The economic impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women, younger workers and racialized Canadians.
Often characterized as the “she-cession,” the overall negative economic impacts of the pandemic have been unequal. If left to run its own course without appropriate government support, the consequences of inaction will amplify the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada.
If “growing the middle class” is the goal, as the prime minister and his government suggest, it will take a concerted effort on a variety of fronts; redesigning the employment insurance system, improving access to child care and focusing on infrastructure spending.
Ever since the Great Depression and the introduction of Keynesian economic theory, government spending on infrastructure has paved the way to economic recovery. The world has changed much since the 1930s, but time and time again in the face of economic downturn, Keynesian theory has held true and government spending on infrastructure has successfully brought not only the Canadian economy, but world economies out of recession.
I have no doubt that increased spending on infrastructure for shovel-ready projects will be laid out in the upcoming speech from the throne. With the known economic benefits and multiplier affects infrastructure investment has on creating jobs, how could it not be? But here lies the challenge.
A “prime the pump” approach to stimulus is effective but is it enough for the recovery we would all like to see? Is there a way we can leverage massive government expenditure on infrastructure to create greater economic benefits than Keynes even imagined? The answer is yes.
By mandating Community Benefit/Workforce Development Agreements into infrastructure procurement contracts, more Canadians – specifically Canadians who have disproportionately been affected by the pandemic economic fallout – can benefit.
In a recent poll to Canadians on their views on Community Benefit Agreements (CBA), conducted by Earnscliffe Strategy Group, it found 60 per cent of Canadians are supportive of infrastructure projects undertaken in Canada that include a CBA.
CBAs exist in a variety of forms across the country.
Federally, under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, the Community Employment Benefits Initiative was introduced in 2018 and has seen little use; programs also exist in British Columbia, Ontario and Newfoundland.
In Newfoundland, which has the longest track record of successfully using community benefit/workforce development agreements, they have successfully increased the number of women in the trades from the national average of three to four per cent, to 13 to 21 per cent in the province, depending on the trade.
CBAs take time, have to be well thought out, and require stakeholder buy in and accountability. But they work.
By including solid employment equity plans, targeted apprenticeship ratios and engaging local communities, government spending on infrastructure can do more. With a stroke of the pen in the speech from the throne the federal government, with parliamentary support, can help steer the positive impacts of infrastructure spending to help those who have been most severely affected by the economic downturn due to COVID-19.
Growing the middle class and building back better at this juncture of the pandemic needs to be more than partisan slogans, they can be a reality that can improve the lives of countless Canadians for years to come.
Something that all Canadians, regardless of political stripe, can support.
Sean Strickland is the executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions.
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