Community Update: An equitable economic recovery starts now

8 MIN READ

As we pass the first year under the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels heavy to look back on a year that was marked with losses of all kinds. 

On March 12, 2021, our COVID-19 Community Response Table met for its 21st meeting, almost exactly one year after the first case of the virus was confirmed in our region. Over the past year, tens of thousands of people across Canada have lost their lives to the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, many of which will not return.

COVID-19 affects everyone, but not equally. This is consistently reflected in the job market. 

Job losses have disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable groups: Indigenous peoples, women, low-wage workers, young people, racialized communities, people with disabilities, and newcomers. 

Since March 2020, United Way East Ontario has led a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others at the COVID-19 Community Response Table. These organizations are committed to supporting the most vulnerable people through the pandemic.

This week, our table met to hear from experts from employment organizations about how we can incorporate equitable employment into the pandemic recovery. With vaccines becoming more widely available, and as we begin to plan for a future beyond COVID-19, we can take the lessons we’ve learned over the past year with us to build a more prosperous future for everyone.  

Monica Cruz from the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP), Carole Lavigne from Economic Development & Tourism in the United Counties of Prescott-Russell, Jan Goatcher of the John Howard Society, and Clara Friere, Employment & Social Services at the City of Ottawa, joined a panel to offer their insights, strategies, and thoughts on a more prosperous future for our communities beyond COVID-19. Here’s what they had to say:

What does an equitable economic recovery look like?

Michael Allen

By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario

“The communities that had the lowest socio-economic status prior to COVID-19 are the ones that have been most deeply affected by job loss, and are at most risk of more prolonged unemployment.”

— Clara Friere, City of Ottawa

Knowing that COVID-19 did not cause the social challenges our communities have struggled with over the past year, Clara stressed that an equitable recovery is about more than just dealing with the effects of the pandemic: it requires long-term strategic thinking that incorporates the lessons we’ve learned over the past year.

All panelists stressed that an equitable recovery must be rooted in the diverse realities of every single person in our communities. Any rebuilding efforts must be collaborative, anti-colonial, culturally-responsive, and shaped by the people who have been affected the most. 

Carole spoke about the need for continued collaboration and communication between organizations that serve their communities so the recovery does not happen in isolation: everyone has a part to play. 

“What I would like to see is everyone have the opportunity to participate and thrive in our community, and this includes vulnerable populations. We need to provide services to individuals in a way that works specifically for them.”

— Jan Goatcher, John Howard Society of Ottawa

What role can community services play in planning and policy development? 

The social services sector provides life-saving programs that support economic growth, mitigate public health costs, and employ about one million workers in Ontario alone. Monica added that “community services are essential to leveling the playing field and enabling equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and more.” 

Looking to community services is a great place to start when we plan for an equitable economic recovery, but those services must have adequate organizational capacity, funding, and up-to-date data and research in order to respond to the needs of the people who need them. 

Over the years, OLIP has built toolkits to support other organizations as they move towards equity and diversity. Empowering not-for-profits and community services to continue leading this work that is already underway will have a big economic impact in the social services sector and beyond. 

 

“We need to remember that equity is both a guiding principle and a goal.”

— Monica Cruz, Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership

For Clara, the not-for-profit sector is in a unique position to hold funders, partners, and each other accountable in their equity goals. She acknowledged how important it is for municipalities to work collaboratively with the social services sector on planning and structural decisions around anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but also to help them fulfill those practices.

What are examples of strategies and approaches that are working now and can be strengthened?

Jan spoke about four key approaches that are working for her clients at the John Howard Society and could see further success with more resources: 

    1. Resource accessibility: Phones, laptops, and internet connectivity have become essential to participating in the economy during the pandemic, and will be in a post-pandemic world, too. Funders have been flexible in letting JHS use funding dollars to purchase technology and affordable internet for their clients so they can continue working or training to enter the workforce. 

    2. Training opportunities: Remote programming has both made services more accessible, but also cut specific people out of participation in programming. Jan stressed that employment training services still need to reach out in creative ways to people who are most vulnerable so they don’t spiral back into precarious living situations due to being disconnected. 

    3. Supportive employment: For many vulnerable populations, getting a job is only one piece of the puzzle. Supports like basic skills programs, adult high school equivalency training, mental health support, and digital and financial literacy are all important to keeping people successfully employed and presenting opportunities for them to grow in their roles. This often also means helping workplaces effectively accommodate and ensure there is a trauma-informed, inclusive lens to employment. 

    4. Collaboration of community services: “A job is part of recovery.” When community services work with health care, with funders, with government, and with the private sector, they can ensure better outcomes for marginalized populations in all facets of their lives. 

 

“When we see the value of our grocery workers and the essential workers that they have become, this is a time, in my opinion that we do need to raise the minimum wage.”

— Jan Goatcher, John Howard Society of Ottawa

In rural communities, lack of public transportation can be a barrier for many people to participate in the labour market. In Prescott-Russell, Carole shared that a pilot project public transit service opened in October of 2019 to serve residents across the United Counties with a request-based bus service. The service was paused during the pandemic, but the Counties look forward to seeing how it can support an equitable economic recovery in the coming months. 

What is the one thing you’re listening for from government announcements and plans? 

Monica says OLIP is always listening for announcements that prioritize diversity and inclusion. For example, the City of Ottawa’s establishment of the unit on Gender and Race Equity, Inclusion, Indigenous Relations and Social Development, as well as the post-COVID economic rebound table, have been welcome strategies implemented in Ottawa.  

For Carole, investments in rural affordable housing is of the utmost importance. She is also interested in having the poverty line raised to be on par with the increased cost of living. 

Jan looks for funding for new social enterprises with supportive employment aspects, which are an important training ground for vulnerable populations. While they are successful in helping people, they often need support and time to establish themselves as a viable business. 

Carole Lavigne
Economic Development & Tourism,
United Counties of Prescott-Russell

Leading by example

Stéphane Giguère of Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) spoke about how the catalyst for social procurement can lie in crafting internal policies that prioritize meeting equity goals. For him, social procurement isn’t about compromising on quality or price to ensure a social impact—it’s about making sure social enterprises can be competitive enough to show even more value than a regular business. As a result, OCH has one of the largest social procurement portfolios in Canada. 

He cites Good Nature Groundskeeping as a strong example: a local landscaping social enterprise that employs people with mental health challenges who face barriers to employment—many of which have been residents of OCH themselves. 

Stéphane Giguère
CEO, Ottawa Community Housing

“We know that the sector is vibrant, and we know that the more people are successful in low-income or marginalized communities, the better the community is overall.”

— Stéphane Giguère, Ottawa Community Housing

For Jenn McCabe at the City of Ottawa, the biggest challenge is bridging the gap between social enterprises that are ready to do the work, and industries who don’t know where to look for social procurement opportunities. “My dream is to build a network that will support city vendors in achieving social outcomes,” she said. 

Both Stéphane and Jenn note that legislative changes could incentivize big organizations to prioritize social procurement in their business, and legitimize the work of talented social enterprises.

The path forward

Over the past year, the COVID-19 Community Response Table has pooled our resources, shared data, gathered input from those with lived experiences, and spoken with one voice to tackle social challenges in our communities. This group has advocated for, reimagined and funded programs, partnerships and policy changes to respond to the urgent needs of the most vulnerable people. 

While the pandemic is not over and its effects will last for many years to come, we must now begin to plan for how we can build a stronger future for everyone. As we start to lay the groundwork for an equitable economic recovery, here are our key recommendations to strengthen this work:

  • Mobilize our communities and municipalities to leverage and invest in community wealth building initiatives like social enterprises, social procurement models, and “buy local” principles. We must focus intentionally on small businesses and uplifting the talent pool of underrepresented groups. 
  • Support the community and all levels of government to increase access to basic needs like food, PPE, utilities relief, digital assets, and improve access to tax and financial literacy programs. Without their basic needs met, many cannot even consider entering the labour market.
  • Invest in programs that re-skill those most impacted by COVID-19 in sectors like tourism, service, and accommodation. These people will have the longest wait before re-entering the labour market. By retraining them with skills like digital literacy, we can expedite their return to work.  
  • Support employers to build inclusive and culturally safe workplaces, and equip them with the tools and resources they need to do so. Networks like Hire Immigrants Ottawa (HIO), the Partnering for Success in Youth Employment (PSYE) table, Planet Youth Lanark County, and the Employment Accessibility Resource Network (EARN) can spearhead this work. 

While still managing the implications of the pandemic, now we have to roll up our sleeves and live into the ambition we have to build a more equitable, just, diverse, inclusive recovery. We know this does not have to be at odds with an economic recovery: the two can happen simultaneously in the best interest of our communities. We have the resources and the lessons learned through the past year, now we have to forge ahead. 

In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to COVID-19. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit unitedwayeo.ca/covid19.

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