The Coronavirus Crisis Exposed Gaps In Canada’s Social Programs. Now’s The Time To Fill Them

The Coronavirus Crisis Exposed Gaps In Canada’s Social Programs. Now’s The Time To Fill Them.

Canada’s welfare state flourished after the Second World War and could again from the pandemic.

By Samantha Beattie


Ken Newell returned home from the battlefield in 1945 to a transformed Canada.

Long gone were the days of his childhood as an orphan in Nova Scotia. His mother and father, a First World War veteran, both died of tuberculosis.

Unsupported by any government assistance, he had lived with a series of impoverished relatives who struggled to feed him through the Great Depression. Newell set out on his own as a young teenager to find a job, and at 19 enlisted to fight in the Second World War because “it was the right thing to do,” he said.

After five years of service that included gunning down German tanks, participating in the D-Day invasion of France and helping to liberate Holland, Newell found opportunities in Canada that set him on a new trajectory.

“Most everything changed,” Newell, 98, told HuffPost Canada from the veterans wing of a long-term care home in New Brunswick.

Ken Newell enlisted in the Canadian military to fight in the Second World in 1941. Pictured in August 2019 on the right, he currently lives in Saint John, N.B.


The government paid him to complete high school and then become an industrial arts teacher through a vocational training program for veterans. He went on to teach Grades 7 to 12 for more than 20 years, raised five children, and then built churches and houses in his retirement.

“We had a training system for anything you wanted to learn and we earned a dollar a day,” said Newell, a hint of excitement in his voice, 75 years later. “I took a number of courses. The government did a very good job in that respect.”

This turning point in Newell’s life came at the tail end of a series of cataclysmic events — the Great Depression that saw millions unemployed and national production plummet, and the World Wars that killed 110,000 Canadians.

Unemployed Canadians marched across the country during the Great Depression, demanding more support from the federal government. The men pictured here in Kenora, Ont., July 19, 1935, had marched from labour camps in Manitoba.


“The government existed to create governance and order, a vibrant economy and so on, but individuals had to look after themselves,” said University of Ottawa history Prof. Serge Durflinger. “If they fell by the wayside it was up to churches and charitable organizations to look after them, or their families.”

To avoid another crisis, the federal government expanded for the first time in its history to provide a social safety net for its citizens, said Durflinger. The feds rolled out job training, land grants, old age pensions and employment insurance to millions of Canadians.

Canadian army troops in Ottawa during the Second World War.


The Second World War, and its end, is a metaphor that officials have evoked throughout this spring as they try to make sense of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis that’s claimed 371,000 lives worldwide, and the massive governmental response that’s necessary to overcome it.

And as Canadians flatten the infection curve, we find ourselves in a similar moment, poised to begin the recovery process but unsure of what the new normal will look like. Will we emerge better than before?

“Canada hasn’t seen this type of civic mobilization since the Second World War,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters April 1, urging Canadians to practise social distancing.

Seen on May 15, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has held daily news conferences from Ottawa throughout the pandemic.


Trudeau’s government has enacted a dizzying array of emergency measures, in tandem with provinces and municipalities. Canada has subsidized wages for more than 284,000 businesses, and provided emergency financial assistance for more than eight million Canadians. It has increased the Canada Child Benefit, encouraged banks to allow mortgage payment deferrals, and given provinces money to top-up pay for health-care workers who work on the front lines of the pandemic.

And, like in the 1940s, the government is spending an incredible amount of money. In order to finance the emergency response, the Trudeau government will likely see its deficit balloon to $250 billion in 2020 —  a more than 10-fold increase from 2019.

“The amount of debt and deficits we’re going to be facing will be pretty tremendous,” said University of Toronto Prof. Dimitry Anastakis, who specializes in Canadian business history. “At some point the government is going to have to raise taxes.”

A woman walks by a message scrawled on the side of a Toronto business on May 14, 2020.


Finance Minister Bill Morneau told CBC in May that he is not currently thinking about raising taxes, or cutting services.

“The most important thing we can do is preserve and enhance our position for afterward. If we hadn’t made these sorts of investments in people and businesses, we would be in a much more difficult situation,” said Morneau.

“Yes, we will face tough choices afterwards. But the best way we can face up to that is by having that resilient economy afterwards, by getting ourselves back to work.”

It’s important to note that the COVID-19 crisis is not a war, said Anastakis. There’s no human enemy to defeat, or stark Victory in Europe Day-type end. The pandemic will wind down gradually — with second and third waves of cases — as  scientists work towards a vaccine or treatment.

“But the state is responding to the crisis and like in the [two World Wars], it rises in its interventionist ability to fight this,” Anastakis said.

And there might be a silver lining.

The early welfare state policies of the 1940s transformed Canada, said Durflinger. People without a lot of money or education suddenly had access to training and jobs that would’ve otherwise remained out of reach, leading to national economic prosperity and the baby boom of the 1950s and ’60s.

The rise of the welfare state also led to the systems we now take for granted, such as universal medical insurance that began in the 1960s, said Durflinger.

A counter for registration at an unemployment insurance office in Canada 1943. 


“Both world wars had tentacles that streamed into all facets of society,” said Durflinger. “Canadians now take for granted that the government has a duty to help them, but this mentality is a result of the cascading series of policies through the decades.”

Inequalities for non-white Canadians persisted, however, noted Durflinger. The thousands of Metis, First Nations and Inuit men who fought in the Second World War and their families were excluded from post-war programs, and subjected to cultural genocideabuse, and human rights violations, which persist today.

Thousands of people of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps during the Second World War and the federal government sold off their belongings, homes and businesses.

Veterans of Chinese descent returned to Canada still barred from becoming citizens as per the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” not repealed until 1947. Throughout Canada’s history, Chinese Canadians were subjected to more than 100 racist laws and regulations.

A body is wheeled from the Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto on April 14, 2020. The brutal assault of the novel coronavirus on long-term care facilities has exposed long-standing, systemic problems.



The COVID-19 crisis has drawn Canadians’ attention to persistent inequalities.

“The virus has exposed a lot of gaps in the social architecture. This is truly a shock to everything,” University of Toronto political science Prof. Linda White said.

The essential workers who restock grocery store shelves, clean hospitals, or take care of the sick and dying are often paid below a living wage. Canadians who are homelessincarcerated or a visible minority are hit harder by the health and economic impacts of the disease. Many long-term care homes are ill-equipped to keep the elderly healthy and safe.

“The question is whether there will be an appetite to engage in the kinds of social investment that would be necessary to prevent a COVID-19 crisis from happening in the future,” said White.

Some MPs and activists are pushing for universal pharmacarepaid sick leave, and more investment in public health, hospitals and medical equipment. The federal government is considering providing provinces with more funding for child care.

This spring, 50 senators signed a letter to the prime minister calling on the government to transform the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) into a universal basic income, which would guarantee everyone receives money to buy necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.

A person sleeps at a Toronto subway station on April 13, 2020. 



Some experts have questioned if the government has the administrative capacity for such an undertaking, said University of British Columbia political science Prof. Richard Johnston, who studies universal basic income. But when the COVID-19 crisis hit, the feds were able to provide millions of Canadians with $2,000 a month within weeks through the Canada Revenue Agency — opening up a window for change.

“There’s an old saying that ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’” Johnston said. “We are now in a completely different world. The emergency has alerted us to basic income issues and that the Canadian state has the capacity to do it.”

Canadians’ attention has also been drawn to seniors living in long-term care homes, who account for about 80 per cent of COVID-19-related deaths, according to the National Institute of Aging.

The military reported last week that soldiers deployed to five homes in Ontario during the pandemic discovered disturbing conditions, including ant and cockroach infestations, rotting food, and unbathed, distraught residents in soiled diapers, suffering from infections and sores .

In early May, CUPE senior researcher Amanda Vyce testified at the House of Commons Health Care Committee about the abhorrent conditions in for-profit, nonprofit and publicly owned homes, regulated by provinces and territories through a “patchwork” of standards.

She urged the federal government to bring the system under the Canada Health Act to make it an accessible and universal core service, boost funding, and improve conditions for residents and staff, including standardized fees and compensation.

A recent Angus Reid poll found that two-thirds of Canadians support nationalizing the system.

“COVID-19 didn’t create the deadly crisis we’re facing in long-term care,” Vyce told the committee on May 5. “The systemic issues that facilitated this heart-breaking situation existed long before this moment. What the pandemic is doing is shining a spotlight on those problems and making them worse.”

Staff at long-term care homes haven’t had access to a ready supply of personal protective equipment, and they often work at multiple homes to “cobble enough hours together to pay the bills” and “unwittingly spread the virus between facilities,” said Vyce. Some provinces have banned staff from working at more than one home during the pandemic.

Care aides and practical nurses, often women and visible minorities, experience physical violence, injuries and face chronic staffing shortages, she said.

During outbreaks, family members aren’t allowed to visit residents and oftentimes can’t reach staff to check-in, and residents are dying alone, Vyce said. Low-income residents are more susceptible to contracting infections including COVID-19 because they’re more likely to share a room with up to three others separated by only a curtain, said Vyce.

But, she’s optimistic that the COVID-19 crisis will result in reforms to long-term care.

“No other point in time do issues related to long-term care take up so much media attention,” she said in an interview. “I think people who probably haven’t given a thought to long-term care, it’s now on their radar. Canadians are horrified by what they’re reading.

“I am hoping what we get is a new normal that results in the changes we want to see.”

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