Reflecting on 2020 reminds us of thoughts and hopes considered last year at this same time, prior to COVID-19 lockdowns and public health emergencies.
Last year, issues reflected upon were housing affordability, mental health care, and sustainability of local government.
Well, clearly COVID-19 has exposed our lack of policy priority and funding towards these issues and many others, including, but not limited to, long-term-care, homelessness, and protection of our environment.
Contemplating our history is as important as considering our future. Thanks to Tu Thank Ha and James Keller, who in their article in the Dec 28, Globe and Mail, How Canada Weathered a Pandemic -100 years ago, drew parallels with events in 1918 to today. Then authorities banned public gatherings and shut businesses, there were complaints about mask-wearing, Stanley Cup playoffs were disrupted, and leading elected officials contracted the virus. It sounds familiar.
In 1918, the global pandemic landed on the doorstep of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Hundreds of Polish American volunteers at Camp Niagara were infected with Spanish Flu, with several fatalities. Their sacrifice was recognized by Canada officially designating land adjacent to St. Vincent de Paul cemetery, in which these Polish Americans are laid to rest, as national lands of Poland. Are we learning from our actions of the past?
In some cases, we have. Society invested in government and built capacity for supporting Canadians, evidenced in financial support programs, which helped us weather recent and previous periods of economic hardship. Society invested in private business, promoting employment growth, and sparking technological innovation and research, evidenced through expansion of the middle class and vaccine research and development.
In some cases, we have not learned. Society failed in managing housing affordability. Not since the successful housing programs in post-war 1950s, have we invested adequately, ensuring that housing supply meets our needs, evidenced by the struggle of many families to maintain their core housing needs and the soaring cost of middle housing, running unchecked despite a pandemic. All the while housing supply is choked by a legacy of a dysfunctional planning approval processes, nimbyism (not in my back yard exclusionary policies) and inadequate funding levels.
We failed to adequately invest in support for mental health care. Successive governments pulled back funding and programs, as public management of mental health care was pushed to the sidelines and handed off to non-government entities, all in the name of tax cuts and more efficient government, a not-so-common sense revolution. Yes, in the short-term, cuts were achieved but in reality, issues were just handed down to municipal governments, which were ill equipped and lacked adequate financial resources for the task. Mental health issues did not disappear, and today we have a broken model that does not serve us well, where front-line workers, including police and health-care workers, are tasked with managing society’s mental health care, lacking adequate support.
We failed to support our most fragile citizens, seniors in long-term care homes. Successive governments and their policies shifted management to privately-managed, corporate operators with weak operating guidelines and inadequate policies for guaranteeing minimal care. Private operators alone are not the problem, as many are quick to cast blame. More deservedly, the lack of adequate public policy and funding are the main drivers for this failure. This falls on all governments.
These specific examples happen to exist where the responsibilities of our local, provincial and federal governments intersect, having a joint responsibility in federalism, in developing clear national policy goals, and provincial implementation policies and local systems for robust delivery. Currently we have mission failure in policy areas where we see this intersection, a cumulative result generated by our federation’s structure and governments’ rigidity and inability to adjust as societal needs change. Successive governments, federal and provincial, said, “Not our fault, it’s their fault.” Canadian finger pointing.
How many times did local government wish to make investments in housing only to have successive federal and provincial governments decline their participation? How many times have advocates in long-term care requested increased hours of care for residents, only to have successive governments decline funding?
How do we address such complex issues?
Best to address what we can most influence. Let’s start locally with municipal government. A re-design of government service delivery with focus on serving residents better. Establish the goal to improve services, clarify the outcomes desired and attach sustainable funding models for government, while respecting local autonomy. Elected leaders must establish the goals, set the path and task policy experts to develop a set of actions for each goal to travel along that path.
For example, the lack of housing affordability is driven by the absence of a cohesive national-provincial housing strategy and successive provincial and municipal policies which have negatively impacted housing supply. Elected representatives (federal, provincial and local), must commit to the goal of improving housing affordability, and ensure alignment of their policies. Start locally. Local government can re-shape their planning approval process and task experts with developing a modern, planning approval framework with the approved goal, housing affordability. Provincial and federal governments can commit funding and provinces can align planning policies which are consistent with the goal.
Beginning with a local change, one that achieves its policy goal, and is focused on service improvement, that change will act as an impetus for other changes across our federation of governments and re-align our governments on key policy areas: affordability in housing, long-term care, homelessness, environment, mental health care and sustainable government. Encouraging all governments, local, provincial and federal, their representatives and their constituents to consider yesterday, while re-shaping government to tackle the pressing issues of today and tomorrow.