Chairman's Desk

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.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 28, 2021.

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