5 activists on the alarming impacts of the pandemic on BIPOC women

This International Women’s Day, experts point to the urgent need for an intersectional feminist recovery plan.

This International Women’s Day, experts point to the urgent need for an intersectional feminist recovery plan

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

In the past 12 months, Canadians' lives have changed in the wake of the pandemic, but endless statistics show that Indigenous, Black, and other racialized women have been hit the hardest. After years of the chronic underfunding of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, Indigenous women and girls are experiencing higher rates of financial insecurity and heightened levels of anxiety over domestic violence. Although Black women make up only five per cent of Toronto's population, they account for 16 per cent of the city's COVID-19 cases. Women with disabilities are feeling more socially isolated and, in Ontario, trans women are facing greater challenges accessing health care. Many racialized, immigrant and migrant women work in essential jobs, like home support workers and food service workers, that are underpaid and put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

The pandemic has plainly demonstrated how race, gender, class, disability and immigration status intersect and compound risks, resulting in worse health outcomes, increased rates of domestic violence and greater economic struggles. For International Women's Day, we asked activists, social justice lawyers and community leaders what Canada can do right now to address the impacts of the pandemic and repair the harm caused by structural inequalities. Their ideas ranged from immediate policies like implementing paid sick days and direct investments into the communities most affected, to long-term solutions like affordable housing models and universal childcare. What's clear for all is that as Canada looks forward to life post-pandemic, it's critical we commit to an intersectional feminist recovery plan. 

As told to Samantha Edwards. Interviews edited and condensed.

"When we think about racialized women with disabilities, it's important that we don't forget about the ones that we don't see." 

– Karine-Myrgianie Jean-François, director of operations at DisAbled Women's Network (DAWN)

For women with disabilities, [the pandemic brought] more isolation because a lot of the services that are needed were not available, especially when everything was closed at first. They didn't have access to their social net…. We often think only of elderly people in long-term care facilities, but it's also younger people with disabilities as well…. Some women with disabilities have been too scared to leave their house because if they do get COVID, they're worried about if they'll get full treatment at the ICU if it's overcapacity and triage protocols were in place. 

Lots of racialized women with disabilities lost their jobs. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit was great, but a lot of the women of colour we work with [at DAWN] are on social assistance because of their disability [and didn't qualify]. So with the amount you were getting before, which was barely enough to live on, you now needed to buy masks, disinfectants and other items you couldn't get at food banks.

I think the first thing we need to see is a gender-based analysis, to look at the intersectional impact of the policies and services that currently exist. We also have to look at how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is being respected provincially. We often hear a lot about race-based complaints, but most complaints are actually disability-related. It's about reasonable accommodation: to be able to work in your job, to get into a restaurant, to get an apartment. There are so many ways in which human rights are not being respected. The only [option] right now for people in Canada with disabilities is to lodge an official complaint. How do we change a system to make sure this doesn't happen all the time? [If accessibility isn't considered when we're providing] services or creating policies, it keeps erasing the experiences and realities of women with disabilities and not ensuring [they can] participate or feel safe in those spaces.

What we need is systemic change. [Twenty-four] per cent of all women in Canada have a disability. It's not a small group of people.... When we think about racialized women with disabilities, it's important that we don't forget about the ones that we don't see, the ones we don't hear about, because they're in LTC, or in jails or prisons, or homeless. Most disability policies don't even talk about race. They think about education, work and transportation, which is all important, but there's also a race-based analysis that needs to happen. 

"It's kind of silly to think that a country as wealthy as Canada still doesn't have a universal child-care system that subsidizes child care in a similar way that it does health care." 

Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, director of advocacy and communications at YWCA Toronto

Many of the inequities in our society are along gender, race, ability and neighbourhood lines, so it's really no surprise that racialized and Indigenous women are experiencing the pandemic in different and more harmful ways…. We're seeing much higher infection rates for folks making less than $50,000 and much lower infection rates for folks making $70,000. And when we look at who is represented in what income bracket, Black, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, South Asian communities are more concentrated in the lower income bracket jobs. And that's particularly true for women because of the types of jobs that women in general tend to be concentrated in. 

What we know about the way that women are being impacted with care responsibilities is that it's been heightened during COVID because of province-wide lockdown measures, because of public health guidelines. A lot of women are having to decide: should I take care of my children at home or can I still participate in the labour market? We're seeing the exodus of many, many women, and that's reflected in the StatsCan data. Whereas men's labour market participation bounced back six months into the pandemic, women are still struggling. We need a robust infrastructure to support women's labour market participation, and child care can really be an integral part of the solution.

It's kind of silly to think that a country as wealthy as Canada still doesn't have a universal child-care system that subsidizes child care in a similar way that it does health care.... While child-care subsidies do exist for those who qualify, the waitlists are often long, so it's a scarce resource for many provinces outside of Quebec.... What we are ideally seeking is a subsidized child-care system that makes child care super affordable and still ensures quality child care because it pays workers, the early childhood educators, a decent wage. Part of the problem is that feminized industries are not paid well, so a lot of child-care workers struggle to make ends meet, and a lot of daycare operators struggle to recruit talent because many child-care workers, particularly in rural communities, don't really make a lot of money. It's kind of arbitrary that we [as a society] decided that between the ages of zero to four, [before children enter the public education system], you have to pay a lot of money to get that kind of care. It is about these archaic notions of the role of women at home.

An intersectional approach to COVID means coming up with policies that are not gender-neutral or one-size-fits-all, but really consider the particular barriers certain communities face.... We should seize this moment to enact broad and sweeping reforms. And I think many Canadians want a transformation of our systems to have them be more responsive and nimble and crisis-proof.

"Women were more worried about domestic violence than they were about the virus itself." 

Lorraine Whitman, president of Native Women's Association of Canada

Through the survey we did at the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) [about the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous women and gender-diverse people across Canada], we noticed that the violence has increased. We're looking in remote areas where the women who've been victims are in the same household as their abuser. So many of the centres were closed, and the women had no place to go. They couldn't get in just any shelter because the shelters were already full. And they had to socially distance the [people] within, and they couldn't take in more. Women were more worried about the violence than they were about the virus itself.

When we look at the financial [impact], that goes back to women's entrepreneurship. They work all year-round at their beadwork, their moccasins, whatever they do as artisans. They were not able to take those to powwows and sell them [this year]. That money keeps them for the rest of the year. So that's not there.

With the immunization that's coming up, people are really leery. There's a distrust in the system. It goes way back to colonialism. It goes back to how people were treated in residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the systemic racism that is within the different institutions, the health-care system. COVID has no mercy. If we don't feel comfortable and have fear of it, we need to get on the phone. We need to phone the health clinic, phone our doctors, the pharmacy, to get our questions answered... I have heard from some women. Some can't wait to get it. And then other women said, "No, I'm going to wait until I know how it goes, to see the results." People are fearful. 

Under the 231 Calls for Justice [in the National Inquiry's Final Report], it mentions resiliency and wellness health centres.... We need funding. We have alcohol, drugs, opioid problems, suicides. We need to have some wellness centres, resiliency centres where we can help the women, our youth, our girls and our gender-diverse [people] in these areas. [NWAC does] workshops online, and we have a tremendous group of women all over the country that are tapping in and bringing respect for who they are, bringing their identity back. Colonialism has done so much damage. We need to bring the matriarch back to the forefront, right back to the doctrines of history…. The matriarch [was pushed] aside. And we've been pushed aside for hundreds of years. We need that brought back because those are the women that are valued in the community as caregivers. They give us the tools that we can live and continue growing with. And without it, we're not going anywhere.

"One of the biggest impacts I see long term [is if] people decide that, yeah, they're gonna make do in whatever neighbourhoods they're in, regardless of whether or not they're safe to be openly queer." 

— Tatiana Ferguson, co-founder of Black Queer Youth Collective

Last year [Black Queer Youth Collective] coordinated a panel …. [and also] a community needs assessment on Black LGBTQ youth in Ontario. What we heard directly from the trans folks who required access to gender-affirming care [were] concerns about not being able to do their blood work and connect with their clinicians to support their gender affirmation. 

The world witnessed what happened last year in regards to George Floyd, and I think a lot of folks were also feeling just unsafe. With the onset of the pandemic and some of the precautions that were being taken, some of the neighbourhoods that were being targeted — there was just an elevated sense of anxiety.… Due to anti-Black racism, when thoughts of policing were brought into the picture, there was just a lot of concerns that people had about not feeling safe because of their identities, specifically being Black in communities that were going to be policed…. Because a lot of Black people have been racially profiled and carded, so then to have that justification, for police officers to then have a reason to stop people at random ... Obviously, all of these things impact people's mental health. 

As a collective, we've had to consider how do we provide ongoing care regardless of circumstance, and that has been a challenge for us as a grassroots group. We have noticed that a lot of folks are unable to afford living in the city. And therefore, if they have relocated to neighbourhoods and communities that are more affordable, one of the biggest long-term impacts I see would be folks not being able to return to the city due to the rising cost of living and as a result, becoming more disconnected from LGBTQ programming — because most programming is, unfortunately, centrally located in Toronto. Not only that there isn't any in other parts of Ontario, but for the most part, we have the largest concentration of LGBTQ organizations, groups and even activities, bars, social spaces etc. I feel like there's now this disconnect from community…. One of the biggest impacts I see long-term [is if] people decide that, yeah, they're gonna make do in whatever neighborhoods they're in, regardless of whether or not they're safe to be openly queer.

We cannot pretend like homophobia, biphobia, transphobia is invisible because obviously community members are directly impacted. We also cannot ignore the fact that anti-Black racism is also very prevalent.

Given the work that I do, I think there's a great emphasis [at grassroots organizations] on collaboration. Some of the larger organizations don't have the framework [to meet] the needs of communities that are directly impacted by COVID. And most of the larger organizations are not reaching that demographic. And rather than them getting an investment to develop a system, I think they should be consulting with people who will have the experience and the connections and leveraging that…. There are opportunities to invest in innovation.

"What I find most shocking and most troubling is the extent to which policymakers are not addressing the gendered and racialized crisis that this is.

— Fay Faraday, social justice lawyer and policy consultant

Women have been affected by the pandemic in two different ways. They're absolutely predominating in all the areas of high-risk, essential work that cannot be done in a physically distanced way that has continued throughout the pandemic. So, nurses, lab techs, respiratory therapists, personal support workers, cashiers etc. They're the ones who are actually doing the most dangerous work that has intensified during the pandemic.... If you look at a lot of those jobs that are on the front lines, it's disproportionately racialized women who are doing it. Personal support workers are approaching well over 40 per cent racialized women, which is double their representation within the labour market.... At the other end of the spectrum, women also predominate in all those areas of the economy that have been hardest hit by shutdowns, like tourism and travel industries, arts and culture, recreation, retail and restaurants.

Over the last few decades, full-time jobs have been increasingly replaced by part-time jobs, which are paid lower and don't have benefits. It means women are disproportionately holding multiple part-time jobs in all of those sectors. And that, of course, puts them at greater risk during COVID-19. Those are just some of the basic structures of the labour market that drive women, and racialized women in particular, to be bearing the brunt of the economic burden.... This is an economic recession that is very shaped by gender, and the recovery has to ensure that women and feminized areas of the economy are the ones that are built back better. 

[There's a] kind of core social infrastructure that you need for a functional community. First up, there has to be a priority on ensuring that all Indigenous communities have clean water. I can't stress that enough. Women in Indigenous communities are the water protectors. When you have communities that don't have clean water, it can't be safe. 

There are things that can be done right now that would have an enormous impact on not just protecting women — and particularly racialized women and racialized workers — during the pandemic, but that set the tone for the future.... So things that can be done right now: paid sick days and making pandemic pay permanent. Pandemic pay instituted in recognizing not just that people are continuing to go to work in dangerous times, but that their work is tremendously underpaid.

What I find most shocking and most troubling is the extent to which policymakers are not addressing the gendered and racialized crisis that this is. Unless the recovery plan is directly addressed to rectifying the structural inequality that led to the disproportionate harm, there will be no real recovery. And worse, it's not just that there will be no recovery, it's that women in particular have been put back generations in their economic security and labour market participation. And unless there is a very concerted effort to address that, it's going to be a lifetime before women recover.... In all the misery and tragedy of the pandemic, we've also been given an opportunity to fix what is most deeply wrong in our society. And we can't let that opportunity pass because we know if we do, then as a society, we're choosing poverty; we're choosing inequality.

Update: This article was updated to include more of the original interview with Lorraine Whitman.

Samantha Edwards is a Toronto-based journalist and editor. Follow her on Twitter at @SamEdwardsTO.

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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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