Let’s restart Canada’s infrastructure by including the nonprofit sector
When financier Donald Smith pressed the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway on the morning of November 7, 1885, it marked an emblematic moment in Canadian history. The construction of the transcontinental railroad embodied the role of infrastructure and partnership between government and business in nation building.
But the completion of the railway, although celebrated for over a century, is also a shameful chapter in Canadian history. The 17,000 Chinese workers who immigrated to Canada to help build the railroad faced racism and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, which introduced a growing exclusion head tax. Dangerous working conditions resulted in the deaths of more than 2,200 Chinese during the construction of the railway. And, of course, countless indigenous peoples have been displaced at the same time.
Over 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 from systemic racism and entrenched social inequalities .
The federal government’s recent budget includes over $ 140 billion in 21st century infrastructure projects. It’s good news. But decades from now, will we look in the rearview mirror and see investments that have reproduced and solidified social inequalities? Or will we celebrate the infrastructure innovations that have become the generative foundations of community well-being and social equity?
We have the choice. New infrastructure spending to achieve goals such as net zero carbon should, at the same time, meet other social outcome tests. This will not happen without an overhaul of the way infrastructure in Canada is designed, implemented, managed and evaluated.
Over the past century, infrastructure was primarily the exclusive playground for government-private sector partnerships. This bilateral provision is insufficient. The future needs a partnership of three: government, business and the community sector.
French economist Thomas Piketty did extensive research the relationship between economic growth and income distribution since the 1970s. We now know that modern economic growth itself is increasingly inequitable. Inclusive economies require proactive design and governance or the rich get richer while the poor remain trapped as an underclass. Producing inclusive results, be it more equitable incomes or stronger communities, is the result of explicit planning and design for them with a social vision. Well-designed infrastructure spending can promote the inclusive economy and social well-being.
For example, public spaces supported by infrastructures such as parks, libraries, playgrounds, cycle paths, beaches, museums and theaters are the glue of our communities: they allow a sense of belonging, of social cohesion and encourage our sense of collective identity. COVID-19 has seriously limited our access and use of these spaces in communities across Canada. The impacts of the virus have also been extraordinarily uneven, highlighting inequalities between communities and having a disproportionate impact on those who already experience vulnerability due to systemic inequalities.
New innovative infrastructure models are emerging that reflect our values. They are intentionally designed so that income or other social benefits are shared much more equitably.
One of them 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, the Canadian CED Network, the National Association of Friendship Centers, Community Foundations of Canada and Jay Pitter Placemaking.
The unique experiences and skills of partners combine to create new approaches transforming the way public spaces are planned in response to COVID-19. HCI will provide funding to a wide range of organizations, including local governments, charities, Indigenous communities, and nonprofits. Funding will go to projects, programs 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 CBA, are another good model. When a large-scale infrastructure initiative, such as the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, is planned, affected local communities negotiate benefits that improve residents’ job or life prospects. These benefits, incorporated in the call for construction contracts or side agreements, could include hiring or local training, improving neighborhoods or supporting social enterprises.
There is also a growing recognition of the value of built infrastructure unlocking community initiatives: multi-purpose community centers that fulfill vital roles in supporting day-to-day community well-being, as well as long-term strengthening of life skills, social capital and social trust. For example, Trinity Centers Foundation transforms church properties for community priorities, combating social isolation, newcomer settlement or economic well-being.
Other hubs range from Art beehives, from community art studios, to Indigenous-led business incubators and accelerators. Les Ruches d’art de Montréal welcome and connect often isolated groups such as the elderly and young people through the creative arts. City of Toronto is building the Indigenous Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which will open in 2022, which will provide future Indigenous entrepreneurs with access to personalized business training, advisory services, mentoring and networking .
We need to reformulate the policy framework for infrastructure spending so that it provides a ‘second’: reducing carbon consumption and strengthen the well-being of the community.
Visionary and inclusive social infrastructure and economy are possible. The COVID-19 crisis has created a critical opportunity. Canada can truly “build back better” by mobilizing the ambition and courage to do so. Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime. Let’s grab it.