Addressing mental-health issues linked to pandemic a key task in 2021, Bains says

Navdeep Bains, Canada's industry minister, says the country faces mounting mental health concerns that the government will have to address in 2021.
A man is shown with this head in his hands.
The pandemic is taking a deep toll on the mental and emotional health of many Canadians. (Sewcream/Stock.adobe.com)

Canada's industry minister says the country faces mounting mental health concerns that the government will have to address in 2021.

Navdeep Bains told The Canadian Press he has heard concerns about the mental health of workers and entrepreneurs alongside calls for financial help for individuals and businesses.

He said the problem is dire in his Toronto-area riding, home to Pearson International Airport, where local hotels and restaurants are suffering from a drop in travel. A father of two, Bains said the pandemic has taken a toll on his school-aged daughters by preventing them from engaging with friends and family.

Research by Statistics Canada during the pandemic has recorded a decline in self-perceived mental health.

A study by the agency published in June suggested that those more affected by the pandemic — such as women and those with compromised immune systems or chronic health conditions — were less likely to report better mental health.

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains responds to a question during a news conference Tuesday August 25, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"I'm hearing more and more stories and frankly, personally, I can relate to that," Bains said of mental health concerns.

"It's an emerging issue not only in my riding — I suspect it's across the country as well. But it is clearly an issue that we have to deal with."

Another Statistics Canada study released just before Christmas noted Canadians' measurement of "life satisfaction" had dropped to its lowest level over two decades of comparable data.

The agency's studies were among several released this year about the mental health impacts from the economic and health crisis.

Federally, the government responded to the pandemic with unprecedented spending that pushed the deficit to $381.6 billion, although the government's math says it could close in on $400 billion depending on the length and breadth of restrictions and lockdowns.

For all that spending, Bains suggested that more might be done to help sectors in ways that don't cost money.

He noted that many companies have sped up plans to go digital as their workers stay home. That required what Bains described as a shift by government to focusing on "the plumbing" by updating legislative and market frameworks around privacy laws.

Bains also announced the "50-30 challenge" just before the end of 2020, which asks organizations to appoint women to 50 per cent of the spots on boards and in senior management.

The federal program also calls for 30 per cent of those positions to be filled by "under-represented groups" like racialized people, those living with disabilities and Indigenous people.

Companies that show they have met the goal would land preferential access to federal programs, and potentially to federal contracts.

"If you've done that, then I firmly believe ... you will get better access to, you will be treated favourably when it comes to grants and contributions," Bains said, "and ultimately, if we want to proceed, procurement as well."

Bains argued the government's pandemic response overall should help with another looming battle — for top talent.

Bank of Canada Gov. Tiff Macklem said in a recent speech that protectionist policies and attitudes stemming from U.S. President Donald Trump helped make Canada a more attractive landing spot for global talent over the past four years.

Although Macklem warned that advantage could disappear when Joe Biden is sworn in as president, Bains said the country's overall response to the pandemic could act as a counterpunch.

"There's no doubt that there was this contrast between the politics and the policies of the U.S. in the past and what we were doing in Canada," Bains said.

"But it's important to note that our brand and our policies are stronger than ever."

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