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Community Update: Looking back on 28 tough months 

7 MIN READ

COVID-19 exacerbated the chronic challenges people have always faced, like poverty, social isolation, and mental health. It has disproportionately impacted people across Prescott-Russell, Ottawa, Lanark County and Renfrew County who were already marginalized by systems that did not recognize or include them.    

As a community, we have had to seek out new, innovative approaches to keep the most vulnerable people from falling through the cracks and to keep our doors open through the toughest times. 

Since February 2020, United Way East Ontario’s COVID-19 Community Response Table has taken on many roles. This group of more than 100 public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and others kept a common goal of supporting local people as they cope with the effects of COVID-19. This required constant collaboration between organizations and across sectors to quickly find solutions to the most pressing challenges. 

Now, more than 28 months into the pandemic and 26 Community Response Table meetings later, we reflect on the key experiences and recommendations that should drive our work moving forward.  

This will be our final – for now – community update on the COVID-19 Community Response Table, as our work responding to the pandemic no longer has the crisis tone it did two years ago. As we close the book on this chapter of our response, social service leaders and elected officials offered perspectives on why, and how, the Community Response Table was integral to our sector and communities over the past two years.   

A RACE turned into a marathon

Dierdre Speers, the Executive Director of Family Services Ottawa, offered an acronym to describe the work of the social services sector, and the COVID-19 Community Response Table (CRT): 

  • R for rapid change – Frontline services, and particularly charitable social service organizations, have not been used to the speed at which we needed to adapt over the past two years. In a scrappy sector that is often under-resourced and working from grant to grant, it’s hard to overhaul. But the big pivot of the pandemic required quick, creative changes that rose above the day-to-day work and looked at the opportunities in the big picture.  
  • A for access – Vital services like mental health counselling, crisis supports, food delivery, caregiver supports, and others did not have the option to close the doors during the pandemic, because the most vulnerable people were relying on us. This required us to find new ways of reaching people that continued their care while many aspects of daily life were on hold. Counselling Connect and Seniors Centre Without Walls are lasting examples of imaginative, accessible solutions, built or strengthened over the past two years.   
  • C for connections – In the early days of COVID-19, no one knew the right way to react, because none of us had lived through a pandemic before. We quickly learned that working alone was not an option. The CRT was a platform for bringing together funders, frontline services, elected officials, private businesses, advocates, people with lived experience, and others to learn from each other, solve problems together, speak up with one voice, and take action as a group. We found that it was more effective to expend energy on something that would benefit the whole community, instead of each of us using that same energy on our own small piece of the pie.  
  • E for equity – COVID-19 did not create inequities, but it has disproportionately impacted people who were already marginalized: Indigenous peoples, Black and racialized communities, women, low-wage workers, people with disabilities, seniors, and others. As we reimagined the way we worked, we knew this was also an opportunity to incorporate a justice lens into these new systems and remove barriers. 

“None of us are going to be the same coming out of this, but it doesn't mean that everything we had to pivot to is going to stay either. When I look ahead, we’re now dealing with identifying what makes sense for the people in our community, and how do we get the best outcomes.”

Putting best practices into action

Leaders in the social services sector showed how innovation, accessibility, collaboration, and equity guided their work over the past two years. In some instances, the pandemic spurred new ways of offering existing programs. In other cases, it spawned new initiatives where there had been gaps.  

Here are some of the successful collaborations to come out of the COVID-19 era: 

  • The Ottawa Black Mental Health Coalition works to ensure there is a strong, united, and coordinated mental health response for the African, Caribbean, and Black (ACB) community in Ottawa. This was even more critical during the pandemic, when ACB and racialized communities were experiencing disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 due to institutional oppression, systemic racism, and chronic exposure to discrimination.


    OBMHC worked with its network and with support from the CRT to launch the ACB Community Counselling portal through 
    Counselling Connect; a mentorship group for ACB mental health professionals; and a hope-based conversation about the effects of the Ottawa occupation on racialized communities. These efforts helped build trust within the ACB community, knowing that services by and for them were available. 

  • The Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network is the backbone of the Food Insecurity Forum of Prescott-Russell which had its inaugural meeting in June 2022. This table of food relief programs, businesses, food relief agencies, and government come together to look for solutions to challenges that impede equitable access to nutritious food. Together, the group is addressing food insecurity upstream and challenging the status quo of how services provide the most vulnerable people with their basic needs.  

  • The Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre shared updates on its Hollyer House affordable housing project, developed in partnership with the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, Christ Church Bells Corners, FAMSAC Food Cupboard, and WOCRC. The building features supportive housing for women and families, a community health and resource centre, and a food bank. It serves as an example of how faith-based organizations can strengthen social services at a time of increased need and decreased resources.  

  • The Ottawa Child and Youth Initiative shared how the pandemic enabled them to connect more seamlessly with their network of agencies because of the switch to virtual engagement. Virtual programming also made it easier for many youth to participate despite barriers like illness or a lack of transportationThe network of youth-serving agencies also found creative ways to support youth by dropping off programming kits, making physical distancing a fun challenge, taking programs outdoors, and more.  

  • Lanark County Interval House and Community Support reiterated that collaboration and strengthened support networks were integral to rural communities over the past two years. LCIH and Lanark County Mental Health led the opening of the Lanark County and Smiths Falls temporary isolation centre, which was a critical resource for homeless or precariously housed people to be able to quarantine.

    Recently, rural community leaders in violence prevention testified at the inquest into the deaths of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam, and Carol Culleton with the intent of preventing gender-based violence in rural areas. Erin Lee shared how her hope is that the future we build with what we’ve learned is one of justice.

“The most critical thing I would share as a leader in a rural community is that this table has taken steps to make sure we're included. And that's not something that's common for urban centers. I applaud the work of the United Way and all the great partners that sit at these tables and make the work that much easier to do by collaborating and leaning on each other.”

Allies in office

One of the purposes of the CRT was to provide social services with a platform to speak with a unified voice about issues and opportunities to people in power. Throughout the past two years, the table saw participation from elected officials from across Eastern Ontario who pledged to support the table’s work, provide resources where appropriate, and elevate issues to the proper government channels to address them through policy. 

One of those staunch supporters was Jeremy Roberts, formerly the MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean. Jeremy frequently brought provincial ministers to meetings, aligned to the theme, and educated other policy makers about the value of our sector. He offered advice for our advocacy efforts moving forward:  

“As an elected official you have so many people coming to you with different priorities, concerns, and problems, and it can become quite overwhelming. The easiest way that you can help impact change is to be able to come forward with a problem identified, a potential solution, and also some data to back up that potential solution.”

What comes next

The social services sector is not immune from the human resource challenges facing our workforce. Workers are leaving the non-profit sector in droves, bringing many organizations to a breaking point, all while the demand for services steadily rises. We know that burnout, stretched financial resources, contract hiring, and other pressures are leading to mounting strain on the sector’s ability to deliver services. We know the principles we’ve learned over the past two years will help us tackle this challenge head on.  

United Way Centraide Canada has submitted its interest in serving as one of the national funders for the Community Services Recovery Fund: a forthcoming $400 million investment from the Government of Canada to help charities and nonprofits adapt and modernize as they recover from the pandemic. Timing on the funding is to be determined, but we know this funding will be an important piece in strengthening social services over the long term.  

Our sector continues to lead in building a stronger, healthier future for our communities and for the social safety net that supports us all. Despite the amplified strain on organizations, we continue to find collaborative, creative solutions. Working alone is no longer an option.   

As it has been since before the pandemic started, at United Way East Ontario, our work is grounded in the principles of collaboration, partnerships, and innovation to address the greatest needs and have the greatest impact for the people who need us most. COVID-19 required an even sharper focus on these principles to cope with new and compounded crises. 

We have learned to manage the effects of the pandemic, and we have exhausted the need for a COVID-19 Community Response Table, for now, but we bring what we’ve learned into this next phase of our work: rest, recovery, and renewal for a more equitable future beyond COVID-19. 

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The Government of Canada tabled its 2024 budget on April 16, 2024. Read our analysis on what it means for social services and people in need across East Ontario.

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