As we enter 2013, how is Canada doing? How do we stack up against other rich countries? Emerging from the year of the 50th anniversary of medicare, the 30th anniversary of the Charter, are we making progress? Do we even have any shared notion of what progress would look like?
How we measure our success as a country matters. It tells us a lot about what we value most. It shapes what we ask of our politicians and how we judge the performance of our governments. It shapes politics and policy.
Very often international comparisons of how well a country is doing rely on GDP and this has been the go-to measure in Canada as well. GDP measures the total value of the goods and services produced by a country and is the best way to track the size and growth of the economy. On this basis, in a world shaken by U.S. debt, European fragility and the emergence of new economic super-powers, we have been doing pretty well.
Of course GDP is important and especially to developing countries trying to lift their populations out of poverty. But it is a lousy measure of the health and welfare of a country such as ours. As countries get richer, growth brings diminishing returns; other things become more important.
Our focus on GDP in media and politics reflects what has been for several decades now a preoccupation with economic growth, a preoccupation that helps explain the tiresome whining of some of our opinion leaders about how badly we were lagging the US even while we were doing pretty well on other counts. It probably also explains the equally irritating self-righteousness when we now lecture our allies on how they should manage their economies. But GDP tells us nothing about how the benefits of growth are shared or about the costs of growth to the environment, our community and even future economic prospects. It tells us nothing about those values that sit outside the market – the quality of our political and social commons, and our relationships to one another and to nature.
International agencies and a number of countries are developing indices that take into account equality, sustainability, democracy, and trust, as well as economic performance. In Canada Roy Romanow has proposed just such an index, and recently David Suzuki added his voice to the campaign to think beyond GDP – promoting a measure of General National Happiness with a central place for the health of the environment which enables all else. These are welcome initiatives because they ask us to consider what is important, what our future ought to look like.
To this work I would propose the addition of another measure, which despite its long pedigree is too easily overlooked. Gandhi and Pope John Paul II, Aristotle and Rawls, and artists through the ages have all reminded us that the real test of any society is how we treat the weakest among us, those who have the least. Here too, with glaring exceptions, none more shameful than our relationship with Aboriginal Peoples, we have done pretty well. For example, we have historically been above average on measures of equality, well ahead of the U.S. We were seen as proof that diversity and equality could coexist, that empathy and sharing could bridge differences in language, culture, lifestyle. We came to see immigration as a solution, not a problem and to be open to refugees.
Even in our relationship with Aboriginal Peoples, this government’s historic apology for some of the most grievous wrongs could have been a signal of a new, more respectful relationship (especially needed after the abandonment of the Kelowna Accord).
Churchill gave particular attention to how well a country treats its prisoners, what he described as a measure of a society’s stored-up goodwill; and here too we managed to be fairly balanced.
As for our global responsibilities, Canada led in getting rich countries to commit 0.7 per cent of GDP to aid and while we never came close to that level (others have), we did, about a decade ago, double our aid budget, with no less than half going to Africa, and took other steps that offered at least some prospect for narrowing the gap.
How do we stack up today?
On many fronts pretty well: we have much to be grateful for. But how about for those who have least?
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has drawn attention again to the suffering of her community, part of a growing movement, Idle No More, which got its impetus from the omnibus budget that weakened environmental protections without consultation with Aboriginal communities. The movement has spread across and beyond Canada, an expression of outrage at these decisions, at inaction on injustice.
A few doctors and other health providers have also been leading protests against recent changes to refugee regulations, changes that mean more, including children, are subject to automatic detention and the separation of families, some may be denied essential medical help, and some will be subject to automatic deportation without appeal. We are also increasingly relying on migrant workers who are not only paid less than domestic workers but are now denied basic benefits that they pay for through EI premiums.
As for unemployed Canadians – too many of whom are young, often indebted graduates – cuts over the last 15 years have meant fewer are eligible for EI benefits or training. Recent changes have made eligibility even more exclusive, requiring the unemployed to accept any work, even at wages of 70 per cent of the job they lost. Access is now at an all-time low forcing many to go on welfare. With all the growth of our economy, too many Canadians, many who do have jobs, live in poverty or are just scraping by. We are nowhere near meeting our longstanding commitment to eliminate child poverty.
Thousands have also protested the government’s punitive crime agenda, which, while politically popular, marks a sharp departure for Canada, at a time when crime rates are going down. The evidence is overwhelming that such tough-on-crime policies don’t work, that they make us less safe, result in prison overcrowding and inattention to rehabilitation, turn jails into “asylums” for the mentally ill, and contribute to the creation of an underclass permanently excluded from opportunity.
Internationally, apart from freezing aid, our parliament recently said no to a bill promising cheap drugs to poor countries, choosing, as Stephen Lewis put it, patents over people. And when U.N. envoys criticize us, we are outraged, turning against the critics rather than asking how we might do better.
These changes cannot be justified on the basis of fiscal prudence. Where there are savings, they are miniscule. Increased incarceration and detention will create considerable costs. While we all recognize the need for efficient administration, these changes put the burden on, thereby doubly victimizing, the weakest among us. They reflect an indifference to those with less or, even worse, a view of people in need as shirkers and slackers.
What all this yields is a meaner Canada. When governing is all short-term economic growth, damn the consequences, then aboriginal rights and environmental protections become inconveniences to be ignored or managed. Refugees, the unemployed, and the poor come to be seen and treated as freeloaders, a drag on the economy, rather than fellow citizens, often victims of an increasingly mean version of capitalism. And criminals are demonized, convenient scapegoats for our fears and discontents, the most heinous offences and frightening offenders used to blind us to the reality that those are people in our prisons, most of whose lives could be repaired.
Our leaders try to convince us that the health of the so-called job creators is more important than that of the weakest among us. And, it seems, many of the richest and most powerful come to believe this and act on that basis, what some have called “trickle down meanness,” one of the consequences of rising inequality, particularly when growth disproportionately benefits a small group of super-rich able effectively to secede from society and its mutual obligations. On measures of equality, we are slipping to the bottom relative to other rich countries. We ought to measure up to the best.
An obsession with short-term growth, with money, may well blind us to the things that really matter, to the possibility that there is some common good important enough that we might modify or even sacrifice our private interests.
The debate brewing about how to measure success is not just about measurement. It is a recognition that we need to participate in a real discussion about what we mean by the good life, the purpose of the economy, the kind of Canada we want. It is about decency and dignity. It is about our political and democratic institutions, the need to find much better ways to ensure that all voices, particularly those speaking for the marginalized, are heard. This may be the only way to restore a sense of the common good and win back the many who have given up on politics, party and government.
(This article first appeared in The Toronto Star.)