonies and has recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
Medium and longer-term measures included more online applications and tracking along with IT, AI, and associated investments to improve processing.
Each of these responses had an impact on the people moving through IRCC’s immigration and citizenship programs. But to what degree? The observable change can only be seen in IRCC’s monthly data tables, which remain complex and unapproachable to most.
The goal of this dashboard is to make basic immigration and citizenship data more readily available and accessible to the public. It focuses on permanent residents and new citizens in terms of overall numbers, immigration categories, the countries of citizenship and the year-over-year change. Application data is not included given the approximately six-month time lag. IRCC web data provides a sense of interest in immigrating to Canada and becoming a citizen.
The data series starts in 2018, two years prior to the start of COVID-19, and tracks the impact of COVID-19 and the related effects of the government policy and program responses to COVID-19.
Now, more than two years later, most of Canada’s immigration programs have recovered from the depths of COVID-19 health and travel restrictions.
A more in-depth analysis of COVID-19’s impact and Canadian immigration and citizenship’s recovery can be found in my article, “How the government used the pandemic to sharply increase immigration“.
The hope is that this dashboard will help to spark, substantiate, and contextualize more conversations about immigration and citizenship in Canada.
Andrew Griffith is the author of “Because it’s 2015…” Implementing Diversity and Inclusion, Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote and Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism and is a regular media commentator and blogger. Find him on Twitter: @Andrew_Griffith
MARCH 23, 2022 – A new national survey conducted by Leger on behalf of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) — Canada’s leading citizenship organization and the world’s foremost voice on citizenship and inclusion — challenges some cherished Canadian assumptions about immigration and citizenship.
“Canada is a nation of immigrants — and one of the stories we tell ourselves is that we are welcoming to new immigrants, wherever they may be from,” says ICC CEO Daniel Bernhard. “But while this may be generally true, new survey data points to the fact that many new Canadians are having a crisis of confidence in Canada — and that should be ringing alarm bells all over Ottawa.”
Survey findings include:
- 30% of 18–34-year-old new Canadians and 23% of university-educated new Canadians say they are likely to move to another country in the next two years.
- While most Canadians and new immigrant Canadians alike believe that Canada provides immigrants with a good quality of life, Canadians have a much more positive outlook on Canada’s immigration policy compared to new Canadian immigrants.
- New Canadian immigrants are more likely to believe that Canadians don’t understand the challenges that immigrants face and feel the rising cost of living will make immigrants less likely to stay in Canada.
- Immigrants with university degrees tend to have less favourable opinions on matters related to fair job opportunity and pay than other immigrants.
- Among those who would not recommend Canada as a place to live, current leadership and the high cost of living were the top two reasons.
The full survey data is available here.
“The data suggest that younger, highly skilled immigrants in particular are starting to fall between the cracks,” said Dave Scholz, Executive Vice-President at Leger. “We need to continue working hard to ensure that we are welcoming newcomers with the resources they need to succeed, and that we continue to be a country that provides opportunity.”
About the Study
The study included an online survey of 1,519 general population Canadians aged 18+ completed between February 25th – 27th 2022, using Leger’s online LEO panel, in addition to an online survey of 2,103 New Canadians using ICC’s New Canadian panel completed between February 24th – 28th. Weighting has been employed to ensure that the sample composition accurately reflects the adult population of Canada, as per the latest Census Data.
No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (i.e. a web panel in this case). For comparative purposes, though, a probability sample of 2000 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.5%, 19 times out of 20.
About the Institute for Canadian Citizenship
The Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) is a national non-profit organization co-founded by The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul. The ICC works to inspire Canadians to be inclusive, create opportunities to connect, and encourage active citizenship. Since 2005, the ICC has also supported more than 300,000 new Canadian citizens with programming to encourage a sense of belonging and build a more inclusive Canada.
Leger is the largest Canadian-owned market research and analytics company, with more than 600 employees in eight Canadian and US offices. Recently, Leger presented the most accurate polling results for the 2021 Canadian federal election (including the most accurate results in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia) and the 2019 Canadian federal election. This accuracy is due to the quality of the company’s LEO panel and its employees’ expertise. For more information: leger360.com
For further information: firstname.lastname@example.org
While millions of Canadians remained indoors during COVID-19 shutdowns, our public spaces and how we use them began to subtly shift. In order to meet new physical distancing rules, we’ve also altered nearly everything about how we move through the city, how we work, and how we spend our leisure time. But this moment of restructuring could also be an opportunity, and by pushing these changes just a little bit further we could use COVID-19 as the catalyst to make our public spaces healthier and more inclusive long into the future.
Public transportation was one of the first public spaces to see a sharp decline in use during the pandemic as millions of Canadians stayed home and forwent their typical daily commute to instead work from home. Ridership on Toronto’s TTC was down a staggering 80 per cent in April, although it’s expected to rise to 50 per cent of normal numbers by October. To combat the risks of crowding, city governments will need to invest in their transit systems by adding more terminals, altering seating arrangements, and making other adjustments. To push these changes even further cities could begin providing free fare to all riders — something that an estimated 100 cities in the world have already done — to ensure that transportation is accessible to lower-income riders and to incentivize transit use over car ownership, curbing greenhouse gas emissions and making our cities healthier and safer.
At the same time that some spaces have been seeing declines in use, others have been seeing significant boosts. A Park People survey of over 1,600 Canadians found that 55 per cent of respondents said that their park use had increased during COVID-19 and 82 per cent said that parks had become important to their mental health. Bike lanes have been expanded in cities across Canada in an effort to reduce crowding on public transit and reduce potential congestion on roads as well. Increased usage of greenspaces and more cyclists on the road are both examples of positive shifts in lifestyle that improve the physical and mental health of residents; and with the right policies, these changes could stick.
The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, written by urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat, argues that COVID-19 and it’s recovery period represents “a window to act” and implement changes in Canada that could “kickstart our journey toward more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and resilient cities.” The plan takes a holistic view at how cities function, looking to ensure that the most vulnerable — who have been hardest hit by the pandemic — are being well-served by city planning.
People with disabilities, those who are immunocompromised, and the elderly are too often overlooked when it comes to thoughtful city design, which means that countless Canadians are excluded from participating in society because their needs are not being accommodated. With an increasingly aging population (by 2036 seniors are projected to comprise about 25 per cent of the Canadian population) we’ll need to consider how people who have different abilities and needs can be best served by public services, infrastructure, and policies.
People with disabilities have been advocating for many of the methods that have now become much more widespread during the pandemic, including telecommuting and flexible schedules. Before COVID-19, employers were slow to make accessibility a priority, but because of the pandemic, we’re seeing just how possible these changes are.
At the same time that we’re advocating for changes like these, we also need to stay attuned to the complex ways that policies fit together and who they impact. Jay Pitter, an urbanist and placemaker, has urged us not to overlook those living in “forgotten densities” like homeless shelters, senior care homes, or public housing — all of whom are struggling during the pandemic due to inadequate and unsafe infrastructure that puts them in close proximity to other people. As calls for physical distancing increase and density is seen as a risk to disease prevention, it’s important to consider the needs of the many Canadians who, through a variety of circumstances, are not able to inhabit their living spaces or local communities safely.
“Instead of being fearful of increased anti-density bias,” writes Pitter in an April article for Azure magazine, “we need to apply what we know toward a good urban density framework. This framework should be evidence-based and overlap with social determinants of health, such as food security, race, gender and poverty, while being anchored in a strong equity-based placemaking paradigm.” Not only that, but policymakers need to consult meaningfully with both experts and community members in order to make these changes, Pitter states. “Fully undertaking this scope of work is not possible during a pandemic. But we can certainly advance the process instead of diminishing the suffering of those experiencing density-related health challenges,” she writes.
Despite the limitations we’re currently experiencing, there are still plenty of reasons for optimism. Changes that once seemed impossible before the pandemic are already beginning now, and by applying the knowledge we have and truly listening to the needs of the most marginalized, we could take advantage of the momentum created so far and transform our cities, green areas, and workplaces so they are more inclusive for all.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in Canada and shutdowns began — closing businesses, leaving hourly workers hanging, and forcing many of those laid off to apply for unemployment — millions of Canadians worried how they would make ends meet.
In late March, the Trudeau government released a statement announcing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which allowed many of the Canadians affected by the pandemic to collect $2,000 per month. “No Canadian should have to choose between protecting their health, putting food on the table, paying for their medication or caring for a family member,” read the Department of Finance press release on March 25.
The move was heralded by many for providing essential financial support during a difficult time. But, some advocates have asked, what happens once the pandemic is over? Even before the pandemic, countless Canadians were forced to choose between essentials, like food or medication, due to a lack of economic resources. And after the pandemic, the number of Canadians experiencing hardships is likely to be much greater. Addressing these needs long-term will require a more comprehensive approach.
The concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) — a policy where governments provide a basic economic safety net through recurring payments paid out to all citizens — has been around for a long time, and UBI programs have been attempted around the world with notably positive effects. A study from the Stanford University Basic Income Lab found that in low and middle-income countries, UBI policies led to poverty reduction and, across all of the countries studied, improvements to health and well-being were observed.
Canada has flirted with the idea of UBI twice in the past: first during a study based in Manitoba in the 1970s, and another in Ontario between 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, both were stopped before a proper wide-scale analysis could be completed.
However, a 2011 review of the Manitoba study found a number of positive outcomes for the more than 2,000 households who received support, including a decline in hospitalizations, reduced doctor visits, as well as improvements to mental health. Results in Ontario — though limited due to the study’s premature cancellation — were also positive, with respondents improving their diets, smoking and drinking less, and reporting lower levels of anxiety.
One of the main arguments in opposition to UBI as a policy is that many believe it would discourage people from working, since they could simply stay home and collect benefits instead. However, the evidence found in Canada doesn’t seem to support that concern — in both the Manitoba and the Ontario studies, participants continued working despite receiving benefits.
Predictably, programs like this can be expensive, but the Ontario study suggests the savings to health-care services could at least partially offset the costs of the program itself. And overall, economists that have modeled the effect of UBI show that the net economic effect would be beneficial. A U.S. study conducted by the Roosevelt Institute found that a UBI that paid each American $1,000 per month would grow the economy by about 12 to 13 per cent.
UBI Works, a Canadian organization comprised of supporters from the business community, researchers, and economists, has made the business case for why a basic income plan should be introduced in Canada. On their website, they state that “UBI is an economic need that puts markets in service to humanity, installing the plumbing into capitalism that adds resilience and robustness to the economy, ensuring everyone can fully participate to their potential.” Though many tend to focus on the economic costs of UBI, there are also considerable economic benefits as well.
UBI addresses the material conditions of citizens directly by giving them the financial resources to meet their needs. In this way, it can help improve the persistent inequalities in health, education, and economic security that disproportionately affect BIPOC citizens. A basic income is also a way to address the sizable wealth gap between white and BIPOC citizens: data from 2016 found that the average white household in America had ten times the wealth of the average Black household, and around eight times the wealth of a Latinx household. Though UBI wouldn’t necessarily fix this wealth gap, it would be a great place to start.
The way that CERB was implemented widely and quickly in the weeks following the start of the pandemic shows that, if given the incentive, the government could implement a universal basic income program across the country. And in the same way that CERB has helped millions of Canadians stay afloat (and, in some cases, earn more than they were earning in their previous positions), the same benefits could be seen if UBI was implemented permanently.
Most of all, UBI transforms the relationship between individuals and their labour and helps us envision a different way of living that is not centered on gruelling work, exploitation by employers, and various kinds of discrimination. With so many jobs being lost due to automation in recent years; the gap between rich and poor growing ever-wider; and the economic impact of COVID-19, maybe it’s time to consider some of the ways that having a basic financial safety net could have a positive effect on the lives of Canadians.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where misinformation and conspiracy theories can seep into government decision-making and has shown how social media can spread incorrect information that is a danger to public health. The United States has been the prime example of this, with COVID-19 cases growing at a staggering rate while President Donald Trump continues to share information that contradicts the advice of scientists and experts. By comparison, Canada’s response has been more or less in line with public health recommendations and cases in Canada have been much lower — about 120,000 cases total across the country compared to more than five million in the US.
However, Canada’s success can also present a challenge when it comes to convincing some people about the severity and seriousness of the virus. With the worst-case outcomes avoided so far and the curve successfully flattened, the measures that Canadians have been asked to follow can seem like an overreaction. This has created what some have called a “paradox of prevention,” where the more successfully we prevent the spread of the virus, the more we might begin to believe it’s not really a threat.
Convincing others of the effectiveness of prevention, even when the benefits have proven themselves, can be difficult. A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that among the obstacles to implementing prevention strategies is the fact that “the success of prevention is invisible, lacks drama, often requires persistent behavior change, and may be long delayed.” Prevention requires group effort, individual accountability, and long-term thinking, with the rewards being far off and hard to measure.
In the case of Canada, however, our neighbours to the south can act as a direct point of comparison, making the benefits of prevention and following public health advice demonstrably clear. But even so, conspiracy groups in Canada have continued to gain followers while spreading inaccurate information, including instances of racism and scapegoating of people based on their ethnic origin, as well as misleading claims about the spread, severity, and dangers of COVID-19.
One group, calling themselves “Hugs Over Masks,” circulated pamphlets in downtown Toronto and on social media spreading the false claim that mask-wearing was dangerous to the health of wearers. Anti-mask demonstrations have appeared in Montreal, Winnipeg, and other cities across Canada. Now, as vaccine production moves forward, skepticism and misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines has also begun to grow.
The reasons behind the popularity of conspiracy theories is complex, but one important element is an acute mistrust of politicians and government institutions, sometimes veering into paranoia. And with the pandemic disrupting so much about our day to day lives, necessitating somewhat drastic government policies like physical distancing and lockdown measures, mistrust is further amplified.
University of Guelph professor Maya Goldenberg told the CBC that conspiracy theories around both mask-wearing and vaccines are linked to feelings of public confidence. “When you don’t trust the sort of basic infrastructure that’s supposed to support public well being, you’re going to come up with all kinds of tactics to try to resist it,” said Goldenberg.
To help counteract conspiracy beliefs, doctors and other experts need to be patient and respectful when addressing misinformed people. “If there’s one way to get people defensive, it is to disparage them and not to take them seriously,” said Goldenberg. Creating and building trust is a long and difficult process but individual interactions can have an impact.
If friends or loved ones begin to show interest in conspiracy theories, it’s also helpful to remember that their response could be related to fear and unease; anxiety in response to existential threats is commonly associated with conspiracy beliefs. Talking to loved ones in a calm way, rooted in facts, and asking about the source of their information can also be helpful.
Misinformation has become a huge obstacle to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s important that we continue to have difficult conversations about the accuracy and reliability of the news we consume. Recently, Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, stated that physical distancing and mask-wearing measures could continue for the next two to three years. To move forward, knowing how to communicate accurate information will be essential for our long-term success.
Misinformation about the origin, spread, and treatment of the novel coronavirus has proliferated online ever since the first days of the pandemic, spreading widely on social media. An April survey of more than 2,000 people found that one in five Canadians believed that the Chinese government engineered the novel coronavirus in a lab, and nearly one in ten believed that the pandemic is a way for Bill Gates to implant people with microchips. Of course, neither of these claims has any basis in fact, but their popularity has nonetheless exploded online, with social media posts in support of these ideas racking up countless likes and shares.
In the beginning of the pandemic, before we had an abundance of reliable, well-communicated research on the virus, the spread of misinformation online could be considered somewhat understandable. But as the months have passed and data and public health recommendations have become more clear, misinformation has nonetheless continued to thrive. This begs the question: Why are conspiracy theories still so popular?
Conducted by researchers with the Vox Pop Labs COVID-19 Monitor, the April survey found that certain characteristics seemed to be linked to a belief in conspiracy theories, including, significantly, where respondents got their news. Canadians who got their COVID-19 news from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit were more likely to believe in conspiracies than those who had never visited these sites for news content. Unlike reputable news publications, the information being shared on social media is not necessarily reliable or fact-checked, leading to confusion for readers and a higher risk of believing misinformation.
A study published in Psychological Science highlighted the ways that social media can shape our beliefs by creating an online environment where the number of likes and shares a post has can distract us from considering the accuracy of a particular source. When a post receives attention online, readers might be more inclined to assume that the post is true, despite it containing inaccurate information.
How our social media feeds are set up could also be working against us. The way that social media feeds tend to mix information that requires us to think critically about accuracy (like COVID-19-related theories) with content that does not require much critical thinking (like vacation photos shared by friends) may lead users to “habituate to a lower level of accuracy consideration” while online, the study says.
Tied to the issue of social media is the way that politicians like Donald Trump have been able to use digital platforms to pursue dangerous political goals. Trump has used Twitter to spread racist ideas surrounding the virus, referring to it as the “Chinese virus” even as Asian Americans were targeted by discrimination — especially in the early days of the pandemic. When Black Lives Matter protests sprang up across the country, the president used his platform to target and demonize protestors. And, more recently, Trump tweeted out a video that supported the disproven idea that hydroxychloroquine could be used to cure COVID-19.
These tweets have a direct effect on the president’s supporters. A study from the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review found that Trump supporters were taking the president’s lead when it came to facts surrounding the virus in a kind of “top-down” model of information spread. “As Trump initially trivialized COVID-19, individuals who looked to him for guidance followed suit to a greater extent than those who did not,” the study stated.
The politicization of public health recommendations, like mask-wearing, has served to radically increase misinformation in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. An apparent disagreement between two competing authorities — what the president and his allies have claimed and what public health experts across the world have claimed — makes distinguishing between accurate and inaccurate information all the more difficult. The US — currently home to more cases of coronavirus than any other country in the world — has become an example of what happens when conspiracy theories are left unchecked and allowed to infect policy decisions on a national level.
Still, not all hope is lost. There are numerous organizations that are working to combat COVID-19 misinformation online through fact-checking initiatives, including Snopes, Politifact, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Walrus. And experts say that there are strategies social media companies can use to help reduce the spread of misinformation online, such as “nudging” users to consider the accuracy of the sources they’re reading before sharing.
Some social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, have been experimenting with adding accuracy warnings on certain posts related to the pandemic. However, critics argue much of their efforts have been inadequate as misinformation remains on the platforms, sometimes even after being debunked by fact-checkers.
The short-term outlook for mitigating misinformation online unfortunately does not look promising. With the U.S. president himself being flagged by Twitter for sharing inaccurate information to his over 84 million followers, the real solutions to combating misinformation will need to be much larger and wide-ranging than what we’ve seen so far. With the number of cases of COVID-19 continuing to increase worldwide, figuring out how to address this problem is quite literally a matter of life and death.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Canadians to take a deeper look at some of the things they may take for granted, such as having a safe place to find shelter, having access to healthcare services, and — after reports of empty shelves due to panic-buying at the start of the pandemic — even the availability of healthy food to eat.
Though food supply chains have remained steady so far and shelves are now restocked, for some Canadians, accessing food for themselves and their families will nonetheless become an issue as food insecurity increases, according to recent reports. Though there have always been Canadians who have gone hungry at home, that number has noticeably grown during COVID-19.
In a study conducted in May, Statistics Canada found that almost one in seven Canadians reported having some degree of food insecurity at home — an increase from around one in eight before the pandemic between 2017 and 2018. Food insecurity is defined by Health Canada as the inability to consume a diet of sufficient quality or quantity, “or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so,” and is typically linked to a lack of income available to spend on food.
COVID-19-related food insecurity may continue to rise; experts report that the price of food could further increase as pandemic-related costs (like PPE and physical distancing) cause food suppliers to charge more.
Like so many aspects of the pandemic, racialized groups and low-income households will be among the hardest hit when it comes to food insecurity. Black households in Canada are over three times as likely to be food insecure as white households. And according to the 2019 First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study, almost half of First Nations households in Canada experience food insecurity in some way.
Newcomers to Canada are also vulnerable. A 2019 study of food insecurity among new immigrant and refugee children in Saskatchewan found that half of the households studied experienced food insecurity. The reasons that some newcomer families struggled included overall low-income levels, prescription drug and hygiene product spending that cut into their food budget, and the need to repay transportation loans from the government that bring refugees to Canada.
Now, the economic impact of COVID-19 — which has had an effect on all Canadians — could have disastrous implications for food security across the country. Statistics Canada data shows that Canadians affected by business closures and layoffs have higher rates of food insecurity than Canadians who are currently working. In June, the unemployment rate reached 12.7 percent in the country, decreasing just slightly after a record high of 13.7 percent the month prior.
A TD Bank survey released in July found that BIPOC communities were among the most likely to be impacted financially by COVID-19. In 2019, the unemployment rate for immigrants who had lived in Canada for less than five years was 4 percent higher than the unemployment rate for those born in Canada, suggesting that new immigrants could also face additional hardships when it comes to finding work during the pandemic.
Though Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments have helped alleviate some of the economic pressure on families in Canada, not everyone is able to claim them. An analysis done by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that more than 800,000 unemployed people in Canada would not be eligible for either CERB or EI benefits. And as the CERB program begins to be phased out in the fall, even more families could be at risk of food insecurity.
Early on in the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised $100 million worth of funding for food banks across Canada in an effort to address food insecurity in Canada. In 2019, food banks had more than a million visits from people across Canada. About 13 percent of all food bank users are immigrants or refugees, according to a 2016 HungerCount report.
However, food banks are only a short-term solution. In fact, experts argue, the idea that they are the final solution to the problem of hunger in Canada is actually not supported by data. Valerie Tarasuk and Lynn McIntyre, researchers at the food security research program PROOF, argue that providing basic income directly to individuals — not relying on food banks — is the best way of addressing the issue.
By choosing not to confront the full picture of food insecurity in Canada, governments are putting the health and welfare of Canadians at risk — particularly vulnerable BIPOC communities and new immigrants. Food insecurity has serious impacts on health, including higher rates of iron deficiency anemia, hypertension, and diabetes among those affected. It’s also linked to higher healthcare costs and, in the most severe cases, can reduce life expectancy by nine years.
The solution, say Tarasuk and McIntyre, is to address the root cause of the issue by providing further financial support directly to Canadians. And, as the pandemic continues to drag on, to do so quickly. “Without effective responses to the additional hardships brought on by COVID-19, the number of people affected by food insecurity and the levels of deprivation they face are going to get a whole lot worse,” they write in an article for Policy Options. “So, mounting an effective response now is critical.”
In a recent poll conducted by ICC and Leger, respondents were asked the following question: “Compared to before COVID-19 began, do you feel more or less connected with your family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, community, city, province, country?” Responses were mixed. Overall, 29 per cent of Canadians said they felt more connected to their family, but they also felt less connected to friends and their broader community since COVID-19 began.
These results make sense as more people remain indoors, many with their families, and engage less often with those outside their home. But they also seem to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the social bonds that connect Canadians to one another, which could have a lasting impact not only on individuals but on society as a whole.
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam uses the term “social capital” to describe the process by which networks of people work together to accomplish shared goals or pursue shared interests. Putnam argues that our ability and willingness to gather in groups can have an effect on things like civic engagement and democratic participation. Coming together is a way to build trust, strengthen social ties, and advance community needs, and could include group participation in anything from parent teacher organizations to churches to Scout troops.
By some measures, Canada fares relatively well in this area. Before the pandemic began, a 2019 report from the World Bank found that Canada ranked high in terms of social capital compared to other countries. And 2013 data from Statistics Canada found that social capital had stayed relatively stable over the 10-year period between 2003 and 2013, with 65 per cent of Canadians participating as members of a group, organization, or association, and nearly half participating in group activities at least once a month.
At the same time, other research has shown that loneliness has been on the rise in Canada and voter turnout has also declined since the 1970s, suggesting that social ties and civic engagement are not quite as strong as they could be.
When it comes to COVID-19, existing social capital can be an important asset to individuals and communities. Research has found that it is especially beneficial during disasters, since social networks become more important when our lives are strained by economic hardship, illness, or widespread disruptions.
Recent protests may point to a positive shift when it comes to social capital in Canada, as thousands of people gathered all over the country to work toward the shared goal of combating racism, systemic discrimination, and police violence. Despite the risks involved in congregating in large groups during a pandemic, the World Health Organization has come out in support of the protests. Many public health officials have acknowledged that the protests represent an “essential” form of public gathering; they are directly related to the structural racism putting Black, Indigenous, and racialized groups at greater risk during the pandemic, resulting in significantly higher rates of COVID-19 related infection and deaths in these communities.
In this way, social capital is at once strained and more focused in this particular moment as people are forced to watch the inequalities already present in their country continue to widen. Frank Roberts, an NYU professor and expert on U.S. social movements like Black Lives Matter told the BBC: “You have a situation where the entire country is on lockdown, and more people are inside watching TV…more people are being forced to pay attention — they’re less able to look away, less distracted.” In a sense, this is exactly what social capital is about: turning attention away from individuals and toward social systems and group needs.
Another question asked in the ICC/Leger poll was whether Canadians believed that the COVID-19 crisis would “bring diverse communities in Canada closer together.” The poll found that more Canadians felt that the crisis would bring together diverse communities (43 per cent) than those who did not (32 per cent), with the remainder stating that they were unsure. Canadians of colour agreed more frequently with this statement than white Canadians, and younger Canadians were more hopeful than older Canadians.
The widespread protests from St. John’s to Vancouver in support of anti-racism action can be considered a positive indication that the desire to come together to pursue shared goals remains strong among Canadians. Meanwhile, thanks to physical distancing measures and high adherence to shutdown rules, Canadians have managed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections and new cases across the country remain relatively low.
In the coming months — and, perhaps, years — communities will likely face even greater challenges as the economic fallout and disruptions to our day-to-day lives continue. But if the past few months are any indication, we have plenty to be hopeful for when it comes to the state of social capital in Canada.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on racialized communities, especially Black and Indigenous people in Canada. In the United States, overwhelming data has shown how BIPOC communities have had higher rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths. But the real extent of these effects in Canada isn’t yet known, due to governments’ persistent decision to not collect data that distinguishes between racial groups.
Recently, more and more advocates have been emphasizing the need for race-based data in health care. In an April letter addressed to Premier Doug Ford, Deputy Premier Christine Elliot, and Chief Medical Officer David Williams, 192 organizations called on the Ontario government to begin collecting race and socio-demographic data during the pandemic. “We cannot address what we cannot measure,” the letter states. “We will not address population health inequities and effectively contain COVID-19 without data that illuminates gaps to care in our system.”
Since then, the Ontario government has added questions related to race and ethnicity to the list of questions asked of COVID-19 patients. Other provinces, like Quebec and Manitoba, have announced similar changes.
But why wasn’t this data being collected in the first place? After being asked about race-based data collection in April, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health suggested that the province’s approach to the crisis would be colour blind. “Regardless of race, ethnic or other backgrounds, they’re all equally important to us,” Williams said.
Though such an approach may give the semblance of equal treatment, colour-blind policies can actually keep us from tackling important problems by shielding us from the disparities that exist between racial groups. Without race-based data, systemic changes that address inequality and discriminatory policies will be more difficult to accomplish.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), race-based data could play an important role in implementing the province’s human rights code. The OHRC’s data collection fact sheet states that “in the context of racial discrimination, data collection and analysis can be a necessary or even an essential tool for assessing whether rights under the Code are being or may be infringed and for taking corrective action.”
If there are no real procedural reasons for why governments in Canada haven’t been collecting information on race, citizens may conclude that having the data necessary to better combat racism is simply not a priority. “Discrimination is not necessarily about what you do. It’s often about what you don’t do,” Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, told the CBC. “And the fact that we haven’t collected this data seems neglectful, because everybody really knew we should be collecting these data but it was never at the top of anybody’s list of things to do.”
Data on race is especially important in Canada in order to debunk the persistent myth that racism isn’t a problem in the country. A 2019 Global News poll found that nearly half of respondents felt that racism was either a “minor problem” or “not really a problem” in Canada. Strikingly, the same poll seemed to reveal Canadian’s deep-seated racist biases, finding that nearly half of respondents either “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with the statement that: “While I sometimes think racist thoughts, I wouldn’t talk about them in public.”
[icc_block_quote quote=”This pandemic has demonstrated, once again, that Canada doesn’t care about Indigenous peoples.” author=”Courtney Skye, policy analyst, Yellowhead Institute” border_colour=”#000000″]
By collecting race-based data on COVID-19 and other issues, it will be harder for Canadians to ignore — or plead ignorance — when it comes to discussing the disparities that exist between different racial groups. The data on race that we have already shows significant disparities in terms of income, higher rates of incarceration and school expulsions, as well as higher rates of food insecurity and homelessness among BIPOC versus white Canadians.
The quality of race-based information, how it’s collected, and how it’s used is also important to consider. Though data about Indigenous communities, for example, has been collected to an extent, the reliability of that data has been put into question. Research from the Yellowhead Institute found discrepancies between the number of cases of COVID-19 calculated by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and cases reported by the communities themselves. In early May, ISC reported 175 cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous communities, while community-sourced data found that there were nearly three times that amount, with 465 cases reported.
These discrepancies exemplify how Canada has continued to fail these communities by not providing disaggregated data based on race, not providing accurate data collection coordination between provincial and federal governments, and not taking into account the many Indigenous people in Canada who do not live on reserves.
“This pandemic has demonstrated, once again, that Canada doesn’t care about Indigenous peoples,” writes Courtney Skye, a policy analyst at the Yellowhead Institute, in a recent article. “While long asserted by our communities, we have the data — or rather, the lack of data, to prove it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has marked a turning point in the data collection discussion and — along with the momentum created by recent police violence and anti-racism protests — advocates are now also calling for race-based data to be collected on other issues. So far, they have seen some notable success: in Ontario, the province’s police watchdog organization will begin collecting data on race for the first time, and Statistics Canada will begin to collect race-based data on how employment rates have been affected by COVID-19, among other developments.
However, governments still need to go further. In countries like the United States, where thorough data on racial disparities in health and other issues is widely collected and generally available, BIPOC communities nonetheless continue to live with significant inequalities. And even when data is collected, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s widely shared. Recently, federal data on the racial breakdown of COVID-19 infections was only made available after the New York Times sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, forcing them to make the data available.
What we do know about the challenges facing BIPOC communities in Canada shows that inadequate housing and dangerous working conditions as essential workers, means that these communities are being especially hard hit by COVID-19. With the stakes being life or death, real change is urgently needed — and accurate data is the first step.