Leisure and Culture

By participating in Leisure and Culture activities, whether arts, culture, or recreation, we contribute to our wellbeing as individuals, to our communities, and to society as a whole. The myriad of activities and opportunities we pursue and enjoy benefit our overall life satisfaction and quality of life.

As forms of human expression, leisure and cultural activities help to more fully define our lives, the meaning we derive from them, and ultimately, our wellbeing. This remains true throughout our lives regardless of age, gender, or social group. The impact of participation in leisure and cultural activities is even greater for people in marginalized groups, such as those living with disabilities, living in poverty, or as members of a minority population.

Leisure time takes the greatest hit

Of all the domains, Leisure and Culture has seen the most dramatic decline since 1994 — six of the eight indicators of leisure and cultural engagement are worse now. The good news is we are more physically active and average attendance at performances is showing signs of recovery after a dramatic post-recession drop. The bad news is that we are spending less time in arts, culture, and social leisure. We are spending less time volunteering for culture and recreation organizations and taking fewer nights away on vacation. Most troubling, household spending on culture and recreation is at its lowest point since 1994. The 2008 recession hit Canadians’ opportunities for Leisure and Culture hard and accelerated the domain’s decline. Only in the past couple of years have we seen it begin to recover very slowly.

We are spending less time engaged in social and arts and culture activities

Canadians are spending less time socialising with others. The average portion of total time that Canadians spent on the previous day on social leisure activities dropped every year from 16.1% in 1998 to 13.2% in 2014. While an almost 3% drop in time might seem small, it represents almost three-quarters of an hour on a typical day.

Arts and culture participation now represents less than 4% of Canadians’ time. Time spent engaged in arts and culture activities dropped every year from 1994 to 2005. On average, Canadians are spending about one hour less each month engaged in the arts. Since 2005, participation has remained comparatively stable.

The decline in social leisure activities was felt most by women. Women spend on average a much greater percentage of their time than men on both social leisure and arts and culture activities, but the drop in social leisure activities from 1998 to 2014 was higher among women; in fact, the decline in social leisure activities by all Canadians was felt mostly by women.

We volunteer less for culture and recreation organizations…

Volunteering for culture and recreation is down almost 30%. Overall volunteering in Canada increased until 1998 before dropping off significantly by 2013, but volunteering specifically for culture and recreation organizations has not followed the same trend. The average number of hours devoted to volunteering for culture and recreation organizations dropped by 29.8% from 1997 to 2007, but rebounded slightly following the recession, only to drop again by 2013. Overall, time spent volunteering dropped by 29.5% between 1998 and 2013.

Age and gender gaps emerge among volunteers. Although the amount of time for both men and women has dropped over time, in 2013, men reported on average twice as much time volunteering for culture and recreation organizations as women. Time spent volunteering for culture and recreation is lowest among Canadians between 16 and 35 years of age, but continues to be much higher among those over age 45.

…And vacation time collapsed after the recession

Nights away on vacation are down by almost a third. The total number of nights Canadians spent away from home on each vacation trip was relatively stable from 1994 to 2008, averaging between 4.3 and 4.6 nights. However, after the 2008 recession, nights away dropped severely by almost a third (32.0%), with nights away averaging less than three by 2014. Canadians have traditionally been able to protect their vacations against fluctuations in the economy, but the recession seriously affected their ability to do so.

By 2014, household spending on culture and recreation was lower than in 1994

Canadians are spending 15% less on culture and recreation. Regardless of whether household income went up or down over the years, the percentage of that total income devoted to culture and recreation remained at approximately 5% to 6% from 1997 to 2008. Following the recession, that percentage fell every year to 4.8% by 2014 — the first time it has been below 5% over the entire 21-year period. While a drop of just under 1% in expenditures for culture and recreation activities appears small, it represents an average decline of almost $6,000 of total household expenditures over that period. Canadians are spending substantially less of their incomes on culture and recreation, down 15.1% from 1994 levels, the bulk of which has occurred in the years since the recession.

But more positively…
Canadians are returning to performances and to our national parks and historic sites…

Post-recession, Canadians are returning to the arts. Average attendance per performance fluctuated slightly in the early 2000s, then peaked in 2006 showing a 6.7% increase over 1998 levels. Between 2006 and 2012, and especially since the 2008 recession, attendance has plummeted, dropping by 22.9%. Up to 2014, attendance to the performing arts had begun to recover, but still remains below 2006 levels.

Interest in Canada’s National Parks and Historic Sites is on the rise. Annual visits to Canada’s National Parks and National Historic Sites remained steady throughout the 1990s, but dropped significantly immediately after 2000. By 2010, they were at their lowest levels since 1994 — a decline of almost 30% in visitation. Several factors contributed to the decline during this period including 9/11, the outbreaks of SARS, West Nile virus, and the economic slump. However, since 2011, visitation has been steadily increasing and saw a significant jump of 11.5% in 2014 following renewed marketing efforts by Parks Canada, especially to attract both new and young Canadians for whom the park experience was unfamiliar.

…And participation in physical activities continues to increase — for all ages

Canadians engage in physical activity almost daily. Overall participation in at least 15 minutes of physical activity rose steadily from 21 to almost 28 times per month from 1994 to 2014, for an overall increase of 31.2%. Participation rates in activities such as walking, bicycling, exercising, various sports, gardening, and social dancing have remained fairly consistent since 2003.

Younger Canadians are the most active, but older people are also embracing active lifestyles. Men reported almost two more episodes of physical activity per month than women in 2014, but the rising trends were the same for both genders. While frequency of participation is highest among Canadians under 25 years of age, rates are almost identical for all other age groups from 25 to 74 years. Older adults are increasingly embracing more active lifestyles, which bodes well for the health of Canadians as they approach later life.


Leisure and Culture make significant contributions to the wellbeing of Canadians and their communities. They also help shape our national identity and sense of who we are as a people. Thus, the overall decline in the engagement of Canadians in such activities is of considerable concern.

There is some comfort in knowing that participation in physical activity has increased for all age groups over recent years, especially given the challenge of an ageing population and increases in chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity-related health challenges. Especially since the recession, the ability of Canadians to maintain or even enhance their wellbeing through leisure opportunities has been seriously undermined as vacations and expenditures on desired free- time activities and services have both collapsed. Equally worrying is that over the past several years, public agencies and non-profit, voluntary organizations responsible for the provision of leisure and culture programs, services, facilities, and other opportunities have seen a decline in the volunteers on whom they rely and an ongoing shift away from core funding.

These trends bode poorly for the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society. Should they continue, the benefits associated with having leisure and culture as key components in the lifestyles of Canadians and in our communities will simply not be realized. We must strengthen our capacity to provide meaningful and accessible venues and opportunities for leisure and culture for all Canadians. Indeed, fundamental human rights to leisure and to participation in a community’s cultural life, especially the arts, are enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 24 and 27)21 as well as its Declaration of the Rights of the Child (Principle 7).22 We must therefore strive to ensure Leisure and Culture engagement is protected and celebrated so the wellbeing of all Canadians is enhanced.

Leisure and Culture indicators tracked 1994 to 2014

  • Average percentage of time spent on the previous day in social leisure activities
  • Average percentage of time spent on the previous day in arts and culture activities
  • Average monthly frequency of participation in physical activity lasting over 15 minutes
  • Average attendance per performance at all performing arts performances
  • Average number of hours volunteering for culture and/or recreation organizations
  • Average visitation per site to National Parks and National Historic Sites
  • Average number of nights away on vacation trips to destinations at least 80km from home
  • Expenditures on all culture and recreation as a percentage of total household expenditures

21. United Nations. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, A/RES/3/217A. Paris, FR. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/a3r217a.htm

22. United Nations. (1959). Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, A/RES/14/1386. Paris, FR. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/a14r1386.htm