Kieran Delamont is a Nova Scotian-based writer, photographer and postal worker and Associate Editor of London Inc. Magazine.
Summer is coming. And that means Canadians are on the verge of getting their first taste of what “living with COVID-19” will actually be like.
Come what may, politicians and public health officials have shifted their approach to the pandemic, away from a mandate-heavy, contingency-mode strategy and one that includes messages about personal responsibility and choice. This change aims to be both a new, long-term COVID strategy and a timely shock to the economy, while providing a relief valve for a restless and exhausted population heading into its third summer of the pandemic.
While rising COVID-19 rates may yet derail those plans, this is still an exciting time for many Canadians — and businesses in particular. Restaurants have welcomed diners back, while the events industry has been thrilled to see venues returning to full capacity. Everyone knew this was coming: a “reopening” of the economy, meant to signal the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic, restore some sense of normality and reignite consumer activity and confidence.
This last part is a big part of the program. Economists’ projections of our recovery from the pandemic come from their assumption that consumer spending will experience a healthy recovery – that we will spend as we are used to. And when politicians talk about reopening and the eventual return to normal, they often put it in explicit consumer terms: “Back to normal” means eating in restaurants, drinking in bars, shopping in shops, going to the movies and to concerts to go on vacation. In this way, ‘back to normal’ means consumers are spending, which is very important – so much so that, given governments’ local support campaigns, back-to-office pleas and tourism pushes, it’s hard not to question it Political leaders want communities to come back to life just as much as they want the coffers to shine.
As Vice President of the Business Development Bank of Canada Pierre Cléroux wrote in an economic outlook for 2022, the “key engine of growth” will be driven by Canadian household consumption habits, which are expected to “return to normal”. But suddenly that assumption doesn’t feel safe anymore. “The era of cheap and plenty may be coming to an end,” as the New York Times put it. 60 percent of Canadian households are now struggling to afford groceries; two-thirds cannot afford petrol; Only 11 percent say they are able to absorb the current level of inflation. For many Canadian households, budgetary wiggle room is becoming tighter, while interest rate hikes will further limit access to credit. In this context, a recovery based on healthy, revived consumer spending looks increasingly doubtful.
This recovery, if it comes to that, will of course also be unfair. It will mean more joy for the wealthy and less for those struggling with or living with disabilities, despite clear evidence that stress has been both more frequent and exacerbated for those on lower incomes during the pandemic. That’s why a recent survey by Angus Reid showed more support for reopening the economy among the wealthy than among those on lower incomes, an unsurprising finding when the most important resource in the recovery is money, putting a hole in their pockets the people burn. And as your pockets empty, you simply have less to do with the reopening of the economy: a recovery for you, but not for me.
This is particularly difficult as not only does our economy need to recover, but also our social fabric. Our communities are broken. Canadians are tense, tired, divided, hurt and suspicious. Friendships have faded, often without new ones taking their place. Many of us have moved geographically during the pandemic, and restrictions have kept us from finding our place in the community or making new friends. It’s no wonder Canadian readings for anxiety, depression and loneliness are so high.
So what if we approached this question differently? What if people were welcomed back into “normal” rather than as walking outlets? What if instead we were greeted by significant public investment in a free, accessible citizen culture to heal communities by bringing them together?
What if municipalities filled their public spaces with the music of free concerts and the sights of free art, or subsidized private festivals to make them more affordable, or better yet, completely free for attendees? Grant programs – such as those created by municipalities for small businesses in the early waves of the pandemic – could be retooled to allow people to participate in culture and entertainment at the lowest possible cost. In France, the government distributed €300 to all young people to be spent on arts and culture; Could we do something similar and give people some kind of cultural stimulus check? Most importantly, efforts like this would mean the equation we’re trying to solve as we return to normal this summer is maximum involvement, rather than just prioritizing the bottom line.
There’s money for that. In its 2021 budget, the federal government has earmarked $200 million over two years for a “reopening fund” to support the arts, culture, heritage and sports sectors: $7 million for community music festivals, $55 million for arts organizations; $54 million for “post-COVID celebrations and commemoration,” among a variety of other funding commitments. That money has already started flowing in, and some of it has been used for events that had to be free to qualify. But with a culture of consumption that has seeped into our notions of what “recovery” should look like, we need to do more.
We know that free public culture is of immense value to Canadians and that it can be successfully programmed. Across the country, annual Pride festivals are generally free events and are meaningful to both the LGBTQ+ community and everyone else in the city; they make our cities more livable, make an important contribution to creating a sense of community and are also good for the local economy. The same goes for big city events like Ottawa’s Winterlude or the Montreal International Jazz Festival (both of which are mostly free to attend), film screenings in parks, outdoor concert series, or events hosted by local public libraries — events that are free as an integral part of their Identity as ways to bring communities together.
In the early months of the pandemic, there was a sense that our recovery could be a moment of renewal as people explored new ways of life and a new relationship with the public. In 2020, a network of 45 global cities (including Montreal) drafted the Rome Charter 2020, which explored how cities can ensure access to cultural participation as a fundamental human right. It envisioned a post-COVID world where cultural spaces could foster new ideas and new community-building efforts. “Culture is the creative workshop through which citizens can envision answers to our common challenges,” they wrote. “If COVID-19 can do any good, it’s because we’ve been brave enough to imagine other, better, more sustainable ways of living together, and we won’t stop after the immediate crisis is over.”
Let’s all work toward that world to ensure everyone can use the restrictions that have been lifted – to help all people find their way back into the community and find joy in public life, even if their abilities are limited to act as a consumer. After all, a consumer-centric reopening could make some of us richer and create a few more jobs; it can save some small businesses, make others more viable, and make our income healthier; it might even allow us to measure our GDP 12 or 24 months from now and conclude that the economy has recovered. These are all good and important things. But we should ask ourselves: After two long, lonely, lonely years, is this really all we need?
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