By Dr. Jill Andrew
New COVID-19 cases in Ontario surpassed 1,000 last weekend, setting a new record that has left many in our community with growing fears and uncertainty.
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous and other people of colour across Ontario and of the more than 3,000 deaths from the disease in the province to date, more than 1,330 of them have been in Toronto. It has also had a disproportionate impact on women and lower-income families and has hit essential workers, frontline healthcare workers, residents, gig economy workers, disabled community members and our small business owners especially hard.
As a community, we must continue to call on our government and hold it accountable to ensure that no one is left behind.
Our communities are resilient with the right supports but this pandemic is a harsh reminder of just how quickly families can fall into impoverishment or precarious living with the loss of one pay cheque. COVID-19 exacerbates the inequities which too many in our province have experienced well before the pandemic from lack of affordable housing, food insecurity, inaccessible public transit, to lack of community infrastructure to ‘build up’ communities while market value condos sprout up like weeds (and gentrify many neighbourhoods) and the systemic barriers many Black entrepreneurs face trying to access traditional capital for their businesses due to anti-Black racism.
Ontario’s Official Opposition NDP has heard the concerns of families in our community who couldn’t make ends meet and acted. One of our first plans, released last April, was our Save Main Street Plan. We proposed that the Ford government give small and medium sized businesses direct rent subsidy, a ban on evictions and a freeze on utility payments so they could stay afloat, among other supports.
We knew that small businesses like those located in Little Jamaica and all our unique storefronts and restaurants along Eglinton already ravaged by the Eglinton Crosstown construction near decade-long mess of Ford and the previous Wynne governments were the heart of communities across Ontario. If we helped them we’d be helping families and entire neighbourhoods directly.
The Ford government denied our plan to support our local businesses and what we saw was the mass shuttering of storefronts, restaurants, hair dressing salons and barbershops and a shattering of family dreams across the province. For many in our Black and immigrant communities, the closing of these businesses meant the loss of that particular cultural spot of reference – that heritage and legacy – to our community.
The Federal government made a grave error when it didn’t make landlord participation in their CECRA plan mandatory. So while the Ford government sat on its hands ignoring small businesses, only one per cent of Canada’s landlords were ‘opting in’ to the federal commercial rent relief program, leaving many small business owners stranded and on bankruptcy’s door.
Ontario is currently facing the second wave of this deadly virus – a wave the Ford government knew was coming and yet they made little preparation for our communities to hold on to their small businesses.
We have updated our Save Main Street Plan in response to this second wave. For starters, it doubles down on our previous demands for designated emergency funds for Black small business owners including many artisans and entrepreneurs historically blocked from accessing capital as proposed by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. It offers a monthly commercial rent subsidy of up to $10,000 per month until the pandemic ends to ensure that our small businesses can continue to keep their staff on payroll. It also demands from the Ford government a provincial affordable, safe and public childcare plan which is currently absent and paid sick days – also absent – for all workers so they can stay home when necessary and not participate in community spread of COVID-19 or any other infectious diseases. This is especially critical for sole-parent families who too often are forced to choose between having to pay rent, put food on the table or stay home sick and unpaid.
We know that 80 per cent of sole-parent households are women-led. If we are to have a COVID-19 recovery that leaves no one behind, we cannot forget about women – Black women who are historically paid less than their white counterparts and who whether as PSWs, RNs, small business owners or education workers, among other careers, have shouldered the majority of this pandemic caring for elders in Long-Term Care, providing the essential goods and services for our communities and supporting the social, emotional and academic growth of our children in school during these turbulent times.
I am deeply thankful to our artists, griots and community heroes who have helped keep the spirits of our community alive and the cupboards full for our most vulnerable during this sombre time. But make no mistake: philanthropy and donations should never replace government responsibility.
We are in a crisis. It is high time that the Ontario provincial government invests in our community and do so boldly without compromise. Our community is not okay.
Dr. Jill Andrew is the Ontario NDP MPP for Toronto-St.Paul’s and is also a member of the Ontario NDP Black Caucus.