By Andrea Dicks and Amanuel Melles
When financier Donald Smith pounded in the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway on the morning of Nov. 7, 1885, it marked an iconic moment in Canadian history. The transcontinental railway’s construction epitomized the role of infrastructure and government-business partnership in nation-building.
But the railway’s completion, while lionized for more than a century, is also a shameful chapter in Canada’s history. The 17,000 Chinese labourers who migrated to Canada to help build the railway were met with racism and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, which introduced an escalating exclusionary head tax. Dangerous working conditions meant that more than 2,200 Chinese died during the railway’s construction. And, of course, untold Indigenous peoples were displaced at the same time.
More than 140 years later, we face a parallel national challenge: how to “build back better” in the wake of a crippling pandemic that has exposed the myths of a Canadian society free of systemic racism and baked-in social inequality.
The federal government’s recent budget includes more than $140 billion in 21st-century infrastructure projects. That’s good news. But decades from now, will we look in the rearview mirror and see investments that reproduced and solidified social inequalities? Or will we celebrate infrastructure innovations that became generative foundations for community well-being and social equity?
We have a choice. New infrastructure spending to tackle goals such as net-zero carbon, should, at the same time, meet other social outcome tests. This won’t happen without overhauling how infrastructure in Canada is designed, implemented, managed and evaluated.
For the last century, infrastructure was primarily the exclusive playground of government and private sector partnering. That two-sided arrangement is insufficient. The future needs a three-sided partnership: government, business and the community sector.
French economist Thomas Piketty has exhaustively researched the relationship between economic growth and income distribution since the 1970s. We now know that modern economic growth on its own is increasingly inequitable. Inclusive economies require proactive design and governance or the rich get richer while the poor stay trapped as an underclass. Producing inclusive outcomes, whether more equitable incomes or stronger communities, is the result of explicitly planning and designing for them with social insight. Well-designed infrastructure spending can empower inclusive economics and social well-being.
For example, infrastructure-supported public spaces such as parks, libraries, playgrounds, bicycle pathways, beaches, museums and theatres are the glue to our communities: they enable a feeling of belonging, of social cohesion and encourage our sense of collective identity. COVID-19 has seriously constrained our access and use of these spaces in communities across Canada. Impacts of the virus have also been extraordinarily uneven, underscoring inequalities across communities and disproportionately impacting those who are already experiencing vulnerability as a result of systemic inequalities.
There are innovative new infrastructure models emerging that reflect our values. They are intentionally designed so that incomes or other social benefits are shared much more equitably.
One of these is the Healthy Communities Initiative (HCI), a $31-million investment from the government of Canada and implemented by a diverse set of partners, including the Canadian Urban Institute, 880 Cities, Park People, MaRS, Canadian CED Network, the National Association of Friendship Centres, Community Foundations of Canada and Jay Pitter Placemaking.
The partners’ unique experiences and skills combine to create new approaches transforming how to plan public spaces in response to COVID-19. HCI will provide funding to a broad range of organizations, including local governments, charities, Indigenous communities and non-profits. Funding will be for projects, programming and services that help communities create safe and vibrant public spaces, improve mobility options and provide innovative digital solutions to connect people and improve health.
Community Benefit Agreements, known as CBAs, are another good model. When a large-scale infrastructure initiative, like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, is being planned, local communities touched by it negotiate benefits improving residents’ employment or life prospects. These benefits, built into the call for construction contracts or ancillary agreements, could include local hiring or training, neighbourhood improvements or support for social enterprises.
There is also the growing recognition of the value of built infrastructure unlocking community initiatives: multi-purpose community hubs that fulfil vital roles supporting day-to-day community well-being, as well as the longer-term strengthening of life skills, social capital and social trust. For example, Trinity Centres Foundation transforms church properties for community priorities, tackling social isolation, newcomer settlement or economic well-being.
Other hubs range from Art Hives, community art studios, to Indigenous-led business incubators and accelerators. Montreal’s Art Hives hosts and connects often isolated groups like seniors and youth through the creative arts. The city of Toronto is building the Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, opening in 2022, that will provide aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs with access to customized business education, advisory services, mentorship and networks.
We need to reformulate the policy framework for infrastructure spending so that it provides a “twofer:” reduce carbon use and strengthen community well-being.
A visionary and inclusive social infrastructure and economy is possible. The crisis of COVID-19 has created a watershed opportunity. Canada can truly “build back better” by summoning the ambition and courage to do so. Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime. Let’s seize it.
About Andrea Dicks and Amanuel Melles:
Andrea Dicks is president of Community Foundations of Canada.
Amanuel Melles is executive director for the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities.
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