Using aggregate, internationally reported statistics, Canada is ranked 17th out of 157 countries on the 2017 SDG Index, suggesting that Canada is uniformly on track to achieve the ambitious SDGs.
Recognizing that the progress reported at the national scale is far from true for all living within Canada, metrics must be formed based not only on aggregated quantitative data, but community-level, qualitative findings premised on reciprocal listening and learning.
On coming to Canada as a student, it was immediately apparent that Canada and Canadians are proud of their diversity. The intent of Pierre Trudeau’s 1971 statement for a multicultural Canada in the House of Commons was shared with me in casual conversations and in the classroom alike, just as the 2015 federal elections emphasized Canada’s commitment to embracing diversity with Trudeau’s pledge to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees.
Although this plurality and diversity infuses the Canadian experience, the multiplicity of experiences also represents a significant challenge when creating the indicators that will be used to assess Canada’s SDG implementation progress. Consequently, using aggregate, internationally reported statistics, Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) rank Canada 17th out of 157 countries on the 2017 SDG Index, suggesting that Canada is uniformly on track to achieve the ambitious SDGs. Indeed, Canadians born today can expect to live for almost 82 years, thanks in part to having one of the highest densities of physicians per capita in the world.
Nationally, Canada even ranks highly among other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in ensuring the health of mothers and children, with a maternal mortality rate of only 7 deaths per 100,000 live births and a newborn mortality of 3.2 per 1,000 live births. Building on this accomplishment in women and children’s health, with much applause, the Trudeau government introduced a Gender-Based Analysis + lens to all public policy making and Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance policy. The 2016 federal budget also promised to implement a Poverty Reduction Strategy, a National Food policy and a National Housing Strategy, highlighting Canada’s commitment to achieving sustainable development.
Yet, the nationally aggregate and internationally reported statistics miss the mark in understanding the domestic diversity so often celebrated in Canada, giving a false confidence in the inevitability that Canada will achieve sustainable development. Rather, to appropriate the words UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo during the opening meeting of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), “the lack of disaggregated data on vulnerable groups exacerbates their vulnerabilities by masking the extent of disparities.”
Revealing the contrast between the story that aggregate indicators and case studies of vulnerable communities tell about Canada’s baseline status for SDG implementation, a new report, Where Canada Stands, prepared by the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) in advance of the July 2017 session of the HLPF, provides a geographically and demographically disaggregated perspective from civil society.
Interviewing 15 experts from across Canada, analyzing available subnational quantitative statistics, and gathering case studies to understand progress on Canada’s own terms, the aptly named report asks, “where does Canada stand?”
In sum, the aggregate numbers are far from true to the lived experience of many living in Canada, as sparsely monitored environments are more susceptible to the harmful impacts of climate change and marginalized persons and communities continue to face increased vulnerability. Experts interviewed by BCCIC emphasized that LGBTQ+ individuals face discrimination, impacting access to jobs, housing and services, while youth and people whose first language is not English or French experience increased risk of worse health outcomes.
Moreover, in 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal stated that “the Canadian government is racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children,” by “providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services.” Instead, federal “policies create a perverse incentive to place First Nations children in foster care,” while per student funding for Indigenous children remains lower than for their non-Indigenous counterparts and Indigenous women earn 26% less than non-Indigenous men.
Exposed to economic uncertainty, greater food insecurity, poorer health outcomes, and a lack of basic services, the 4.9 million Canadians and one in every five children living in poverty face poorer outcomes on all SDGs. Notably, according to PROOF, “one third of households reliant on social assistance[…] are severely food insecure,” while Canada without Poverty states that “poverty is one of the biggest burdens on the economic, healthcare and criminal justice systems in Canada.”
So, where does Canada stand? It depends on whose Canada you are talking about. By considering economic disparities, the experiences of vulnerable minorities and the regional distribution of progress, the subnational variation in Canada’s attainment of the SDGs is only too evident.
Recognizing that the progress reported at the national scale is far from true for all living within Canada, metrics must be formed based not only on aggregated quantitative data, but community-level, qualitative findings premised on reciprocal listening and learning. Developed, for example, to include narrated Indigenous knowledges used to monitor the sustainability of fisheries, or hearing the stories of marginalized persons to understand the experiences of individual and collective poverty, indicators have the potential to address the fundamental diversity so ingrained in the Canadian experience. They can frame poverty as a fundamental violation of human rights, understand health and wellbeing as socially and economically determined by inequalities, and intersect departments to break down existing silos for continuity of care.
But, based in understanding lived experiences, these indicators must be community, region and industry specific, designed to assess outcomes for youth in care, capture the experiences of transgender and other LGBTQ2+ populations, and provide self-reported municipal scale data about violence against women, to name only a few. Only in constructing these subnational, tailored indicators can poverty be made visible, the multitude of Canadian experiences be seen, and the integrated approach the SDGs call for be realized by all communities in Canada.