Canada’s governments must apply the lessons of COVID-19 to create a more gender-just future

Katherine ScottInternational Women’s Day, March 8th, is the annual commemoration that invites Canadians to take stock of the progress made toward gender equality in our country and beyond. But in 2023, more than three years after the COVID-19 crisis was declared, this day reminds us that Canada still has a long way to go.

Only a small share of the hundreds of federal and provincial measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic addressed its disproportionate impact on women and marginalized communities.

Between March 2020 and June 2021, both levels of government invested approximately $57.5 billion – 13.6 per cent of total pandemic spending – in programs that, directly or indirectly, addressed the gendered risks and challenges affecting women, such as increased violence, low income and precarity, and heightened care demands.

The federal government, for its part, used its considerable spending power to support Canada’s pandemic response, covering over 75 per cent of spending on investment in gender-sensitive programming, representing roughly $1,155 per capita.

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Federal emergency transfers, for instance, more than offset what would have been a steep rise in poverty, and they expanded eligibility (at least temporarily) to caregivers providing essential care and schooling, or educational support, to those in need.

At the same time, the provincial contribution to gender-sensitive programming during the pandemic was much smaller by orders of magnitude.

A detailed look at provincial government investments shows that Quebec had the strongest gender response, as measured by the number and breadth of gender-sensitive measures, while Alberta and Saskatchewan had the weakest, despite the relative severity of the pandemic in each of these jurisdictions and available provincial resources.

But it was British Columbia that led the group in terms of net provincial investment, spending $844 per person on gender-sensitive measures (43 per cent of all gender-sensitive spending in the province) – 17 times the amount spent by Alberta (at $50 per capita), Canada’s wealthiest province.

In total, eight provinces, with the exception of B.C. and Quebec, spent less than the provincial per-person average of $357 on gender-sensitive measures. And six of those eight spent less than $100 per person on those measures.

This was a disappointing showing by many provinces which are charged with overseeing critical health and social services. In effect, the provinces let the federal government pick up the tab and assumed women, as always, would absorb the exponential increases in unpaid care work.

Indeed, the provinces’ refusal, in particular, to invest meaningfully in the care economy is playing out today in the reality of short-staffed hospital emergency departments, long-term care facilities, and childcare services.

Had it not been for federal transfers tied to specific goals, such as providing child care or services for vulnerable and marginalized populations, the number of provincial programs qualifying as gender-sensitive would have been much smaller, and potentially non-existent.

Such as it was, there were significant policy gaps that neither provincial nor federal programming addressed.

The most obvious lesson of the COVID-19 crisis is that gender equality can be furthered when strong public leadership marshals adequate gender-sensitive support. The key now is to apply those lessons to create a more equitable, gender-just and resilient future where those who bore the brunt of the pandemic are not left behind once again.

Katherine Scott is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and serves as its director of gender equality and public policy work.

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