Vital communities are those that have strong, active, and inclusive relationships among people, private, public, and non-governmental organizations that foster individual and collective wellbeing.
Vital communities are able to cultivate and marshal these relationships in order to create, adapt, and thrive in the changing world. They do so by focusing on social relationships and support, including community safety and social engagement, and on social norms and values, including feelings towards others and residents’ sense of belonging to their communities.
Safer, more caring communities
Community Vitality has improved steadily since 1994, including the years following the recession of 2008, increasing by 14.8% over the 21-year period. As people pulled together to help each other following the recession, two indicators saw the reversal of previous downward trends: the number of close friends and levels of trust in others both increased. The unfortunate flip-side of the recession story is that formal volunteering for groups or organizations has never recovered to its pre-2008 levels. Nevertheless, today overall, Canadians help one another. They feel connected to and more trusting of others. They also feel more connected to their communities and feel safe in them.
More Canadians feel a strong sense of belonging to their communities
2 in 3 Canadians have a strong sense of belonging to their communities. Rising steadily over the years, sense of belonging has grown from 57.8% of Canadians in 2001 to its highest level ever — 66.4% in 2014. These feelings of belonging are even stronger among older Canadians.
Canadians not only feel safer — they are safer
The Crime Severity Index has fallen 78.2% since 1998. In fact, the severity of crimes committed has declined even more so than the overall crime rate, which fell by just over one-half (54.0%) between 2003 and 2014.5
Almost 4 in 5 Canadians feel safe walking alone after dark in their communities. Overall, feelings of safety have increased by 6.5% since 1994, with almost four in five Canadians (78.7%) saying they feel safe in 2014. Not surprisingly, men feel safer than women. In 2014, over 90% of Canadian men said they felt safe whereas only about two-thirds of women (67.8%) felt safe walking alone after dark.
People are experiencing less discrimination
Experiences of discrimination based on ethnicity dropped from 13.3% in 2002 to 8.0% in 2014. Among those individuals who did experience discrimination in 2014, most were under the age of 35 (37.5%). More critically, more than 1 in 4 members of a visible minority report experiences of discrimination. Clearly, we still have much work to do to ensure an inclusive society.
We are more connected to others in our communities
Since the recession, people have more friends and are more trusting of others. Although both of these indicators are essentially back to 1994 levels, the recession marked an important turning point. Since 2008, slightly more Canadians (52.5%) are reporting they have five or more friends — up from 48.3%. Similarly, in 2014, 54.5% of people believe most or many people can be trusted, up from just 47.7% in 2008. While this positive trend in trust is encouraging, there is still considerable room for improvement especially when sense of belonging and feelings of safety have shown such marked progress.
We are helping one another…
More than 8 in 10 Canadians provide unpaid help to others who are on their own. The percentage of people lending support has risen steadily since the mid-1990s reaching its highest level in 2007 (84.0%). Following the recession, the percentage has dropped slightly to 81.7%, but providing unpaid help to others who are on their own remains an important activity for most Canadians.
…But participation in formal volunteering fell dramatically after 2008
The recession wiped out increases in unpaid, formal volunteering for groups or organizations. In 1994, half of all Canadians (50.5%) volunteered for groups devoted to activities such as arts and culture, sport and recreation, education, or environmental advocacy. By 2008, that percentage had climbed to almost two-thirds (65.0%), but by 2014, had tumbled to below half (49.1%) — the lowest participation rate since 2000. This is troubling, because formal volunteering — at all ages — is critically important to community belonging, to democratic participation, to combat social isolation, and to maintain physical and mental health.
The way we associate with each other, and on what terms, has enormous implications for our wellbeing. On balance, the positive trend of most of the indicators in the Community Vitality domain is heartening, suggesting that the wellbeing of Canadians, as measured by the quality of their relationships, is improving over time. Even following the economic recession, Canadians feel connected to their communities and to others — suggesting a strong commitment to the core Canadian value of a “shared destiny”. Building greater trust would be an important factor in helping people to flourish. Trust is the foundation of a thriving society. We are safe on our roads because we trust others to obey traffic laws. We trust we will be paid for the work we do. We trust our food is safe. When that basic trust is eroded, monitoring increases, participation decreases, and suspicion grows — there are real human and economic costs when trust is lost. Despite the progress in other areas, our communities cannot be really vital and thrive when trust is eroded. Individuals, employers, organizations, and policy makers need to explore new ways to extend, build, and preserve trust and thereby maintain and enhance the gains we have seen in community vitality.
Importantly, we must recognize that while the growing trend to provide unpaid care and assistance to others helps strengthen community vitality, it also has the potential to exacerbate feelings of time crunch. With the bulk of unpaid care being provided by older adults, as Canada’s population ages, that crunch could be felt by millions of people. With greater accessibility to community supports such as daily respite, elder care, and more flexible child care and workplace arrangements, those Canadians providing support to others could better enjoy these caring relationships.
Finally, volunteering for groups and organizations is an important way for people to build relationships and participate in groups dedicated to leisure, the arts, the environment, education, democracy, or a variety of other spheres of the civic arena. At all ages, volunteering provides Canadians with opportunities to develop new skills, meet new people, express themselves, and grow. Participating with friends or family members is one of the essential ways to further sense of belonging, enhance health, build community vitality, and to participate in leisure or culture.
Community Vitality indicators tracked 1994 to 2014
- Percentage of population that reports very or somewhat strong sense of belonging to community
- Percentage of population with 5 or more close friends
- Percentage of population that feels safe walking alone after dark
- Crime Severity Index
- Percentage experiencing discrimination in past 5 years based on ethno-cultural characteristics
- Percentage of population that believes that most or many people can be trusted
- Percentage of population reporting unpaid, formal volunteering for groups or organizations
- Percentage of population that provides unpaid help to others on their own