10. 28. 2021

Family and Future

Sinead Petrasek

When “the family” is invoked in mainstream political discourse today, it tends to conjure an image of the kind of nuclear family that became culturally hegemonic in the 1950s-60s. Yet that image represents just one particular historical paradigm of the family as a social form. T
his paradigm has proven durable because it serves capital accumulation in multiple ways: quelling worker agitation by associating dutiful labour with the acquisition of “decent” wages and access to credit for home ownership; enhancing a gendered division of labour; and supporting racist settler-colonial domination by providing a pretext for the dispossession of land from Indigenous communities.

Although today’s liberal politicians might condemn the obvious cis-hetero-patriarchy of previous eras, the family unit has retained its utility as a talking point for such figures, who seemed to notice with new urgency the cracks in social welfare at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Suddenly there was a lot of interest in and promised relief for parents; mainstream news media paid heightened attention to the exodus of women in particular from paid work. The federal Liberal government made a new pledge to invest up to $30 billion in childcare over five years, in partnership with the provinces, a plan modelled on Quebec’s subsidized child-care program. The cost to the service user would work out to an average of $10/day per child.

It’s clear that it was not the longstanding existence of working poverty in Canada – which disproportionately affects single parents and their children, recent immigrants, Indigenous people living off-reserve, and disabled people – that generated the Liberals’ renewed commitment to progressive programs such as nationwide childcare. These new measures coincided with the fiscal anxiety of a looming recession, as well as the dawning realization by middle- and upper-class people that the COVID-19 crisis would affect them negatively in the most intimate space: the home.

Promises made by a Liberal government with a dismal track record of keeping promises deserve to be scrutinized, especially those made at a point of crisis. A recent article in Bloomberg surveys several national child-care plans developed during the pandemic, including Canada’s, as attempts to draw women back into jobs. Titan Alon, a University of California San Diego economics professor quoted in the article, states it bluntly: “You can’t be a prosperous country with half of your workforce sitting on the sidelines.” Social programs pitched as ways to lift working families out of precariousness begin to look a lot like incentives to get people back into paid jobs – no matter how low the wages – and thereby rescue the economy. Such policy proposals are accompanied by individualistic liberal feminist rhetoric about professional-class “working mothers” and their children who need socialization. 

If politicians were actually concerned about most children, they would have created universal programs long ago, rather than relying on a patchwork of unevenly distributed benefits. In her book Money in Their Own Name: The Feminist Voice in Poverty Debate in Canada, 1970-1995, the feminist anti-poverty scholar Wendy McKeen puts it succinctly: “…in this new neoliberal social policy landscape, gender issues and women’s concerns have slipped from view, while in their stead stand ‘Canadian children,’ somehow stripped of their family connections and the gender relations they embody.”

Policies that aim to increase women’s participation in the paid workforce by providing accessible childcare and family benefits still tend to moralize about the sanctity of the family unit, the duty of traditional mothering, and/or the value of work. The family is invoked as a conduit for participation in orderly civic life.

This concern for the health and well-being of the family also serves as a cloak for white supremacy and settler dominance. For example, Indigenous feminists Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill have pointed to the undoing of matrilineal societies by the Canadian state’s enforcement of patriarchal property customs. To watch the government proclaim the significance of the family and childcare at the same time as mass graves of Indigenous children are unearthed across the land is to grasp the deep contradictions supported by settler-colonial ideology. Each time the sanctity of the family and children is invoked, we have to look at who is doing this, and why.


Socialist organizing and the family

To engage working-class and middle-class women, socialist organizers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries adopted a strategy of foregrounding the daily domestic work of mothers. In her book Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920-1950, historian Joan Sangster describes how this approach drew more women into organizing around political issues that directly affected them, such as the price of consumer goods, the quality of education, and the dangers of war. The maternalist critique – using motherhood as a moral basis from which to expose capitalist and imperialist violence – was intertwined with a materialist critique of capitalist imperialism.

In the 1930s, members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the socialist and social democratic political party that later collaborated with the Canadian Labour Congress to transform into the New Democratic Party (NDP), called for a transformation of the economic system that would replace private wealth with co-operative ownership. Sangster recounts that rather than proposing a patchwork of reforms, the CCF engaged women of different positions – farm women, women who earned wages, women who received forms of government relief – by demonstrating that they all held stakes in that broader political project.

Equally important was the CCF’s recognition that women’s unpaid work at home limited their participation in social and political matters. Although some members of the Communist Party of Canada and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation did challenge the gendered division of labour within and beyond the hetero-paternalist family unit, these concerns were largely sidelined, or sometimes assumed to be post-revolutionary tasks.

Nonetheless, socialist feminists of this period harnessed the radical potential of the “personal” for political purposes. In Sangster’s words:

Socialists’ emphasis on the abolition of private ownership, on the redistribution of social wealth, on effecting public responsibility for social needs such as childcare, as well as their militant participation in the struggle for social justice at home and a just peace abroad, made theirs a “militant mothering.” Maternalism, though not necessarily radical by definition, could take on radical potential when married to a socialist analysis. 

The women’s movements of the 1960s-70s grew within a different political landscape, populated by claims and claimants to individual rights and benefits. McKeen describes how those movements challenged the federal allocation of benefits on the basis of one’s status as a mother within a normative family. This challenge to so-called “familialism,” however valid, unfortunately (and unexpectedly) dovetailed too easily with – and was too often absorbed into – the individualistic policy agenda of neoliberalism, beginning to emerge in those years.


Fighting for the future

So, now that a national child-care program is back on the agenda, albeit enacted by a Liberal government, what is to be done? Where can the left intervene as the momentum for a national child-care program builds? What is being overlooked?

The struggle to support working-class caregivers has long found significant alignment with the struggle for housing justice. The period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s saw a proliferation of social housing initiatives in Canada, such as the construction of co-operatives, which were designed to address the need for decent housing as well as the need for community. A number of these projects were built specifically to support caregiving, and to provide alternatives to both precarious renting and heteronormative models of single-family homeownership. Today’s policies that aim to usher more people into homeownership are no replacement for what co-ops once achieved; such policies will not improve the material conditions of those struggling with unaffordable rent and insecure tenancies. A revived call for co-operative housing, on the other hand, would be a welcome companion in the fight for childcare for working-class families.

That fight is also inseparable from the struggles led by child-care workers. Many child-care and education workers have been forced to compromise their health and safety during the pandemic – and migrant care workers worst of all. Canada’s immigration system treats such workers’ needs, and the needs of their families and household members, as secondary to those of their employers’ households and kin. A pandemic recovery plan for children and their caregivers that allows these inequalities to persist cannot be considered feminist. Organizations such as Caregivers’ Action Centre and Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, which call for permanent immigration status for migrant workers, should be placed at the centre of socialist feminist politics today.

Equally central to that politics must be solidarity with education workers, especially as COVID cases surge in schools yet again. When children have reduced access to schools, it can have detrimental effects on their development, but children’s real needs and rights should not be used as a blunt instrument to squash education workers’ safety and health concerns. Organized education workers, and parents’ networks in solidarity with them, are on the front lines of these struggles and have much to teach us about transforming childcare in the Canadian state.

Winning a national child-care program that serves the working class will also rely on labour unions’ support. Some of that work is well underway: in 2015, for example, the Rethink Child Care campaign was launched with the backing of major unions and advocacy groups. The campaign was focused on getting a national child-care plan on the agenda in the lead-up to the 2015 federal election. One of the campaign’s tactics was to provide informational videos and digital pamphlets that could help foster “kitchen table conversations,” discussion sessions hosted by individuals in their homes. These sessions centred on the costs and benefits of a national child-care program, and what kind of political action would be needed to win an effective one. The tactic drew on the significance of the kitchen table in feminist organizing, a domestic space that has often served as a locus of political conversations that take immediate material issues as a jumping-off point. It was a powerful way to build local engagement.

The most recent prospect of a national child-care plan in Canada – supported by the increasing recognition of gender-based inequality in the home and at work – is not simply an outcome of the pandemic. Both that plan and that recognition are rather the result of years of activism by diverse coalitions of working-class women and their allies. Such organizing has frequently adopted a strategic model that should inform our own: a dual strategy of building power within communities while also holding elected officials to account, demanding that they make good on their commitments and ensure the resulting social programs benefit those who need them most.

A public child-care program shaped by working-class organizing has the potential to contribute to transformations in the composition of family life. It would be a step towards a future where one’s reproduction need not involve another’s exploitation. 

Sinead Petrasek is a PhD candidate in human geography at the University of Toronto. She enjoys exploring social and political issues in art and urban space. Sinead has supported various community-based initiatives, and currently works with the Kensington Market Community Land Trust.