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Policy-making needs an equity lens, all year round

Black History Month presents an annual opportunity to reflect on the achievements and legacy of Black Canadians. But the month itself is more than that. It is also a good time to consider the impacts our systems of public policy development and implementation have in terms of anti-Black racism.

And for many, like myself, it is also a time to listen, to recognize our own limitations and engage in dialogue that deepens our understanding. An understanding that leads to more thoughtful and effective action.

And that extends to those who work in the orbit of politics. For them, this month should provide a chance to consider the role policy development and government action plays in building a society that is more equitable, more inclusive and more just.

To that end, there are important opportunities to be taken to address the roots of anti-Black racism and create targeted supports for Black communities. One such example came this fall, when the Trudeau government established a $221-million loan program for Black entrepreneurs.

Targeted support for Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs has also been a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s approach to COVID recovery.

In a speech earlier this month to business executives, U.S. treasury secretary Janet Yellen commented on the disparities in economic outcomes for Black Americans.

“Economic crises,” Yellen said, “hit people of colour harder and longer.” An important objective of Biden’s relief plan, she went on, is “to make sure that this pandemic isn’t another generational setback for racial equality.”

Secretary Yellen is correct in her assessment. It is an assessment that extends to Canada too. Bolstering economic opportunity and expanding its reach, is an essential way to address the structures that underlie systemic racism and disadvantage Black communities.

At the same time, the issues exacerbated by the pandemic — access to housing, viable employment — preceded the pandemic and will continue once we return to some sense of normal.

And that is when the test will come. Will new policies effectively deal with the underlying structural issues which have existed for so long? Policy focused on anti-racism is, of course, crucial. But the answers are not simple. That’s because neither the issues we need to address nor the policy solutions that support them are one dimensional.

A prime example of this is the federal government’s revised Canada Child Benefit. The CCB was introduced in 2016 as a way to simplify spending on child benefits and to bolster federal support for low- and middle-income families.

By 2019, the policy was already lauded as being a tremendous success. It has contributed to a decline in child poverty from 11 per cent to nine per cent.

The CCB has, rightly, not been touted as an anti-racist policy. That’s because its target expands well beyond BIPOC communities. But in many ways, it is particularly impactful for improving equity and addressing barriers for Black and minority Canadians.

We know that child poverty, like so many aspects of our society, is a racialized issue. Research tells us that it disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities. In Canada, both groups are overrepresented in the child welfare system as a result of systemic insecurity when it comes to food, housing and other needs. The CCB helps to not only address the welfare of children but also helps lift families out of poverty.

When it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of programs like the CCB, consideration needs to be given to the extent these programs played a role in remedying some of the great challenges that face Black Canadians and other minority groups in our country.

So, as Black History Month comes to a close, let’s keep in mind that a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion is needed to evaluate all policy — even that which is not explicitly race-based. That in combating systemic racism, the tools we have should be as broad and as deep as the multitude of issues that contribute to systems of oppression and inequality.

And let’s also keep in mind that, as important as the month of February is, the work must carry on. Every month of the year.

Beverley McLachlin is a proven — and safe — choice for governor general

By the time you are reading this, it will have been 31 days since Julie Payette’s unprecedented resignation as governor general. And although Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner is acting as Administrator of the Government of Canada, the office remains vacant.

There was good reason for Payette’s resignation. She stood accused of fostering a hostile work environment with reported incidents ranging from the strange (accosting staff in the hallways to demand they name the planets of the solar system) to the frightening (allegations of physical shoves). Hardly viceregal conduct. And, it seems, that was just the start. There was also her refusal to do many of the basics of the job; a job which, contrary to the popular imagination, sits at the foundation of our constitution traditions.

And those constitutional traditions are not simply theoretical ones. With a minority Parliament which could fall at any time, the duties could very quickly become very real.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario akin to 2008, when then governor general Michaëlle Jean faced thorny requests from former prime minister Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament.

Imagine if Prime Minister Trudeau asks for an election, not because he has lost the confidence of the House, but because he wagers he could do well at the polls once vaccinations are back on track this spring.

Such a request would put Wagner in a difficult position — not only is he merely a caretaker, he also sits as head of a different branch of government altogether.

But, of course, choosing a successor is tricky business. Because the governor general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of her prime minister, the next governor general cannot be seen to simply be doing Trudeau’s bidding.

What’s more, even though time is of the essence, the failure to properly vet a candidate, as was spectacularly the case with Payette, cannot be repeated.

In short, we need a proven set of safe hands and we need those hands pronto.

Enter Beverley McLachlin. The former chief justice of the Supreme Court broke barriers and sat for a historic, 17-year term until she retired in 2017. She is a constitutional expert who also, in her time, served as administrator of Canada (the same position her successor, Wagner, holds now) when Adrienne Clarkson was hospitalized in 2005.

For a government obsessed with image, McLachlin also ticks many boxes. She is a highly accomplished woman, a Westerner (born in Pincher Creek, Alberta), fluently bilingual and a part-time novelist to boot.

In short, she is the very personification of safe hands.

The only real question is whether she wants to do the job — and I mean really do the job, not merely hold the office, as Payette barely even deigned to do.

I suspect she does. I believe McLachlin intuitively understands that she occupies a unique place in history. That she is, as the lawyers she knows so well would say, sui generis.

She is devoted to Canada. She has spent her life in its service. Her court always sought to give voice to average Canadians. She spoke frequently on matters such as access to justice, for example.

I’m betting that in addition to the constitutional duties, she would quickly warm to the role of the Queen’s representative in Canada and the chance to meet those Canadians whose lives she has spent a lifetime thinking — and caring — about.

Now some critics will point to her refusal to resign from a postretirement appointment to the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal when Hong Kong’s fabled independent judiciary (along with much else) was threatened by Beijing’s new security law, imposed despite well-publicized and widespread protests.

Some would say not resigning was a missed opportunity to make a statement. But then again, she may have shown judgment as befits a governor general in choosing instead to quietly serve out her term, which ends later this year.

As Queen Mary tells Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown,” sometimes “to do nothing is the hardest job of all.” The job of the governor general is not nothing. It requires a very viceregal sensibility that Payette totally lacked, and McLachlin possesses in spades.

And explains why there should be a short list of one.

Lagging vaccine rollout could cost Liberals in a big way

When this all started, it’s fair to say that no one, no government, could be truly prepared for what was to come.

And so, Canadians responded with their characteristic reasonableness. They supported the government as it scrambled to launch a blizzard of programmes and plans in response to a crisis, the dimensions of which were changing by the day.

But for all the things we didn’t know, the one thing we did know about this virus was that at some point, the answer would be a vaccine.

And so, all these months later, it is equally easy to understand why Canadians are losing their minds at what has become a bungled vaccine rollout.

Twin polls this week revealed a three per cent drop in the Liberals’ electoral support, and that a majority of Ontarians blame the federal government for the failures.

And I expect this trend to continue. As we approach the one-year anniversary of this wretched plague, there is, all around us, mounting evidence of incompetence on the COVID-19 vaccination front.

While the government hedged its bets by spending lavishly to secure more options and doses than any other country — as federal spokespersons are wont to remind us — in almost every other regard, from technological infrastructure to domestic manufacturing to public health messaging, we are lagging embarrassingly behind.

Back in August, doctors were calling for a real inventory management system for vaccines. Given those calls — and that we have known for months that a vaccine was coming — how could it have taken until last month for the government to finally hire Deloitte to create such a system to track vaccinations? Why did they wait until after vaccinations had started to spend $16 million dollars on a technology that still has no date to go online?

The result is predictable: chaos now reigns. And because the federal government left it so late, each province has pursued its own system, and within each province, different institutions are using different methods — including some that have improbably resorted to pen and paper.

Now, as the process is finally underway, there is discouraging news out of the United States, which also opted to hire Deloitte to design and develop a similar system. The final product, the Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS), is reportedly so unusable it has set vaccination efforts at the state level back by months. Most states are opting not to use the system at all.

And more trouble looms. Just as we have known that the answer was a vaccine, we have known that there would be an issue of vaccine hesitancy. Now, let me be clear, I am not worried about the lunatic anti-vaxxers; they are on their own. I am worried about those people — many of whom are health workers — who, for whatever reasons, are wary of a vaccine.

This is not news: given that polling has told us a sizable chunk of the population feels thusly, wouldn’t a smart government have acted pre-emptively to launch a public awareness campaign, or enlisted third-party organizations to help change these peoples’ minds? Why was it that it took until this week for the government to finally get around to announcing $30 million for unspecified projects to address this ticking time bomb of skepticism?

Put all this together and a theme emerges: a government that has grown slow to respond to the crisis that continues to grip this nation.

Team Trudeau remains insistent that every Canadian who wants a vaccine will be able to get one by September. To that end, the government had made much of the National Research Council’s vaccine manufacturing plant in Montreal, and a recently announced deal to produce the Novavax vaccine at that site.

Just one issue: the plant will not be built until September — around when the national vaccination drive is supposed to be concluding. And it will be the end of the year before it begins manufacturing doses.

So, when the prime minister says everyone who wants a vaccine will receive one by September, he had better hope that things have turned around for the vaccine rollout before then.

Otherwise, he may watch that Canadian reasonableness disappear, along with his lead in the opinion polls.

The GameStop frenzy has some precedent

For the past year, the word “unprecedented” has been overused to the point of farce. From the pandemic to the final, violent gasps of the Trump administration — and more recently, the presidential inauguration — there has been plenty of cause to trot it out.

To me, the word has come to embody an attitude of clinging to the past in the face of overwhelming change. A shorthand for commenting on individual events without appreciating the wider tide of change that has delivered them.

For that reason, I am loathe to describe the GameStop incident as unprecedented, although I recognize that the social media-driven investment rally is a decidedly new phenomenon. But while the specific market manipulation element is new, the wider pattern — social media undermining the norms and power balance of a crucial institution — is not new, at all. In fact, it has become the defining struggle of our time.

Some context for the uninitiated: GameStop, a video game retailer, has been dealt a one-two blow by the decline of shopping malls and the ubiquity of digital video game downloads. GameStop’s slow lurch toward the brink has made it a popular choice for hedge funds and institutional investors looking to bet against the firm by shorting its stock.

Although analysts do not expect the company to earn profits again until 2023, in recent weeks it has experienced a renaissance of sorts, seeing its stock move more than 700 per cent since mid-January.

By the company’s own admission, there’s no concrete basis for this unheard-of rally. So where did it come from? The same place as so many of the wild tales of our era: the obscure corners of the internet.

For weeks, commenters on Reddit and other social media investing fora have led a frenzied push to buy up commonly shorted stocks like GameStop, Nokia and BlackBerry. They have artificially inflated their value and, along the way, have cost hedge funds with short positions in the firms more than five billion dollars. Melvin Capital, one of the firms targeted by Reddit users, lost 30 per cent of its value and was forced to seek a $2.75 billion bailout to stem the bleeding.

The David and Goliath narrative writes itself. Indeed, it has been taken up with gusto by Redditors who see themselves as the “little guy” fighting back against the hegemony of corporate investors whose inherent advantages represent all that is broken in America.

Commenters have shared how their investment in GameStop has allowed them to pay for family members’ medical treatments and avoid foreclosure related to COVID-19. They egg each other on to “hold the line” and avoid selling in the face of media scrutiny. In short, they reinforce their self-conception as an outnumbered few fighting back against the injustice of the modern world — against Wall Street, the media and “elites.”

We have seen this before. Five years ago, Donald Trump took advantage of a similar democratization — of politics, rather than investing — to subvert the norms of presidential elections. The game, he said, is rigged — and it’s time to fight back.

Many said Trump was simply using social media to go directly to the people. But over time, his use of platforms like Twitter eroded the foundation of political discourse. Along the way, the balance of power in the Republican party was flipped from billionaire donors to everyday people who were given a voice like never before.

Thanks to the rise of cheap and simple-to-use trading platforms like Robinhood, we’re now seeing a similar trend in finance. And as when Trump’s words begat genuine violence, the platforms have had to step in to stem the fallout of the mob’s actions. In the face of an impending liquidity squeeze, trading platforms have suspended trades of certain stocks. They will no doubt incur the same wrath faced by Twitter and its peers.

As with regulation of online political speech, meaningful SEC intervention in the GameStop case is easier said than done. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that while the problems social media have wrought may seem “unprecedented,” they’re not. They are related and endemic to our modern world. And given that GameStop-gate spurred over 23 billion trades on Wednesday — the most ever in a single day — it appears their impact is not disappearing anytime soon.

O’Toole makes Conservative party his own

The ejection of the lamentable Derek Sloan from the Conservative caucus this week marks Erin O’Toole’s most important and consequential moment since his election as party leader. It is the precise moment O’Toole made the party his own.

Think of it as his very own Sister Souljah moment — a deliberately engineered decision that served as a proof point for the rejection of the extremist portions of his party.

For those not familiar with the reference, the phrase originated in 1992, when Bill Clinton seized on remarks by hip hop artist Sister Souljah as a pretense to distance himself from an increasingly radical Jesse Jackson Jr. and affirm his bona fides as a moderate, centrist Democrat.

Forgive the U.S. reference, but it seems especially apt, because O’Toole’s current problems are also American in origin. Ever since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Canadian leftists have worked hard to smear O’Toole and the Conservative Party with the same fascist brush.

This, of course, is patently ridiculous. There is a world of difference between Trump and O’Toole. But the Liberals have run this playbook before, with regrettably devastating success.

However, O’Toole is smarter than all that. He knows he can’t win with just the fringes, no matter how enthusiastic; the math simply doesn’t work.

So, seeking to head off a long-term image problem, O’Toole released an unusual statement on Jan. 17, declaring there is “no place for the far right” in the Conservative Party, which was to be “modern, pragmatic [and] mainstream.” The challenge for O’Toole was that pledge amounted to no more than words on a page.

Then, as fast as you could say “the luck of the Irish,” O’Toole had a now-familiar opportunity fall into his lap.

As first reported by the leftist media outfit Press Progress, MP Derek Sloan had accepted a $131 donation from avowed white supremacist Paul Fromm. Even though the donation was made under another name (Frederick P. Fromm), and was processed by the Conservative Party, O’Toole leapt. First, Sloan was banned from standing for the Conservatives in the next election, and by mid-week, he had been formally ejected from caucus.

Press Progress likely thought they were being clever by releasing this information now. After all, the Conservatives had been under fire post-insurrection, and the attacks were accumulating thanks to the party’s long-running inability to disavow Trump. Then, by twist of fate, here at last was a chance to rebuke the far right in a clear and decisive way, beyond what any written statement could accomplish.

Had the far more sophisticated Liberal PMO strategists been in charge of the timing, no doubt they would have preferred to release this in the middle of an election campaign, when O’Toole would have a much harder time distancing himself from a problematic candidate such as Sloan.

However, as with Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment, there is an element of risk at play for O’Toole. Just as African-Americans are a core constituency of the Democratic Party, social conservatives are central to the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party.

But again, this is where O’Toole was clever. Sloan was not ejected from the party for his socially conservative views. Were that the case, any one of his previous odious remarks would have been grounds for removal. And so, once again, just like in his leadership campaign where he did not attract one caucus endorsement, Sloan stands alone. Other prominent social conservatives, including most notably Leslyn Lewis, O’Toole’s great leadership rival, have not raised much fuss about his ejection. After all, with Sloan gone, Lewis is more important than ever.

On his way to remake the party in his own image, there may well have been more that O’Toole could have done to distance himself and the party from Trump sooner. Although no one could have predicted exactly how disastrously the Trump administration would end, those videos of O’Toole refusing to disavow Trump won’t be helpful in the pursuit of a “modern, pragmatic [and] mainstream” party.

Sloan’s expulsion is a gift in that regard.

What’s more, the whole sorry episode has demonstrated that, most important of all, O’Toole knows how to be a leader.