With COVID-19 and rising unemployment, Canada could use a ‘new deal’ jobs program

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Government to cover 100 per cent of wages for students hired under the Canada Summer Jobs Program'
Coronavirus outbreak: Government to cover 100 per cent of wages for students hired under the Canada Summer Jobs Program
Speaking to reporters outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government will cover 100 per cent of wages for students hired under the Canada Summer Jobs Program. – Apr 8, 2020

The federal government announced Wednesday that because of the alarming economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, university and college students and others under the age of 25 years would be eligible for a 100 per cent subsidy if hired through the Canada Summer Jobs Programme.

Data published by Statscan on Thursday confirms what has been out there anecdotally since the economy went into a deep nosedive in March. Young people have borne the brunt of the coronavirus-related job cuts so far. The number of employed people aged 15 to 24 dropped by 392,500 and the youth unemployment rate soared to 16.8 per cent or the highest it has been this century.

What Ottawa is planning to do with the summer job programme is great, though. Because of the economic calamity produced by COVID-19, it will have to be broader and probably deeper than ever before.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Canada lost 1 million jobs in March

The solutions must also not somehow become unnecessarily politicized as was the summer job programme two years ago by the government’s brief insistence that, to be considered for help, young applicants were required to attest to their respect for a woman’s right to an abortion and other progressive personal values that are mentioned in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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It would for very much in the public good young people receiving federal cash did work in return that specifically helped the country during this time of extreme economic stress caused by second and third level shocks from the COVID-19 scourge.

A possible inspiration at a moment when the global economy is in a parlous, volatile state could be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It employed millions of Americans on public works projects during the darkest days of the Depression.

Click to play video: 'Canadian economy lost more than 1M jobs in March amid coronavirus pandemic'
Canadian economy lost more than 1M jobs in March amid coronavirus pandemic

FDR’s famous programme to get the U.S. economy functioning again had many aspects including financial reforms. However, the New Deal is perhaps best remembered for President Roosevelt’s call for public action in response to a national economic crisis.

Financial relief was provided to volunteers who were part of a large pool of unemployed workers with a particular emphasis on young adults. Millions of Americans accepted the president’s offer of a modest wage in return for their help to build key government infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals. There were also provisions to raise farm incomes to assist rural communities and ensure food supply security.

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A key initial component of Canada’s version of a COVID-19-era “new deal” program could be to have young people who want to receive federal assistance help to get the crops harvested.

Food security is an important issue that Canadians have not had to think about for many decades. With a fairly strict quasi-national lockdown likely to continue for at least another two months or more, and social distancing and other limits on movement probably continuing until the fall, there has already been a spate of media reports suggesting the food supply chain may eventually develop kinks.

Canadian farmers, for example, fear that crops may be left to rot in the fields because of travel restrictions on the 60,000 temporary foreign workers they have become dependent on to get the summer and fall harvests in.

READ MORE: Canada to allow seasonal foreign workers but they must self-isolate, minister says

A senior military officer told me about two weeks ago that food supply interruptions in Canada that will sometimes stem from bumps in the U.S. food supply chain and at other times from specific problems in Canada are anticipated if the lockdown continues for more than a few months. Food store executives and food suppliers have said the same thing was possible, although supply chains are still running smoothly today.

Securing enough food to last for several months in case the economic situation goes from bad to worse is why many nervous Canadians went on wild grocery shopping sprees in March. Of particular interest to shoppers were staples that had a long shelf life such as pasta and rice. The soldier’s advice to his small contingent of troops was to take care of some of their families’ needs by planting family-style garden plots this spring. Among the crops that he had suggested were corn, tomatoes and cucumbers and especially tube vegetables that keep through the winter such as potatoes, carrots, beets and parsnips.

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Stores still open that sell vegetable and fruit seeds and gardening equipment expect lots of business this spring not only because of food concerns but because people stuck at home will have lots of time on their hands.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Calgary gardening centres ramp up deliveries during pandemic

Ottawa says that foreign agricultural workers, who are mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, will be allowed to come to Canada again this summer and fall. But with few airplanes flying, a mandatory public health order that such workers must be quarantined for 14 days, and the B.C. government reporting that a farm in Kelowna had five foreign workers who were infected with the novel coronavirus, resulting in 63 workers there being placed in quarantine, it is easy to see why farmers worry about the harvest.

The volunteers of the U.S. Peace Corps, who work for meagre wages, could provide a partial blueprint for a much bigger Canada Summer Job Programme if it was adapted to account for Canada’s conditions and specific needs to mitigate the cataclysmic economic fallout caused by the novel coronavirus. (As an aside, it is sad to note that the Trump White House sacked all 7,300 members of the Peace Corps when they were ordered to come home from abroad last month because of the virus).

A broad proposal to give paid work to young volunteers would be nothing at all like the Soviet or Chinese annual practice of marching school kids out of classrooms to provide a few weeks of unpaid labour during planting or harvesting. This would be about compensating young Canadians who would volunteer to do the work the country needs.

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Beyond volunteering to do paid farm work, young Canadians — who in many cases do not qualify for unemployment insurance payouts — could help Canada in many other ways involving a mix of government projects and private businesses which because of the steep economic consequences of the virus have laid off very large numbers of workers.

Click to play video: 'Canada lost 1 million jobs in March'
Canada lost 1 million jobs in March

Among the possibilities for those volunteering: planting trees; doing some of the simple bull work on badly needed new infrastructure such as roads, bridges and green projects. To directly assist in the war against the novel coronavirus, they could assist the elderly and perform safe non-medical tasks in hospitals and other care facilities to free up health-care workers such as nurses’ assistants to concentrate on helping doctors and nurses care for infected patients.

Whether such an initiate is still called the Canada Summer Job Programme, or Canada’s new deal or something else, the message to all Canadians must be that government spending on those who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus or have no chance of finding one is much more than a handout.

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Young people need help and Canada needs their help, too.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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