Federal budget took positive steps toward racial justice but activists say more must be done

Chrystia Freeland

Advocates for Black and other racialized Canadians say the federal budget takes a number of positive steps toward building a more inclusive country but more needs to be done to address systemic racism in Canada.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled the Liberal government’s first budget in two years on Monday. The budget proposes massive amounts of spending to contend with the uneven impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and pledges to create a million jobs within a year by funding an inclusive, equitable economic recovery.

To address systemic racism, the document sets aside $11 million over two years to expand the activities of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, a non-profit Crown corporation tasked with combating racial discrimination.

The budget would allocate $200 million to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), a federal department, to establish a Black-led Philanthropic Endowment Fund to combat anti-Black racism and improve social and economic outcomes in Black communities. Another $100 million would go to ESDC to support Black-led non-profit organizations.

The budget also pledges $172 million over five years to Statistics Canada to implement an action plan to improve the collection of disaggregated, race-based data to fill knowledge gaps about racialized Canadians.

“Canada can and will do more to support racialized communities, improve understanding of racial inequities and barriers, build a more diverse and inclusive federal public service and work with partners to build a more equal and just future,” the budget document reads.

In a news release, Colour of Poverty-Colour of Change — a network of groups in Ontario that represent racialized Canadians from Black, Asian, South Asian, Arab, Hispanic and immigrant communities, among others — praised parts of the budget, including funding for the Black community, the plan to build a national child care system and the race-based data strategy.

“The 2021 federal budget contains some solid first steps towards building a more inclusive Canada,” the group said. “But we are disappointed it falls short of demonstrating a consistent and coherent commitment to addressing systemic racism.”

The group said it wants to see stronger “employment equity” conditions attached to much of the $101 billion in stimulus spending.

“I have a concern there about how that stimulus will flow and will it really reach — if you don’t attach conditions to it — the communities that are the most deeply impacted by systemic racism in the workplace,” said Shalini Konanur, executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto and a member of Colour of Poverty-Colour of Change.

Statistics Canada data show that people from racialized communities have lost jobs at higher rates than other Canadians over the course of the pandemic.

While the national unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 69 was 11.3 per cent in July 2020, it was 17.8 per cent among South Asian Canadians, 17.3 per cent among Arab Canadians and 16.8 per cent among Black Canadians, according to the July Labour Force Survey.

Even as the economy slowly recovers, the more recent March Labour Force Survey found the unemployment rate among all visible minority groups was 9.4 per cent, but 7.5 per cent for the rest of the population.

Freeland’s budget acknowledges that people from racialized communities are among those hardest hit by the pandemic. It says a “a rapid and sustained economic recovery” is the best way to bring back jobs and narrow income disparities.

Konanur said stimulus funding should include conditions on hiring, promotion and training programs that specifically target racialized Canadians so they can get back to work.

Colin Lynch, co-founder of the Black Opportunity Fund, said the proposed investments in ESDC will go a long way in supporting Black Canadians who have experienced dire health, economic and justice outcomes because of systemic racism.

“Having programs and having funding that is dedicated to a community that has been overlooked for decades will take a fantastic step in the direction that we need to go as a community,” said Lynch.

But Lynch said his organization — a partnership of businesses, philanthropists, foundations and the Black community — had been calling for $800 million for the endowment fund.

Amy Go, president of the advocacy group the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, called the $11 million boost in funding for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation — whose work she supports — a “drop in the bucket.”

Go said she is disappointed the budget doesn’t include a similar boost for the federal government’s anti-racism secretariat, particularly in light of the alarming rise in anti-Asian racist acts since the pandemic began.

The federal government established the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat in 2019 to implement its anti-racism strategy. The government committed $46 million over three years to the initiative, meant to address systemic racism in federal policies and programs, empower communities of colour and raise public awareness.

“Communities have been asking for a lot more in terms of dedicated and devoted commitment to address systemic racism experienced by Asian communities,” said Go.