Single mom had higher hopes for federal budget, other Manitoba women wonder if promises will become reality

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared last March and schools closed, Leona Fontaine quickly found herself without a job.

The Winnipeg contract educational assistant was laid off, and her position was later eliminated.

“I was shaking. I broke down. I was crying. I just didn’t know where money was going to come from,” Fontaine, 48, said.

A year later, she says she’s disappointed by what she saw in Monday’s federal budget — the first government spending plan in two years.

“I did have higher hopes.… I really thought that there’d be more money to help the needs that are happening right now.”  

After she lost her job, Fontaine received the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), and when that program ended was put on employment insurance. 

When her health worsened and she was in and out of hospital due to problems walking, she started receiving EI sickness benefits. 

But the benefits dried up last week, leaving the single mother unsure where she should turn.

Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland walks to a news conference before delivering the federal budget in Ottawa on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Liberals’ federal budget will extend EI sickness benefits from 15 to 26 weeks if passed by Parliament. 

“I think that’s amazing, but I think it might be too late for me,” said Fontaine, who is now contemplating applying for provincial social assistance or disability benefits due to her deteriorating ability to walk.

The budget also promises billions in new spending on child care as part of an effort to cut fees in half and eventually have an average $10 a day cost. 

Fontaine, a mother of two, supports the child care plan. She said she struggled to pay for daycare even when it was subsidized while going to university. 

“I had to borrow from things.… I had to pawn some of my stuff, and I’m not ashamed to say that because I helped my kids.”

Aiman Syed, an English teacher for newcomer women, is concerned a lot of the money earmarked in the budget for future years won’t be spent if a new government is elected. 

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has signalled his party would oppose the child care initiative, adding early childhood learning and education is a provincial responsibility. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh questioned if the plan would ever come to fruition. 

Aiman Syed, an English teacher for newcomer women, is concerned money earmarked for future years won’t be spent if a new government is elected. (CBC)

Syed herself has a lot of questions about the child care plan, including how the money will be distributed.

“What neighbourhoods are going to see those increased child care facilities?” she said.

“Are they going to be focused on low-income [households], so that $10 subsidized child care spot is actually being more effective for people of a low-income background?” 

Rapid housing for women praised

She’s concerned newcomer women won’t be properly supported once they enter the workforce and says child care alone isn’t enough.

“They need to be able to be equipped with all of the skills, as well as the education that will allow them to succeed,” she said.

“That means on-the-job training, workplace health and safety training, that means understanding how financials work and getting more financial literacy, especially in an additional language.”

The executive director of the West Central Women’s Resource Centre shares some of Syed’s concerns, but says she’s impressed with a $1.5 billion promise for rapid housing.

“We have so many people that are in core housing need in this city, and the rents in the private market are just beyond reachable for most of the people that we work with,” said Lorie English. She noted the budget says at least 25 per cent of the funding would go to women-focused housing projects.

Lorie English is happy to see a promise for money for rapid housing, but shares concerns money allocated for future years may never be spent. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

She says the budget makes a critical step toward ending gender-based violence, through a proposed $601.3 million in spending over five years for a new national action plan. 

Within the first four weeks of the pandemic, phones were “ringing off the hook” at the centre from women who were experiencing violence, English says.

“They were making really difficult choices between staying at home in what they knew to be an unsafe environment, or to choose another environment that they feared would be equally unsafe for them.”

English shares Syed’s concern that money allocated for future years may never be spent.

“Overall it looks good now, [but] the proof will be in the pudding. Let’s see how this rolls out.”

Manitoba women are figuring out how the long-awaited federal budget, which is promising to spend big on child care, will impact them. 1:59

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