UN report is a wake-up call for complacent Canada
TheStar.com – Opinion / Commentary – Canada falls to 11th in the latest UN Human Development Report.
Mar 18 2013. By: Allan C. Hutchinson
While we are often reticent, Canadians take great comfort in the fact that Canada is “the best place in the world to live.” But the recent annual UN Human Development Report 2013 suggests that we might be becoming a little too complacent: all is not as well as it might be in our small corner of paradise.
We have proudly celebrated the UN’s categorization as Canada as a country that scores high on all the important indices of “human development” (education, health, social welfare, etc.). But in the last few years we have begun to slip. Momentum is being lost and a rosy perception may be making reality seem more reassuring than it is.
Canada is being bypassed by other countries (Japan and Ireland) in terms of its substantive quality of overall life; northern Europe still rules the roost. We are now down to 11th in the global rankings, far behind the United States at third. Indeed, if the effects of inequality are factored in, then Canada drops to 15th (and the United States drops to 16th).
Canada is still one of the world’s most livable countries. But there is also no room or time for contentment. We need to take a serious look at ourselves and address some of the deeper issues that threaten our continued development as a progressive society and our own sense of ourselves.
For example, despite recent gains, gender inequality remains a continuing challenge. Canada ranks only 18th on the global rankings and is bested by almost all European democracies. Only 28 per cent of our elected politicians are women. And maternal mortality is relatively high at 12 per 100,000, compared to five, four and seven in Japan, Sweden and Australia.
Also, although Canadians are constantly told that their health-care system is the envy of the world, this seems overstated. Although satisfaction with health care is high, it is bettered by at least 12 other countries. Also, the relative number of physicians per capita is low at 1.9 per 1,000; more than 20 countries have a higher ratio, some almost double the Canadian one.
But it is the general effects of inequality of all kinds (gender, race, income, wealth, etc.) that seem most debilitating. While Canada does well on mean scores in many categories, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting bigger, not smaller. Canada is a more spread-out society than ever before.
We are becoming a country in which there is greater disparity between the opportunities and lifestyles afforded to some than others. Life expectancy, education and earnings are considerably lower for the bottom 20 per cent than the top 20 per cent. And these relative figures are getting worse, not better.
Ironically, Canada is among the world leaders in the perceptions of its citizens in the well-being of their country. Even though the statistics belie the opinions, we are highly satisfied with our jobs, our lives and our government. This is no small achievement, but it is a silver cloud with a dark lining.
There are no quick fixes for the structural deficiencies that exist. But the first step in addressing these challenges is for Canadians to wake up and take more realistic stock of the situation. We cannot rest on our laurels. Canadians and our leaders must become a little less smug. Much has been done, but there is still much to do.
On the basis of the UN report, the lessons from the economies and democracies of developing countries, especially in the South, are that the state must continue to play a guiding role in establishing the basic conditions for human flourishing. Interventionist policies in some areas — education, health and discrimination — seem to be fully warranted. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the state, properly representative and accountable, is the best and sometimes only friend of the marginalized and underprivileged.
Of course, some will be inclined to quibble with the UN’s methods and statistics. But, as limited and incomplete as the report might be, that seems an indulgence. The UN has issued a wake-up call; Canadians would do well to heed it.
Allan C. Hutchinson is Distinguished Research Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University.
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