Budget 2021 presents the government’s plan to tackle COVID-19 and was highly anticipated, considering it is the first federal budget in over two years. It is also the first budget presented by Canada’s first female finance minister, who prioritized engagement with feminist leaders and women’s rights organizations in the budget process through consultations and the newly created taskforce on women and the economy.
The new budget, titled A Recovery Plan for Jobs, Growth, and Resilience, lays out an ambitious pathway for the government that recognizes the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and gender diverse, Indigenous and racialized people, and invests in public services to ensure a more inclusive recovery. The 724-page document mentions women 669 times and includes annexes of its GBA+ analysis as well as a gender, diversity and quality of life statement. Having committed to an intersectional feminist recovery in the Throne Speech, the budget delivers some historic investments needed to advance gender equality at a time when decades of progress is at risk as a result of COVID-19.
Oxfam Canada made recommendations in six key areas for Budget 2021 and provides an assessment of the budget along those areas by its policy team.
1. Invest in the Care Sector
The federal budget delivered a historic $30-billion investment to build a national early learning and child care system, including with dedicated funding for Indigenous early learning and child care. Answering the call of child care advocates, the investment will expand the not-for-profit sector of the system and reduce parent fees to $10 a day within five years. Moreover, it will enshrine early learning and child care in federal legislation to be tabled this fall.
“Today’s investment in child care and the care economy in Canada is historic,” says Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada. “An investment in child care is good for women and the economy, and will ultimately pay for itself. Sustained long-term investments are what’s needed to build a nation-wide system that will improve quality, accessibility, and affordability. It will be important for the federal government to work with the provinces, territories and Indigenous partners to establish clear accountability mechanisms with targets and timelines in place to ensure the funds meet the principles set out in the multilateral agreement.”
2. Invest in Social Protection and Decent Work for Women
In this budget, the federal government acknowledges the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in the economy, and expressed a commitment towards creating a “more inclusive, sustainable, feminist, and resilient economy that values women’s work” over time. No single approach was outlined, with the understanding that tackling the “she-cession” requires an intersecting approach that takes into account “racial identity, income level, disabilities, and geography”. A few measures that address this—in addition to child care—include: $3.8 billion to modernize and make Employment Insurance more accessible; $146.9 million for the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy; $755 million for the Social Finance Fund; $50 million for the Readiness Program for the non-profit sector; $15 million for the Racialized Newcomer Women Pilot initiative, $100 million for the Supporting Black Communities Initiative through Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), in addition to $200 million for the establishment of a Black-Led Philanthropic endowment fund.
“Women have disproportionately experienced the economic fallout of the pandemic – particularly black, indigenous, racialized, and migrant women working low-wage essential jobs with increased care responsibilities,” says Amar Nijhawan, women’s rights policy specialist at Oxfam Canada. “In this budget, it is good to see the importance of an intersectional analysis of gender and the economy through inputs by members of the National Task Force on Women in the Economy. While the range of approaches were welcome, more work and dedicated funding is needed to specifically address the immediate needs of women workers marginalized by the pandemic.”
3. Invest in the Green Economy
Budget 2021 puts forward initiatives totalling $17.6 billion for a green recovery and commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 36 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, up from the 31 per cent target in the recently released climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy (HEHE). This target is meant to represent a floor, not a final target, for emissions reductions, with further announcements expected at the upcoming Earth Day Summit. The budget provides little detail on how these investments will address gender disparities, although specific initiatives such as the home energy retrofit program do offer support for improvements to women’s shelters and low-income housing. The budget does not include details of Canada’s post-2020 climate finance commitment, but makes note of a forthcoming announcement in the lead up to the COP26 climate summit.
“The investments and targets announced today are important but fall short of the level of ambition needed to match the scale and scope of the climate crisis we are in,” says Anya Knechtel, climate policy specialist at Oxfam Canada. “We eagerly look forward to further announcements signaled in the budget, including higher targets for emission reductions and significant contributions to international climate finance, which is critical to support developing countries’ adaptation and mitigation efforts.”
Budget 2021 makes important tweaks to the country’s tax system but fails to tackle extreme wealth inequality in a transformative way. Taxing the digital economy, closing tax loopholes around executive stock options and increased enforcement by Canada Revenue Agency against tax avoidance and evasion are welcome. However, the budget did not introduce a wealth tax or any reforms to capital gains deductions, despite Canadian billionaires having increased their wealth by more than $78 billion during the pandemic.
“Considering the massive spending of the government over the past year to help Canadians weather the storm, now would have been the perfect time to tackle wealth inequality and reform Canada’s outdated tax system,” says Ian Thomson, policy specialist at Oxfam Canada. “As other countries take action to increase corporate income tax rates, the Canadian government has shown little ambition for systemic tax reforms to make the wealthy pay their fair share.”
4. Invest in Ending Gender-Based Violence
Considering the rise in violence against women and gender-based violence during the pandemic, feminist organizations applauded the government’s investment of $600 million over five years to support the development a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, as well as $14 million to set up a dedicated secretariat to coordinate this work. Moreover, the government recognizes the role of women’s rights organization in addressing this ‘shadow pandemic’ and announced $200 million for these organizations. Several other related initiatives, including investments to address gaps in sexual and reproductive health services were also announced.
“The shadow pandemic of violence against women and gender-based violence has left a mark on families and communities over the past year, as levels and the severity of violence increased due lockdowns and stressors brought on by the pandemic. These investments today will make a difference in the lives of women and gender-diverse people across Canada, who have had a hard time accessing life-saving services. It is critical that those most at risk of violence are actively engaged in the development of the NAP,” said Sarosi.
5. Invest in Global Recovery
The government announced $375 million towards the international COVID-19 response, as well as other global initiatives, totalling an increase of $1.4 billion in international assistance over 5 years. Much of the $1.4 billion is allocated for this year, whereas long-term sustained investments are needed to not only put an end to the pandemic but also support countries with the devastating economic fallout. Today’s investments fall short of what is needed to address this global crisis and do little to boost Canada’s attainment of the 0.7 per cent global benchmark for international assistance as a ratio of gross domestic product.
“Women have been at the center of the COVID-19 response in low-income countries as the majority of frontline healthcare workers. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy ambitions cannot be fulfilled when there are limited resources to support the global COVID-19 response,” says Siham Rayale, women’s rights policy specialist at Oxfam Canada. “At this time of uncertainty, increasing international assistance and championing debt cancellation are vital for poorer countries to provide social protection and critical public services, as well as access COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments to end this pandemic. The government knows keeping Canadians safe means eradicating COVID-19 everywhere and that will require leadership and resources.”
6. Invest in Feminist Leadership
The women’s sector has been at the forefront of providing critical services during the pandemic to some of the most marginalized, and therefore hardest hit, groups in Canada. Budget 2021 recognizes the critical role community organizations play and invests $400 million to create a Community Services Recovery Fund to support charities and non-profits. An additional $100 million over two years will help non-profits, including women’s shelters and child care centres, be more accessible and adapt their workplaces to provide more services online. 2SLGBTQ organizations welcomed a new $15-million fund to support their community initiatives, but highlighted that this was not enough to fill the gaps.
“Investing in non-profits is a smart investment that will boost gender equality,” says Sarosi. “These organizations are a lifeline to millions of people in Canada stuck in poverty. Considering the non-profit sector disproportionately employs women, these initiatives will also support women’s labour force participation, which has plummeted this year.”
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