Despite dubbing their latest budget a “feminist” blueprint, some experts say the Liberals’ spending plans mean sectors of the economy dominated by a male workforce are set to receive disproportionate support from Ottawa.
Released alongside its financial forecast, this year’s statement and impacts report on gender, diversity and quality of life shows 14 per cent of all budget measures benefit women, while 42 per cent benefit men and 44 per cent are gender-balanced — a “relative disparity” that reflects the fact men are overrepresented in sectors that stand to gain from climate and infrastructure related measures.
That sits in contrast to last year’s budget, noted Katherine Scott, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who focuses on gender equality. While reports have “evolved” since the government in 2018 committed to releasing such a document, the 2021 version was heavily marketed as a feminist budget, with 34 per cent of new measures directly or indirectly benefiting women, 18 per cent men and 48 per cent categorized as gender-balanced.
“The question of whether this is a femininst budget and advances gender equality goals forward — work has to be done year by year, but in that respect, there are significant holes in this year’s efforts,” said Scott.
Ann Decter, the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s senior director of community initiatives, agreed this year’s budget is waning on the gender equality file as Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has placed an emphasis on reining in pandemic spending and reducing deficits.
“That’s what happens when you take your foot off the accelerator in terms of gender justice,” said Decter, adding “one big piece” missing from the budget is spending in “women-majority sectors” like the care economy, where professions like personal support and child care workers are typically “chronically undervalued.”
“If there’s something that ties this budget together — it’s very piecemeal-y and does seem to be [a message] that, ‘We’re the same government, but we can do restraint as well,’” said Decter.
While Ottawa is pushing forward with its “transformative initiative” of national child care, making it a reality will require significant cash for the physical infrastructure needed to house the sites.
The budget provides $625 million over four years, starting in 2023-24, to Employment and Social Development Canada for its early learning and child care infrastructure fund, which will allow provinces and territories to bring new facilities online. Ottawa repeatedly heard from premiers in the negotiation of those deals that infrastructure funding is a “challenge” where real estate costs and building materials remain expensive.
About $75 million is expected to flow in the first year with $150 million kicking in by 2024-25, and $200 million each for the remaining two years, though Decter noted experts have predicted it will take upwards of billions in new spending.
While Ottawa has been under pressure to tighten its belt after its “sweeping” pandemic spending, “if you don’t centre women and gender non-binary people, you’re not going to get advances … it starts to fly back,” she warned.
Efforts to boost the conditions of workers in the care sector could have helped to “counteract” the disparity, she added, as a lack of employment standards leads to a “precarious” workforce where women have to work at multiple locations to make a living.
To move the needle, Ottawa could have “gone hard on the care economy, raising the wages of early child care workers and looking hard at long-term care reform,” Scott said, as some women are leaving the field in “droves” due to the pandemic. “Those types of measures would have bolstered women’s immediate employment in large numbers, today. That’s missing in this budget and disappointing.”
Ottawa is aware that much of its necessary spending to guide the country to a net-zero future will benefit historically male-dominated sectors like the cleantech and construction industries — and places an emphasis on ensuring women and other marginalized groups have a slice of that employment.
However, “it’s really important to pay attention to who is benefitting from these measures and what needs to be done to offset any negative consequences,” Scott said. “To that extent, I don’t think the budget really squares with some of the rhetoric from years past.”
Freeland, who has frequently trumpeted her feminist mantra in policymaking, defended this year’s blueprint, noting it reflects “year two of Canada’s revolutionary” child care system.
The government is targeting a quarter of its spending to support “women-focused housing projects” under the expanded rapid housing initiative, which will push out at least 6,000 new affordable housing units.
Canada does not have enough housing. We need more, and we need it fast.
#Budget2022 is the most ambitious plan in Canadian history to address this important challenge. We know that we need to make it easier for people to get their first keys to their home and here's how ⤵️: pic.twitter.com/NjfNGY77JJ
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) April 9, 2022
But to have that goal linked to just the one housing stream “is not OK,” said Decter. (Other experts agree, noting federal data shows 26 per cent of single female-led households are in core housing need compared to 16 per cent of single male-led households.)
The budget also proposes $2.9 billion under the national housing co-investment fund, aimed at speeding up the creation of up to 4,300 new units and the repair of up to 17,800 units for vulnerable Canadians by 2025-26. Men are expected to benefit disproportionately from these measures as they represent 62 per cent of the homeless population, while the construction industry is made up of 87 per cent men.
“There are people waiting to create this housing targeted to women, and we know that’s a big reason that women and families are turned away from women’s shelters, because they are full,” said Decter. That creates a “bottleneck” in finding affordable housing for those fleeing violence, she added.
One of the barriers was affordable childcare. And I am so proud to say we delivered. We have now signed agreements on early learning and child care with every single province and territory.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) April 7, 2022
On a similar note, Ottawa is looking at developing its national action plan to tackle gender-based violence, which will see it spend $539 million over five years, beginning this year. But cash is “heavily weighted” toward the last three years — “some of which could be outside of the mandate of this government,” noted Decter.
About $2 million will be doled out this year and $78 million in 2023-24, before it ramps up dramatically to $153 million each for the remaining three years.
Meseret Haileyesus, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment, agreed that plan falls short, as the pandemic has shown the need for more “rapid measures” to help survivors “in their current situations.”
Boosting financial literacy
Haileyesus noted last year’s budget mentioned “gender” more than 750 times compared to 18 times this year, suggesting a lack of focus on equality.
She commended the budget for its support for tweaking the banking complaints handling system, noting it’s long been called for by women and victims of economic and financial abuse.
Ottawa is looking to introduce “targeted legislative measures” to strengthen the system and create a “single, non-profit, external complaints body to address consumer complaints involving banks,” via tweaks to the Bank Act and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada Act.
Haileyesus said she hopes it will see designated officials who have experience supporting survivors of gender-based violence. In a submission to Ottawa, she and dozens of advocates pushed for the collection of disaggregated data on the complaints filtering into the agency, dispute resolution procedures to be made accessible in several languages and the creation of a financial abuse code of conduct.
Noting the agency is aiming to process all cases within 56 days, she said that figure should be lower for survivors fleeing intimate partner violence. “Imagine a woman in a shelter — how can she wait 56 days? It doesn’t make any sense. People are trapped,” she said.