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The Health Divide: Truth and Consequences

Improving the health and wellbeing of every person helps to ensure a healthy democracy.

By Adrianna Tetley, Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Ontario Health Centres

The latest Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) national report is a scathing indictment of our collective inability to address one of the greatest issues of our time – namely, the widening gap between the growth of the Gross Domestic Product and the wellbeing of everyday Canadians. In the span of just six years, this ‘health divide’ increased from 21 per cent in 2008 to more than 28 per cent in 2014.

Gains made prior to the 2008 recession have largely been wiped out. Employment has become much more precarious, as more Canadians are forced to juggle multiple jobs. Income inequality has increased by 10 per cent. More Canadians are struggling to cover rent and purchase food. Even though poverty overall decreased, the hard truth is that one in 10 Canadians still lives below the basic income line.

These facts should send shivers down the spines of all political parties. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the systematic erosion of the middle class. That’s significant because as middle class people lose ground on their incomes and health, they also lose trust in the major institutions of the state. That’s another key finding in the latest CIW report: democratic engagement is dropping, with confidence in federal parliament down a full 14 per cent since 1994. Clearly, this does not bode well for the future – we need only look south of the border.

So, what should we do? Instead of shooting the messenger, it is time for bold action. We need political leaders who work to combat the gross inequities in our midst. Doing so will help to restore trust in our democracy and improve the quality of life for all Canadians. But make no mistake – this demands visionary leadership coupled with fierce courage from all communities to find solutions that address precarious employment, unaffordable housing, disengaged youth and the isolation of marginalized and racialized people. 

Like it or not, we are all in this together. What we don’t pay for in the way of adequate income and social supports, we wind up paying for in the way of inappropriate and unnecessary health care costs. Bear in mind that of the five per cent of Canadians who require two-thirds of all health care expenditures, the majority are poor, hungry and extremely isolated.

What is becoming abundantly clear is that our national narrative – namely, that economic growth equals health, happiness and prosperity – is at best badly out of date, and at worst, a fraud. At a time when economic growth continues to rise, benefitting relatively few people, the reality for an ever-increasing number of Canadians is that they’re being left behind, especially our youth, people living in poverty and racialized communities.  It’s time for us to write a new story, by shifting the conversation to focusing on things that matter most to people: their jobs, safe and affordable housing, having adequate food, and building places where people feel they belong – in their communities and across their country.

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