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Kieran Delamont is a writer, photographer and postal worker based in Nova Scotia, and the associate editor of London Inc. Magazine.

Summer is coming. And that means Canadians are about to get their first taste of what “living with COVID-19″ will actually be like.

Come what may, politicians and health officials have shifted their approach toward the pandemic – away from an emergency-mode mandate-heavy strategy, and toward one involving messaging around personal responsibility and choice. That change is meant to be a new, long-term COVID strategy as much as it is intended as a timely jolt to the economy, while offering a release valve for a restless and exhausted population heading into its third pandemic summer.

Although rising COVID-19 rates may yet scuttle these plans, this is still an exciting time for a lot of Canadians – and especially for businesses. Restaurants have welcomed diners back, while the event industry has been thrilled that venues can return to full capacity. Everyone knew this was coming: a “reopening” of the economy, meant to signal the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic, restore some sense of normalcy, and reignite consumer activity and confidence.

That last part is a big part of the program. Economists’ forecasts of our pandemic recovery have extended from their assumptions that consumer spending will experience a healthy rebound – that we’ll spend the way we used to. And when politicians have talked about reopening and the eventual return to normal, it’s often been framed in explicitly consumer terms: “Back to normal” means eating in restaurants, drinking in bars, shopping in stores, going to movies and concerts, travelling on vacation. Back to normal, in that way, involves consumers spending money, which is very much the point – so much so that amidst governments’ support-local campaigns, back-to-the-office pleas and tourism pushes, it’s hard not to question whether political leaders want communities to come back to life as much as they want cash registers to light up.

As Business Development Bank of Canada vice-president Pierre Cléroux wrote in a 2022 economic outlook, the “main engine of growth” will be driven by Canadian household consumption habits that are “expected to return to normal.” But suddenly, that assumption no longer feels safe. “The era of cheap and plenty may be coming to an end,” as The New York Times put it. Sixty per cent of Canadian households are now struggling to afford groceries; two-thirds are unable to afford gas; a mere 11 per cent say they’re able to absorb current inflation levels. For many Canadian households, there is less and less room left in the budget, while interest rate hikes will further tighten access to credit. In this context, a recovery premised on healthy, revived consumer spending looks more and more in doubt.

That recovery, if it does happen, is also going to be naturally inequitable. It will mean more enjoyment for the well-off, and less for anyone struggling or living with disability, despite clear evidence that stress during the pandemic was both more prevalent and more amplified for those with lower incomes. It’s why a recent Angus Reid poll showed more support for reopening the economy among the wealthy than among those with lower incomes, an unsurprising finding when the most important resource in the recovery is the money burning a hole in people’s pockets. And if your pockets are increasingly empty, there will simply be less for you to do as the economy reopens: A recovery for thee, but not for me.

That’s particularly difficult given that it’s not just our economy in need of recovery, but our social fabric, too. Our communities are broken. Canadians are strained, tired, divided, hurt and wary. Friendships have faded, often without new ones to take their place. Plenty of us have geographically relocated during the pandemic, and restrictions have kept us from finding our place in the community or making new friends. It is little wonder that Canadian measures of anxiety, depression and loneliness are so high.

So what if we approached this question in a different way? What if people were welcomed back to “normal” not as walking spending opportunities? What if we were instead greeted by considerable public investment in free, accessible civic culture, to heal communities by bringing them together?

What if municipalities filled their public spaces with the music of free concerts and the sights of free art, or subsidized private festivals to make them more affordable or, better yet, totally free for participants? Grant programs – such as those that were created by municipalities targeting small businesses in the early waves of the pandemic – could be retooled to allow people to participate in culture and entertainment at as low a cost as possible. In France, the government distributed €300 to all young people, to be spent on arts and culture; could we do something similar, and cut people some kind of cultural-sector stimulus cheque? Above all, efforts like these would mean the equation we’re trying to solve for in our return to normal is maximum participation this summer, rather than only prioritizing the bottom line.

There is money to do it. In its 2021 budget, the federal government earmarked $200-million dollars over two years for a “Reopening Fund” to help support the arts, culture, heritage and sport sectors: $7-million for community music festivals, $55-million for arts organizations; $54-million for “post-COVID celebration and commemoration,” among a bevy of other funding commitments. That money has started to flow already, and some of it has been devoted to events that had to be free to qualify. But in the face of a culture of consumerism that has invaded our notion of what “recovery” should look like, we need to do more.

We know that free public culture has immense value to Canadians, and that it can be programmed successfully. Across the country, annual Pride festivals are generally free affairs, and they are meaningful both for the LGBTQ+ community and everyone else in the city; they make our cities more interesting places to live, play an important part in building a sense of community, and incidentally, are great for the local economy. The same goes for large municipal events such as Winterlude in Ottawa or the Montreal International Jazz Festival (both of which are largely free to check out), movie screenings in parks, outdoor concert series or events put on by local public libraries – events that are free as an integral part of their identity as ways to bring together communities.

In the early months of the pandemic, there was a sense that our recovery could be a moment of renewal, as people explored new ways of living and a new relationship with the public sphere. In 2020, a network of 45 global cities (which included Montreal) drafted the 2020 Rome Charter, which explored how cities can ensure access to cultural participation as a fundamental human right. It imagined a post-COVID world where cultural spaces could nurture new ideas and new community-building efforts. “Culture is the creative workshop with which citizens can imagine responses to our common challenges,” they wrote. “If some good can come from COVID-19, it will be because we have been brave enough to imagine different, better, more sustainable ways of living together, and we won’t stop after the immediate crisis is over.”

Let’s all work toward that world, to make sure that everyone gets to take advantage of lifted restrictions – to help all people find their way back to the community and find joy in public life, even if they have diminished capacities to act as consumers. After all, a consumer-centric reopening may make some of us richer, and may create a few more jobs; it may rescue some small businesses, make other ones more viable, and make our incomes healthier; it may even allow us to clock our GDP in 12 or 24 months’ time and conclude that the economy has recovered. These are all good and important things. But we should ask ourselves: After two long, solitary, lonely years, is that really all we need?

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