As pandemic response measures continue to be unveiled, we are essentially watching the real-time expansion of Canada’s social-safety net. While most of the COVID-19 programs are meant to be temporary, a political conversation has now started around what measures may be here to stay. Initiatives such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, Emergency Care Benefit, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance continue to be urgently needed. The pandemic has also caused many long-standing social problems to rise to the surface. These disparities, particularly in vulnerable populations, are leading to calls for change.
This week, the focus zeroed in on paid sick leave and the horrific state of so many long-term care homes in Canada. A damning report by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) outlining the desperate state of many of Ontario’s long-term care homes, forced Premier Doug Ford to commit to taking immediate action. He confirmed that the province has launched an investigation that could lead to criminal charges against five long-term care homes shaken by COVID-19.
The CAF report’s findings show that negligence and poor adherence to public health directives contributed to the devastating outbreaks in Ontario’s long-term care homes. Canadians have been shocked by the horrific stories coming out of these facilities during the pandemic, with many calling for changes to long-term care regulations. However, the detailed accounts found in this report of grotesque, inhumane and negligent treatment of our elderly written by soldiers trained for the horror of combat, may just be the catalyst for big changes to senior-care in Canada’s two largest provinces. Yesterday, the CAF’s report from their deployment in Quebec’s long-term care facilities was released by the Quebec Government and it was equally as disturbing.
Another issue that came to light this week was the lack of national standards for paid sick leave. This week, the federal government announced they will work with the provinces and territories to ensure that every worker in Canada can access at least 10 days of paid sick leave a year. This could be an important element to the “recovery phase” of the COVID-19 pandemic, given the importance of isolation and physical distancing. Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that as more people return to work, it will become even more important for all workers to feel they have the ability to stay home if they are sick.
Paid sick leave to protect Canadians from illness in the workplace shouldn’t just be exclusive to the current pandemic. Many Canadians, including those in vulnerable and low-income communities, do not currently have access to paid sick leave. This means that can’t look after themselves or others while sick. The federal government is being urged to look beyond COVID-19, since even the annual flu season causes about 3,500 deaths in Canada and over 12,000 hospitalizations. The New Democratic Party has been very vocal in their call for permanent paid sick leave. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his caucus made this issue the price for their support of the Liberal motion to extend the hybrid, pandemic-focused Parliament, thus avoiding the return of regular sittings. The NDP says they will “keep pushing the government to make sure they deliver on this commitment and that they work with provinces to make sick leave for workers permanent going forward.” Political cooperation between the NDP and the Liberals may have sparked nostalgia for past minority governments, but expect political posturing to be the order of the day for every single vote.
This pandemic has shown that emergency measures supporting vulnerable communities are needed and that they are needed permanently. The issues exacerbated by this pandemic exist year-round, 24 hours a day. They’re just easier to ignore the rest of the time. The coming days will show what lengths the federal and provincial governments will go to protect Canada’s most vulnerable now. The coming months will then show if that support and protection is here to stay.