Most of us are still standing, though many are weary. The hopes for a “return to normal” have been dashed, as school years, businesses and the lives of loved ones continue to be upended, six months since the pandemic started.

What have we learned about our public policy, and about each other?

The pandemic revealed systemic weaknesses already known to many policy-makers, researchers, frontline workers and citizens: No social safety for gig workers. No real system of childcare outside Quebec. A long-term care system that has been immorally neglected.

Others have experienced, learned and empathized: that Employment Insurance may not be there when it’s needed; that mental health services are simply out of reach for most; that we are dependent on the work of those in precarious employment situations that offer few choices or protections; and that Indigenous people, racialized Canadians and women continue to face more difficult choices because they are more likely to be vulnerable to this crisis.

The main supports to get Canadians through this crisis were, and remain, literal life supports – to get income to people and businesses, to keep people out of harm’s way, or to offer as much health-care support and treatment as we can muster to keep them well.

How did these life supports come together? We collectively worked across parties, jurisdictions and ideological orientations to address the economic, social and psychological catastrophe that fell on many Canadians. There have no doubt been blunders, but Canadian governments, policy professionals and civil society organizations have genuinely tried to address the problems that we collectively face — avoiding some of the damage, and most of the social collapse, that appears to our south.

In general, across parties, we trusted evidence and understood that functional and effective government was the essential institution to get us through the past six months.

Where decisions were imperfect or where issues were ignored, new and unlikely groups and alliances rose up to demand better — mostly of governments and other public institutions, but sometimes of companies, sports leagues or their fellow Canadians.


From First Policy Responders to Building Back Better

Although there has been disagreement around their magnitude, there has been broad-based support for those first-response measures — income supports, rent relief, emergency investments in health and education, and the public health measures themselves. For those of us running the First Policy Response project, the importance of government and community in addressing systemic risks is more obvious than ever before.

But the issues we face – what to do about long-term care, childcare, systemic racism, industrial policy, Employment Insurance, green transition – are unlikely to attract the cross-partisan consensus that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit did. All of these issues will raise choices about resources, taxes and debt on which there is currently no consensus.

The most important debate right now is whether to use the current moment to address long-standing economic and social policy failures — to “build back better,” in the words of many — or to return to how we used to run the policies and systems, maybe reforming them around the edges but not fundamentally changing them.

This latter “status quo ante” camp seems to hope that once a vaccine is found, we can pretend like this whole thing never happened. Like we weren’t reminded every day that many of the people who care for our elderly, mind our children, run our small businesses and deliver our food live precarious economic lives, with few of the social protections that those who work at universities or banks or government take for granted.

To us, and to most of those who have contributed to the First Policy Response platform, regardless of political stripe, the pandemic deepened social and economic inequities and vulnerabilities and revealed shortcomings in our existing public policy landscape. To many progressives in the policy community, and to many evidence-oriented conservatives and centrists, it seemed obvious that the pandemic was forcing us to confront a number of our long-standing policy (and moral) failures. And the audience for these public policy conversations reaches far beyond the policy-making class — as shown by the six Video Town Halls that First Policy Response has hosted, which have been attended by hundreds of frontline workers and their advocates.

But the forces of the status quo ante are strong. They populate many of the institutions that influence our ongoing pandemic response. And they also dominate our narratives, making it difficult to imagine new ways of approaching these long-standing problems.

In the early days of the pandemic, we were struck by how many people were critical of those who were looking to improve our policy architecture: “Put the economy in a coma.” “Don’t use the crisis to drive your pet project.” “There is a special place in hell reserved for anyone who uses the pandemic to advocate for anything other than stabilizing the economy.”

But all around us, people and institutions are questioning their assumptions, reimagining their agency and no longer expecting to return to the status quo ante when the pandemic officially ends. Large employers are rethinking their real estate footprint. Artists are rethinking how they communicate with their audiences. Athletes are discovering their political power. Families are deciding what, and who, is truly important in their lives, and making big, life-changing choices as a result.

So why can’t governments, and our policy-making apparatus, start aggressively questioning some old assumptions as well? It seems bizarre that the National Football League can finally get behind the Black Lives Matter movement while some Canadians with power and resources can’t imagine a legislative framework that ensures decent work for people who deliver their food or clean their grandchildren’s schools.

People have been shouting for years that there are problems in our systems of early childhood education, long-term care, Employment Insurance and workplace protections. And they have had their proposed solutions ignored and their reports – often commissioned by governments – sit on shelves. Now we’re in a situation that has proven their diagnoses, at the very least, to be exactly right. Now is exactly the right time to document how our policy failures affect our fellow citizens and do something about it.

The forces of the status quo ante have already started to shift their language, claiming that Canadians are anxious and worried and insecure (which they are), so now is not the time for grand schemes. But the kinds of reforms being discussed – income-support systems for precarious workers or accessible public services – are not magical dreams. They respond to the real anxieties that many Canadians face. And, incidentally, investments in robust social infrastructure such as childcare and housing also enable the inclusive economic growth that everyone claims to want.


Opportunities for immediate reform

The critical gaps that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed in many of our systems – in areas such as childcare, income support, economic growth, decent work and the transition to a low-carbon economy – require transformational changes, not status quo ante thinking. In these five areas, off-the-shelf plans have already been developed to guide the work of closing those gaps:

  • On childcare, we have published policy proposals by experts Kate Bezanson, Andrew Bevan and Monica Lysack. Recent work by the Prosperity Project and the Feminist Recovery Plan by YWCA Canada and the Institute on Gender and the Economy have joined earlier work by groups such as the Ontario Coalition. For many, Quebec’s now-decades-old childcare reform remains an inspiration.
  • On climate change, Corporate Knights has published a roadmap for a green recovery, joining in work by the Smart Prosperity Institute and the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery — and building again on prior work by these groups and others.
  • On income and worker support, the Mowat Centre published its major report on EI reform nearly a decade ago, and the Public Policy Forum more recently, and have been joined by a pandemic-era report by Jim Stanford, ongoing work by groups supported by the Atkinson and Maytree Foundations, and others. To its credit, the federal government has recently announced reforms that may address the gap for gig workers. Others have published renewed calls for a more broad-based universal basic income or for supplements to existing social assistance programs.
  • On decent work, activists, researchers and community organizations have been highlighting how our employment standards regimes have failed to keep up with changes to the labour market. Many provincial governments have acted on issues such as the right to organize and misclassification of employees as contractors, but much more needs to be done – and the federal government has an off-the-shelf roadmap.
  • And on economic growth, the has published a series of reports on industrial policy, joining the Canadian Labour Congress, the Council of Canadian Innovators, industry associations and others, as Canadians struggle with how to generate economic wealth and growth as economic and business models rapidly evolve.

Reasonable people will dispute the prescriptions in these reports, but the problems identified are clear, as is the need to address them. And as recent Broadbent Institute polling shows, the appetite from Canadians to pull out these roadmaps is there.

Governments and communities can make progress on each of these five issues. In the service of a more sustainable and just Canada, First Policy Response will continue to aggregate material, publish original insights and host Video Town Halls on these issues — and tackle others that are more fraught, where we still don’t have a roadmap, or even a shared diagnosis.


Karim Bardeesy is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab and Matthew Mendelsohn is Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. They are co-creators, with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, of First Policy Response.