Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Canadians Facing Some Challenges 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  November 28 / 11

Zack Gross

Just as the United Nations was delivering its annual Human Development Index (HDI) recently, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), based at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, put out its first report. 

Its overall message is that the UN HDI measures the progress and status of lives on Earth based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) alone, while what is needed is a study that looks behind economics at the “soft” issues that affect individuals, social groups and communities.

The CIW, chaired by prominent former politicians Roy Romanow and Monique Begin, analyzes the lives of Canadians over the fifteen-year period of 1994 to 2008.  Economic figures, such as our growing GDP, are compared to a set of CIW standards, and show that, while our country has become wealthier overall, it has not met a number of social, cultural, health and educational targets that would make life richer and more secure for all.

The CIW Report’s conclusion is that in the 15-year period studied, our GDP increased by 31%, but our CIW Index increased by much less – 11%.  In some areas of Canadian life – general living standards, community vitality, involvement in decision-making and the political process, and in education – Canadians are doing better than the CIW standard.  However, as a healthy population, in our involvement in culture and leisure, in our relationship with time, and in the state of our natural environment, we are doing poorly.

In the realm of Living Standards, Canada has done well, at least on the surface. 

Our GDP is up and our unemployment rate is one of the lowest during the current global recession.  However, the CIW points out, research shows that the wealthiest 20% are getting richer at a rate that leaves the bottom 20% falling further behind.

As well, the kinds of jobs available are not high pay and high satisfaction, but rather are shift work, low pay and more “McJob” than career choice.  One result of this is that fewer Canadians can afford to buy a house today.

In the population health field, the CIW acknowledges that Canadians enjoy, by global standards, a relatively high standard of health care and life expectancy.  However, it is also true that health status and delivery of health services are based on income and social groupings. 

Many serious health challenges are faced by certain vulnerable groups, such as aboriginal people (diabetes, poor sanitation), teens (psychological issues, lack of fitness) and rural people (poor technology, unavailability of services).  While we may be living longer, we are also suffering more from chronic diseases and mental illness.

Our environmental and global citizenship records are not good at a time when momentous changes are taking place in world weather and political patterns.  The Report points out that Canadians contribute mightily to the greenhouse gas problem in the world, based on our high-consumption lifestyle. 

We are also encountering growing issues in our supply of fresh water, and our loss of many fish, animal and bird species. Canada is not monitoring these challenges to the extent that it should, has abdicated from its leadership role on the Kyoto Accord targets, and is not living up to its promises of support for development in the Third World, where the most vulnerable populations on our planet live.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing’s 60-page Report
available online  – was not compiled only as an academic exercise. 

The hope of its authors, housed at Waterloo’s School of Applied Health Sciences, is that their report will drive change at all levels of society, from individuals and families, to organizations and communities, to all levels of government.  Indeed, they ask us to make our municipal councilors, MLAs and MPs aware of their Report.

The last few pages of the CIW Report make suggestions for positive change in our country’s policies in order to bring our social indicators up to the level of our economic might. 

The first priority is to reduce income inequality as our country displays an ever- growing gap between the rich and poor that can only end in trouble for everyone.  Secondly, the authors call for greater cooperation among the different levels of government in order to effectively and efficiently deliver social programs.  Many communities, but particularly aboriginal ones, suffer because of jurisdictional disputes over responsibility.

The CIW also calls for greater use of technology to improve civic literacy – that is, to connect more people to the lives and issues of their communities and country, and to the decision-making and voting processes.  In particular, this would impact youth involvement at a time when voter and citizen apathy seems to be affecting more than half the population. 

Another idea put forward is that a National Early Childhood Education strategy would have a significant impact on our country, from better academic results for school children to equal work opportunities for women to greater income security for families.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing hopes to continue its work on a regular basis in the future, offering Canadians a more nuanced view of how we are doing than what is offered by the UN’s Development Index.  We can only hope that governments will take the Report into account when they make their policy decisions so that all Canadians can benefit from its wisdom.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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