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Building Back Better: Interdependence and Anti-Racism

Well, it's not often we can say this, but Canadian politics got very interesting over the course of the last weeks. First, a dramatic resignation of Bill Morneau as Finance Minister, then a proroguing (suspension followed by a Throne Speech) of Parliament, and to spice things up even further Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – currently the Conservative Party of Canada – elected a new leader, the Hon. Erin O’Toole. All of this is happening with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic which is posing incredible public health and public policy challenges. This is a time for creative policy development.  And if the pundits are correct, this fall our leaders will be focused on post-pandemic recovery in health, social welfare, climate and economics all framed under a lofty sounding ambition to build back better.*

Building back better will include deliberate reflection and action on this reality of interdependence.

Better also means different.  The current government was first elected in 2015 partly on the promises of governing differently. This included promises of doing better – much better – on Indigenous justice and reconciliation.  The good commitments have led to some promising initial steps like significant new funding for education. However, Indigenous communities and educators report that gaps persist in funding and graduation rates (as compared to provincial systems). On pandemic funding for Indigenous communities, the Yellowhead Institute reports that there has been no clarity on rationale, impact or adequacy.  And there has been weak government support for building Canadian compliance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called that a framework for reconciliation.   With all this evidence in it is clear that, so far, the promise to do better on Indigenous rights is a nice sounding aspiration with thin results.

Government response to the COVID-19 emergency has been creative, courageous and expensive. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been dedicated for the sake of protecting public health and the economy and it will take further creativity, courage and cash to build back better.  COVID has made it clear that public health is a matter of holistic interdependence.  Your health is linked to your neighbour’s and that health is very much dependent on the economic space to make responsible decisions to protect the health of family and community. Ultimately then, my health in a comfortable suburb of Ottawa, is connected to the health of: neighbours in the inner-city; the fly-in Indigenous communities that use health services here; and a refugee camp overseas.  Therefore, I submit to you, that building back better will include deliberate reflection and action on this reality of interdependence.

There is an understanding of interdependence and the need to make difficult decisions to support the life and health of neighbors. 

As we consider what interdependence means and what it requires in building back better, it will be important to reflect and act on another lofty aspiration – to do better for justice and respect for Black and Indigenous lives.  The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact in historically marginalized communities and that is an indication of the reality of systemic injustice – a reality all too often manifested in BIPoC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) communities.  The profound injustice of persisting (often for decades) boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities is, in the COVID pandemic, a major public health challenge. Appropriately, emergency funding has been available for many other public health challenges in urban centres in Canada where the life, health and earning potential of mainstream voters have been at risk.  Boil water advisories and other long-term emergencies affecting life, health and earning potential of BIPoC people and communities have not been the subject of sustained, creative, courageous and expensive decision making.   Canadians’ support for COVID responses suggest that there is an understanding of interdependence and the need to make difficult decisions to support the life and health of neighbors.  Given the racialization of injustice in our history and present, it is therefore critical that efforts to build back better include action to confront racism and the legacy of colonialism in this place called Canada.

*I'm aware that "build back better" is a phrasing used by partisan interests in the US. Its also the vocabulary of a fascinating and important policy debate in Canada.  Given these context differences please do not infer any support or citicism for US 'build back better' discussions.

Photo by Jon Sailer on Unsplash

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