Executive Summary

The gap between economic growth and wellbeing is widening

There is a feeling that all is not well in Canada. But it’s more than a feeling; it’s a fact. When we compare trends in the wellbeing of Canadians to economic growth in the period from 1994 to 2014, the gap between GDP and our wellbeing is massive and it’s growing. When Canadians go to bed at night, they are not worried about GDP. They are worried about stringing together enough hours of part-time jobs, rising tuition fees, and affordable housing. They are thinking about the last time they got together with friends or the next time they can take a vacation. Maybe that’s why we are getting less sleep than 21 years ago.

We need to focus on what is meaningful to Canadians

For more than 10 years, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), based at the University of Waterloo, has provided comprehensive analyses of how we are really doing in the areas of our lives that matter most. It draws from almost 200 reliable data sources, primarily from Statistics Canada, that provide 64 indicators representing eight interconnected domains of vital importance to our quality of life. The CIW framework is the result of broad consultations with Canadians from across the country as well as with national and international experts. It is rooted in Canadian values and reflects what really matters in our lives.

The CIW takes a systems approach and identifies key leverage points that have a positive impact on our wellbeing across several domains — Community Vitality, Democratic Engagement, Education, Environment, Healthy Populations, Leisure and Culture, Living Standards, and Time Use. When we tackle challenges in one part of the system, the improvements can translate across a number of domains and to overall wellbeing.

In this 2016 CIW report, we describe how well Canadians are really doing based on trends in all domains from 1994 to 2014.

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After 2008, the economy recovered, but the wellbeing gap grew

Despite faltering briefly after the 2008 recession, the economy has since recovered based on GDP. The wellbeing of Canadians took a significant step backwards, however, and has only begun to recover. From 1994 to 2014, GDP grew by 38.0%; yet, our wellbeing rose by only 9.9%. In fact, the gap between the growth in per capita GDP and Canadians’ wellbeing is even wider than during the period immediately before the recession. In 2007, the gap between GDP and the CIW was 22.0%. By 2010, the gap had risen to 24.5%, and by 2014, it had jumped to 28.1%.

Trends in the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and GDP (per capita) from 1994 to 2014

Graph of trends in CIW and GDP. Details in data table following graph

The wellbeing of Canadians has suffered in some areas more so than others. We are losing valuable time in Leisure and Culture. We are feeling the time crunch as much as ever, and despite improvements in the overall health of the population, there are troubling indicators that all is not well. On the upside, Education shows positive signs, our Community Vitality is better, and Engagement in our Democratic process has improved. However, the upward trends in these domains of our lives have not helped Canadians’ wellbeing keep pace with the recovery of the economy.

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The recession hammered our living standards

Like the economy, Living Standards were on a good trajectory in Canada, increasing 25% until the recession in 2008. Immediately after 2008, they dropped almost 11%. Since the recession, work is more precarious as all of the gains made in curbing long-term unemployment and securing full-time employment prior to 2008 were lost. Despite a 30% increase in median family incomes and a decrease in those living in poverty, income inequality is growing. And more Canadians are struggling with the cost of and access to quality food and to housing. As Canadians face these concerns on a daily basis, the impacts on other aspects of their lives become even more pronounced.

Leisure and Culture dropped more than 9%...

At the same time, Canadians sacrificed the things that often make life worthwhile: leisure, arts and culture, volunteering, and vacation. From 1994 to 2014, the Leisure and Culture domain saw an overall decline of more than 9%. Six of its eight indicators are down. Canadians are spending less time engaged in the arts, culture, and social leisure. Time spent volunteering for culture and recreation organizations is down almost 30% and we are spending fewer nights away on vacation. While the frequency of physical activity is increasing and there are encouraging signs that Canadians are again attending the performing arts and visiting national parks and historic sites, in 2014 household spending on recreation, culture, and sport was at its lowest point over the entire 21-year period.

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...And we continue to feel the time crunch

The recession did not change how many hours there are in a day; but it did change how we use that time. Despite a 3.0% gain in the Time Use domain, Canadians are struggling with time crunch. We see it across all domains, in how we spend our leisure time, in how much we talk to our kids, our engagement in adult education, and our involvement in the community.

Trends in the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and its Eight Domains, 1994 to 2014

Graph of GDP and CIW. Details in data table following graph

Time Use indicators show we are spending almost 30% less time with our friends. Our commute times to work are longer and only 35% of us are getting enough sleep — down from 44% in 1994. Gains in the domain come from fewer people working more than 50 hours each week and more people with flexible work hours. At the same time, work is more precarious. One in 20 people work less than 30 hours per week, and not by choice. One in three workers do not have regular, weekday work hours, up from one in four in 1994. And while the percentage of people reporting high levels of time pressure has declined somewhat since the peak of the late 1990s, overall, the numbers have returned to 1994 levels.

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Education is the only domain to keep pace with the economy

The Education domain, which encompasses learning from early years throughout adulthood, largely kept pace with GDP for an overall increase of 32.8% between 1994 and 2014. Six of its eight indicators show progress including improvements in the ratio of students to educators, 15% higher per capita investment in elementary school students and greater participation in adult education. Nine out of 10 students now complete high school and almost one in three Canadians (28%) holds a university degree — up from 17% in 1994. However, tuition fees nearly tripled in the same period. The percentage of children with access to regulated centre-based child care space has more than doubled since 1994, but this increase still only provides one in four children with access — and then only if a family can afford the fees.

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Community Vitality shows Canadians pulling together...

Overall, the almost 15% increase in Community Vitality shows that Canadians pull together and feel they belong. Two out of three people have a strong sense of community belonging — an important factor contributing to both individual and community wellbeing. The Crime Severity Index is down substantially from 1994. People feel safer in their neighbourhoods and are experiencing less discrimination. More people provide unpaid help to others — peaking at 84% in 2007 — but still up 8.4% overall since 1994. While both the percentage of the population with five or more close friends and general trust levels hit their lowest points in 2008, both have been rising steadily since. What has not recovered is the percentage of the population engaged in formal volunteering for organizations. Volunteering rose by 15% from 1994 to 2008 to reach a high of 65%. Over the next six years, all of the gains of the previous years were lost and volunteering has ended up almost exactly where it was in 1994. Whatever the root cause — concerns over work or increased time pressure — Canadians’ commitment to volunteering appears to be another victim of the recession.

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...But we are ambivalent about Democratic Engagement

A thriving democracy relies on trust, confidence, and participation in our institutions. We  are seeing real challenges in those areas, even though voter turnout has increased in recent years and younger voters are increasingly engaged. The Democratic Engagement domain rose by 15% from 1994 to 2008, but collapsed until 2011 when it began to return to previous levels. Overall, Canadians seem ambivalent about their democracy. By 2014, barely one-third expressed confidence in federal Parliament — down by 14% since 2003. Fewer people are satisfied with the way democracy is working in Canada — down 5% since 2008. Fewer than 2% of Canadians volunteer for political or advocacy organizations. The ratio of registered  to eligible voters is down. Despite gender equity in the current Cabinet, women remain significantly under-represented in Parliament. If we are to see real change in the country, Canadians need to feel that their voices and participation matter in the democratic process, and in more ways than just voting.

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There are mixed results for Healthy Populations...

Results in the Healthy Populations domain also are mixed. Up by 16.2% overall, the domain points to longer life-expectancy, a steep decline in teen smoking — especially among girls — slightly better ratings for mental health and modest gains in flu shot rates. Unfortunately, the positive results mask important contradictions. Canadians are not rating their overall health as positively as before. Diabetes rates have gone up by two and half times to affect 6.7% of the population by 2014. More than one in five people have a health or activity limitation, and access to a family doctor is down slightly. People in low income have been most affected by the inconsistent trends in this domain over the past two decades. Achieving good health is an important goal to strive for in order for Canadians to enjoy full participation in school, work, family, and community.

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....And the Environment is flatlining 

From 1994 to 2014 the Environment domain declined by 2.9% overall. With 21 years to take on the most urgent issue on the planet — the planet itself — the results are disheartening. Our environmental footprint, the fourth-largest in the world, remains massive and unchanged. Greenhouse gas emissions are up. Smog levels and freshwater yields have remained essentially the same. The amount of farmland is shrinking, although production is up on  larger, consolidated farms. The few improvements in the domain were largely due to reduced fossil fuel production following the recession. Individual Canadians are doing their part, reducing residential energy use by 20%, but much more progress needs to come from those industries that generate 60% of emissions. We have seen decisive government leadership recently on tackling climate change, and must demand ongoing action on the part of industry, governments, and individuals.

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The CIW offers new policy directions

The single-minded pursuit of economic growth has largely defined public policy in Canada over the past several decades. Yet, while Canada can boast being one of the most prosperous countries in the world and having avoided the worst of the economic impacts of the 2008 recession, we cannot boast that the wellbeing of Canadians has kept pace.

By recognizing that wellbeing is based on an interconnected system of domains critical to Canadians’ quality of life, the CIW provides a process for the advancement of influential policy directions. A central theme emerging from the findings of this report is the need to close the growing inequality gap for all Canadians. Innovative and integrated policy directions that must be considered include:

  • a universal basic income that is embedded within the social safety net — a companion to successful programs supporting children and older adults
  • a Pan-Canadian education strategy to create more, accessible opportunities for Canadians throughout life
  • adoption of an “upstream” perspective on health promotion
  • fostering inter-sectoral collaboration within communities to leverage resources and facilitate citizen engagement and cooperation
  • universal access to leisure, arts, culture, sport, parks, and recreation to enrich lives.

Some of the policies are not new. However, the case for them extends beyond single solutions and recognizes the multitude of ways that they can enhance the wellbeing of Canadians. By placing wellbeing at the heart of policy, we see the possibilities that a universal basic income can provide beyond lifting people out of poverty. It creates opportunity. It provides people with choice. It enriches their lives and their family’s lives beyond paying the bills.

In early 1904, Sir Wilfrid Laurier expressed the optimistic view, “… I think we can claim that Canada will fill the twentieth century.” As we look to Canada’s next 150 years, by putting wellbeing at the heart of public policy, the 21st century could, in fact, be Canada’s.

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