The results of the latest Canadian Index of Wellbeing shows the 2008 recession stole our living standards, our leisure and volunteer time, even our sleep — and we never got them back.
By Roy Romanow
The well-being of Canadians is lagging far behind economic growth — a gap that widened after the 2008 recession. Intuitively, you know this when you read about precarious work, longer commute times or rising rates of diabetes. Millions of Canadians feel like the promised benefits of a rebounding gross domestic product (GDP) haven’t made their way to their home or community. It’s more than a feeling.
Today, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) released its third national report, which shatters the persistent myth of “trickle down.” From 1994 to 2014, Canada’s GDP grew by 38 per cent while national well-being only rose 9.9 per cent. What’s more, the 2008 recession stole our living standards, our leisure and volunteer time, even our sleep — and we never got them back.
Based at the University of Waterloo, the CIW tracks 64 indicators representing eight domains of vital importance to Canadians’ quality of life. Where GDP counts money circulating in the economy, the CIW captures fluctuations in community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards and time use to describe how we’re really doing.
Take this year’s Fort McMurray wildfires for example. Firefighting, evacuation and rebuilding costs all contribute positively to GDP. Yet GDP will never capture the negative impacts on the environment, on residents’ physical and mental health or on their living standards. Nor will GDP ever positively account for the increased sense of community that can stem from tragedy. The CIW can.
At the national level, the picture that emerges over the past 21 years is a GDP rebounding post-recession but Canadians literally continuing to pay the price. From 1994 to 2008, the living standards domain rose 23 per cent. Then it plummeted almost 11 per cent and has yet to recover. Gains made on reducing long-term unemployment and improving the employment rate were lost. Income inequality is rising. And, despite increases in median family incomes, millions of Canadians struggle with food and housing costs. When living standards drop, community, cultural and democratic participation follow suit. Surely, this is not our vision of equality and fairness in Canada.
Canadians’ were hardest hit in the leisure and culture domain, which declined by 9 per cent overall. We’re taking less time enjoying arts, culture, sports — even vacations — the very activities that help define us as individuals. On the eve of Canada’s sesquicentennial, household spending on culture and recreation is at its lowest point in 21 years.
To begin to narrow the gap, we can build on strengths, such as the education domain. Since domains are highly interrelated, we know that when more people graduate from high school and university, there is a positive effect on health and on almost all aspects of social, economic, and community participation. Strength in community vitality shows Canadians feel they belong and readily help one another. Collectively, we sense that action is required. There is growing support for forward-thinking programs, such as basic income and upstream health care approaches that tackle well-being issues at their roots.
Now is the time for Canada to refocus on a sense of shared destiny. It is time to reaffirm our values, which provide guideposts on how to move forward as a society. It is time to adopt the CIW as a national measure that is an equal partner to GDP.
Critics will argue that governments cannot afford to worry about well-being, especially when GDP is fragile. What we cannot afford is ongoing environmental degradation. We cannot afford the human and economic costs of poor health. We cannot afford the erosion of equality and fairness that underpins Canadian democracy.
The complex issues of our time require evidence, integrated systems thinking and proactive approaches. As we set our course for the next 150 years, we need to place the well-being of all Canadians at the very heart of Canada’s vision.
Roy Romanow is former premier of Saskatchewan (1991-2001). He headed the Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada (2001) and previously served as a member of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee. He is current Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan. He is founding Chair, CIW Advisory Board.