Progress in Canada: leading by example?

When we think about sustainability, we often like to think we’re making progress! Emitting less greenhouse gases, improving energy systems or recycling more. But often “progress” comes at a cost.

Generally, Canada has made significant strides towards becoming a more sustainable country over the last decade through technology, policies, and awareness campaigns. These steps help us all to live cleaner lives now and in the future. However, there is significant evidence that we are not including all parts of society equally in this progress.

British progress and expansion came at a huge cost to Canada’s Indigenous population during colonialism. And Indigenous peoples today continue to be excluded from and overlooked in many elements of social progress today.

Health of indigenous peoples

The Lancet, a leading journal in global health, released a scathing review of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous health. Canada is one of the world’s most advanced economies and, this year, holds Presidency of the G7. However, The Lancet likens the healthcare situation of Indigenous communities to that of developing countries:

“It looks to us as though there is a developing country within Canada’s borders.”- executive editor Jocelyn Clark

With worse rates of suicide, diabetes, infant mortality, and chronic disease, Indigenous populations are not benefiting from the same progress and prosperity as their non-Indigenous counterparts.

  • Aboriginal life expectancy on reserves (62 years) is 13 years less than the rest of the Canadian population (74.6 years).1
  • Rates of diabetes are 3-5 times higher in First Nations.2
  • Inuit youth have the highest suicide rate in the world.3

As we were discussing these issues in my Sociology of Health & Illness class, my professor said something striking: “discrimination can be passive, in the form of negligence.” We may not want Indigenous peoples to be suffer from cancer. But in Powell River, British Columbia, we opted to build a pulp and paper mill next to an Aboriginal community so the toxic effluent would be directed away from town.1

powell river.jpg
The Powell River Plant, BC.


Canada: leading by example?

Canada’s themes for our G7 Presidency include “investing in growth that works for everyone” and “working together on climate change, oceans, and clean energy.” However, The Lancet raises an important concern– how can Canada set a global example for progress and sustainability when we’ve left such huge domestic inequalities unaddressed?

In 2011, 1 in 6 Indigenous reserves were under a Boil Water Advisory, meaning their water supply was not safe to drink.Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has not had a potable water supply in 20 years.4 Today, there are approximately 81 Boil Water Advisories on reserves. The government predicts that all advisories will be lifted by March 2021, but there is concern that the Trudeau government is not allocating sufficient resources to this project.

drinking advisories.jpg
Taken from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Indigenous health relates immediately to sustainability when we consider:

  1. Are Indigenous healthcare and living conditions sustainable?
  2. Is progress being directed toward sustainable living for all?

Progress is inevitably rooted in power politics. Drives for a better future are often lead by privileged groups, and promotes the interests of some groups over others. When evaluating sustainability initiatives, it is important to ask: Who is included in decision-making? and Who stands to benefit?

Sustainability is truly about the fate of humanity as a whole. Because of its universal nature, it may ultimately hold the potential to unite us all. In the spirit of reconciliation, and out of value for all Canadian and global citizens, I hope we can move towards sustainable progress that recognizes and includes all groups of society.

Freya H-T
Blog Team Leader, BA Sociology

**I owe much of the content and presentation of this post to a great lecture by Dr. Sharon Springer.

1Davidson, Alan. “Health of Aboriginal Peoples.” Social Determinants of Health, Oxford, 2014.
2“Diabetes Statistics in Canada.” Diabetes Canada, Canadian Diabetes Association, 2018.
3“Indigenous Suicide Prevention.” Centre for Suicide Prevention, Canadian Mental Health Association.
4Botelho-Urbanski, Jessica. “’It’s just mind-Boggling’: Before Canada 150, more than 150 drinking water advisories listed online.” Metro, MetroNews Canada, 29 June 2017,

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