Supporting community through a crisis

Hector Addison understands the importance of roots. Since graduating from university in his native Ghana two decades ago, he and his wife have moved, for studies or work, from Athens, Ohio; to the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia; to Mississauga; to Ottawa. Each of their three children was born in a different city.

Once in Ottawa, Hector's wife announced that she was going no further. With secure work and the children settled into school, Hector set out to create what had been missing in his life: a community association that would serve as an anchor for people like him, whose lives straddled continents, who were building homes away from home.

As co-founder of the African Canadian Association of Ottawa (ACAO) — an umbrella group that brings together the members of 53 African-descent cultural organizations in the National Capital Region — Hector was quick to realize that his community would be hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2020 study confirmed that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the health and finances of Black Canadians. The study was carried out in June by the Edmonton-based African-Canadian Civic Engagement Council and the Innovative Research Group. It found 56% of Black respondents said their job, or the job of someone they knew, had been affected, compared with the national average of 46%.

The study also found that Black Canadians “are also more likely to feel that no matter what steps they take, their day-to-day routine puts them at an uncomfortably high risk of catching the virus.” The study confirms that many of the surveyed Black Canadians are occupying front-line jobs, such as cashiers, personal support workers, nurses and drivers. These jobs not only require them to work face-to-face with people on a daily basis, but often involve relying on public transit to get to work during the pandemic. All this not only puts Black Canadians at higher risk of infection, it also points to deeply rooted forms of systemic and structural racism in our society.

Hector was quick to realize that his community would be hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the federal government started announcing support benefits for Canadians last spring, Hector and his organization were already putting together relief packages for any community member in need. The packages contained food, personal protective equipment, and household items: enough to get the recipient through roughly one month. Some individuals in the community made donations, others volunteered to shop, pack or to run errands — like picking up medications for seniors. Any Black person in the National Capital Region could apply for a package. ACAO received limited funding from the federal government through Canadian Red Cross, which has helped deliver food packages to some 175 families.

But Hector knew the need was not only material. Many people calling just needed someone to talk to. Hector understood that need well. Since a car accident in 2018, he has been suffering from a concussion and bouts of depression. “Some people were falling through the cracks,” he said. So he organized a series of online workshops, open to the community, on subjects ranging from mental health to household finances.

Any Black person in the National Capital Region could apply for a package.

“I do the best that I can,” says Shirley, who moved to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago 25 years ago, “and I'm not a complainer.” But she admits that the pandemic has been very hard on her and that the relief package from the ACAO was a “great help.”

Shirley, who would prefer not to use her actual name, worked as a personal support worker in Ottawa until arthritis and an injury forced her into retirement. She lives alone in a second-floor apartment and requires accessible transport to go shopping. Even before the pandemic, it was a struggle to fit her six-foot, stiff frame plus walker into the cramped van; she can't imagine how this would work with distancing requirements.

Her daughters phone her daily but she doesn't want them to feel responsible for her. She draws strength from her faith but acknowledges that without an income or means to get food, she is vulnerable.

Hector knows there are many Shirleys — each with their own story — across Ottawa. He's determined to see them through the pandemic to the other side.

Racialized women working full-time, year-round earn an average of 33% less than non-racialized men, earning 67¢ to the dollar.

1 in 3 Canadians (32%) believe that saying "there is systemic racism in Canada" is an exaggeration.

56% of surveyed Black Canadians say either they or someone in their household has had their job impacted by COVID-19.

The biggest group of Canadians (62%) who are worried about racism in their province are younger Canadians (ages of 18-34).

In this COVID-19 era, Black Canadians are more worried (45%) than other Canadians about paying their rent.

Canadian Women's Foundation; Ipsos poll 2020; The Association For Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Capturing The Pulse of the Nation; African-Canadian Civic Engagement Council and Innovative Research Group. Impact of COVID-19: Black Canadian Perspectives;