By Maria Solyanova, Ph.D. in Political Science, Research Fellow at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences
A crisis always opens up opportunities for evolution and transformation. The pandemic of the new coronavirus infection COVID-19 has become such a global crisis, taking world governments by surprise, has become a threat to the health of citizens, as well as to the sustainable development of national political systems. Governments were often forced to make highly unpopular decisions and balance between public health security and the social and economic needs of the population.
And there is no doubt that all decisions in the economic and social spheres will have political consequences and affect the ratings of government officials. They will become an occasion for discussion among the expert community of the need to modernize the public administration system, amendments to the regulatory framework, as well as changes in the field of interdepartmental, intergovernmental or interregional relations.
In September 2020, a UN report was published, including a comprehensive action plan for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of its tasks was to overcome serious inequalities. The report contains the main directions of government policies to overcome the crisis. These include: ensuring food security; social and economic protection of refugees, migrants, displaced persons and other vulnerable groups, including from violence, discrimination, xenophobia, racism and stigmatization; maintaining the mental health of the population, etc.
For Canada, this report is very relevant, since such social problems as violence, discrimination, xenophobia, racism and stigmatization, although not inherent in Canadian society, began to clearly manifest itself during the pandemic.
One of the main strategies of the Canadian government since the second half of the 20th century has been to ensure social protection of citizens. The recipients of various social support programs are such groups of citizens as children and youth, senior citizens, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples. In addition, Canada has special plans to reduce poverty and tackle the problem of homelessness by providing direct financial support to Canadian communities. So, since 2018, the Poverty Reduction Strategy has been in effect, according to which it is planned to allocate funding to improve the socio-economic situation of young people and elderly citizens, representatives of indigenous peoples, as well as to develop health care, transport, housing, education, employment and advanced training. These measures should ensure a 50% reduction in poverty by 2030. And thanks to the implementation of this poverty reduction strategy, the Poverty Reduction Act came into force in 2019.
Support programs have been developed in other social areas, for example, in the area of ensuring inclusiveness. So for people with disabilities, the government has developed programs to improve the accessibility of transport, public spaces, as well as accessibility, information, employment and the receipt of goods and services.
Thus, by the time the pandemic began, Canada had an extensive system of social projects that covered the most diverse segments of the population. However, it is the social and health sectors that have been most severely affected during the pandemic. So, according to Statistics Canada, the proportion of citizens who are satisfied with life fell from 72% in 2018 to 40% in June 2020. This is the lowest level since 2003. This indicated that deep social problems began to appear in society, and citizens began to experience social insecurity.
And although before the pandemic such a negative manifestation as social tension in society was absent (or was latent) due to the existence of a wide system of specialized programs and political strategies based on the principles of diversity, openness and inclusiveness, with the onset of the pandemic, the problems of inequality, racial intolerance and discrimination have exacerbated. It became apparent that Canada’s current political image as an immigrant-friendly country that advocates multiculturalism and diversity as a national identity could be challenged. The growth of intolerance has shown that integration policies (orientation programs, training, professional development, social services) are becoming insufficiently effective.
The problem of intolerance is mainly associated with the challenges that are characteristic of multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states – discrimination, racism and religious intolerance. And Canada is no exception. Even before the pandemic, experts pointed to data on the prevalence of discrimination cases, which made it possible to talk about the systemic nature of the problem. That is, we are not talking about one or two cases of illegal actions, but about deep problems in various spheres of public administration and insufficient attention of political parties to them. Therefore, it becomes clear that with the onset of the pandemic, when all the pre-existing social flaws were most clearly manifested, such phenomena as discrimination and racism could not but aggravate.
In Canadian society, immigrants represent a significant portion of the population. They make up one fifth of the Canadian population, which is one of the highest rates among developed countries. Immigrants make a significant contribution to the demographic development of the country, as well as contribute to the development of the economy and innovative technologies. And the Canadian government has a stake in developing policies that encourage the inclusion of new members of Canadian society.
Canadians themselves have had a positive attitude towards immigration and the immigration system in general for many years, and before the pandemic, only a third of the population would like to reduce its immigration rate. But when the pandemic began, loyalty to immigrants began to decline markedly. It turned out that the integration system needs to be revised, and the mechanisms at the federal and regional levels (Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988; Alberta Human Rights Act 2009; New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Policy Statements) – need some amendments.
As the Minister of Canadian Heritage P. Rodriguez noted, Canada is characterized by everyday manifestations of hostility and hate speech towards representatives of the indigenous population, as well as other groups based on racial, religious, physical or sexual orientation (Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.).
Statistics and case studies show how alarming such trends can be. Thus, according to the Statistics Service, as of May 2020, since the beginning of the pandemic, «visible minorities» have been targets of harassment or attacks three times more often (18%) than before the crisis (6%). At the same time, the most acute discrimination and intolerance manifested itself in relation to the Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian respondents.
And an opinion poll by the Angus Reid Institute and the University of British Columbia found that nearly half of Chinese or other Asian citizens have experienced discrimination. The latest public opinion poll showed how deeply racism, discrimination and intolerance are ingrained in society. Thus, cases of aggression, violence, verbal threats, etc., have become much more frequent in the country. This situation is largely due to the lack of strong close communication with the other part of the population, which was only aggravated by the introduction of anti-crisis restrictions and social isolation.
Indigenous peoples have become another population group against which manifestations of intolerance and discrimination have increased. In addition, the geographical remoteness of settlements, the lack of the necessary infrastructure (primarily in the field of health care), access to clean drinking water have turned into increasing risks to the health and well-being of a separate part of the population of Canada.
Of course, many risks in the social sphere, including intolerance and discrimination, have become actualized due to the rapid spread of the disease, as well as the unwillingness of society to the new situation and the imposed restrictive measures. But they existed before. The pandemic only exposed the systematic problems associated with social insecurity of Canadians, inequality, discrimination, intolerance and domestic violence.
Thus, such social problems were not on the agenda of the political elites, and decisions in this area were made ad hoc. Of course, economic response measures and the introduction of financial support programs for businesses, as well as individual groups of citizens, can in the short term mitigate the shortcomings of state, regional and local governance in the social sphere. However, in the long term, a deep rethinking and analysis of social policies before the pandemic, during and after the crisis is needed. Federal and regional governments will have to offer society effective means of overcoming them, and alternative approaches to socio-economic policy. Updating the socio-economic structure for a comprehensive solution to the problems associated with social intolerance can have several directions:
– transformation of internal and external interaction of public authorities of different levels with each other, as well as with scientific institutions and the private sector;
– economic reforms, reorganization of federal funding and transfers, improvement of legislation, formation of new programs and strategies for socio-economic development;
– protecting the rights of visible minorities, representatives of indigenous communities, women, persons with disabilities and other groups at risk and affected by the pandemic and the imposed restrictive measures.
As long as the pandemic continues, the situation in the field of Canadian social policy as a whole will be transformed. It remains unclear how long the effects of government policies at the federal, regional or local level will last, whether the pandemic will motivate the modernization of Canada’s social security system, and whether Liberal and opposition parties will be able to demonstrate their sensitivity to Canadian society’s needs, formulate rules and regulations.