The House of Commons Finance Committee is collecting submissions for its consultations in advance of Budget 2018. As it does every year, it has set parameters for submissions that it feels best respond to the challenges Canada faces.
And these challenges are pretty sobering. One in seven people in Canada lives in poverty. Faced with unconscionable decisions between buying groceries or paying the rent, many people living in poverty experience shame, fear and isolation.
For Indigenous people in Canada, poverty rates are shockingly high. Sixty percent of First Nations children on reserve live in poverty, and two-thirds of First Nations communities have been under boil water advisories for varying periods over the past decade. The Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario hasn’t had potable water since 1995. Despite rulings of discrimination from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, children’s services continue to be chronically underfunded, with on-reserve schools receiving thousands of dollars less per student than those in the provincial public systems.
Now, under the stress of continued systemic neglect, alarming numbers of Indigenous youth are taking their own lives: taken together, suicide and self-harm are the leading cause of death among First Nations people age 45 and under.
As if that weren’t enough, we’re also killing the Earth.
We are in the midst of a climate-change-induced mass extinction. According to the journalist David Wallace-Wells, “the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat [since 1980]; a bigger increase is to come.” Without a “significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives,” he reports, “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.” Yet despite near unanimous support for the Paris Agreement on climate change, G20 governments, including Canada, continue to provide subsidies to fossil fuel companies at levels four times that of clean energy funding.
Amid these challenges, the Finance Committee is not asking how Canada can work with global partners to address the crisis of our time. It is not even asking how the federal government can help the most vulnerable Canadians meet their basic needs and become full participants in society. Instead, the committee wants to know how we think Canadians can be more productive.
Productivity and competitiveness matter. They are important economic indicators and key to the success of private sector business. But they make up only a portion of who we are as citizens. And focusing the budget discussion narrowly on productivity reduces Canadians to our economic “value” as workers.
The committee’s framework has failed to account for personal fulfillment, community well-being and ecological integrity. At its worst, it sees us as cogs, and at best, it regards us as consumers. It ignores the importance and benefits of connection, culture and creativity.
This matters because budgets reflect our values and priorities. They express what is worthy of attention and determine how resources are allocated. In doing so, budgets have the power to shape the future.
So it is essential to start budget discussions with what matters most: personal well-being, social cohesion and a healthy environment. A society in which citizens and residents are valued as whole people — for their roles as citizens, parents, neighbours and friends — is also a more productive society.
The opposite, however, does not hold true. If we strive only for productivity, our society will not necessarily foster health, happiness and security among its citizens.
Instead, social and environmental concerns must determine our economic goals — and our methods of achieving them. The success and strength of society should not be measured solely by economic indicators. The assessment needs to include human and environmental health.
Addressing poverty allows people not only to meet their basic needs but also to more fully participate in economic, political, social and cultural life. It reduces social isolation and allows for an improved sense of self-worth and spiritual vitality. And, given that poverty is estimated to cost Canada between $72 billion and $86 billion annually it also happens to make good economic sense.
Investing in the health, security and well-being of Indigenous communities is a concrete way for the government of Canada to demonstrate its commitment to reconciliation and to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the same time, it demonstrates to Indigenous youth that they are valued by society at large.
And addressing climate change benefits both Canadians and citizens around the world. It may even prevent entire nations from being swallowed up by rising sea levels — all while recovering valuable dollars currently tied up in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
Canada is a country of abundance. We have the resources necessary to address the pressing challenges before us. So, as the Finance Committee contemplates priorities for the 2018 federal budget, it is important for its members to think about our values and priorities as a nation and ensure that the recommendations they put forward emphasize human flourishing and ecological integrity.
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