Is this really progress? Canadians less able to protect that part of their lives they most value

In October 2011, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), for the first time, was able to compile all 64 indicators within all eight domains into a composite index to provide a snapshot of how our quality of life changed from 1994 to 2008. This past October, we updated the index with an additional two years of data, giving us some insight into the effect the recession has had on our wellbeing. Overall, from 1994 to 2010, Canada’s economy, as measured by GDP, grew by a robust 28.9%, while improvements in Canadian wellbeing over the same 17-year period saw only a small 5.7% increase. Of particular interest to researchers and practitioners in the Leisure and Culture area, this domain did not share in the modest increase. In fact, it decreased by 7.8% over the 17-year period, and 3% of this has occurred since the beginning of the recession of 2008.

The Leisure and Culture domain is a perfect example of the shortcomings of GDP – it might tell us that the economy is growing, but it cannot tell us that families are giving up valued leisure time and cultural activities, and that among those activities they are keeping, they are costing more. While we are participating more in physical activities and enjoying slightly longer vacation trips, there has been a continuous decline in the amount of time we spend engaged in both social leisure activities and in arts and culture activities. We also volunteer less for culture and recreation organisations, and visits to National Parks and National Historic Sites are way down and dropping annually. After years of relative stability, household expenditures on culture and recreation dropped by almost 10% between 2008 and 2010. This is especially troubling because Canadians have traditionally protected that part of their total household expenditures devoted to culture and recreation regardless of shifting economic times. It appears that, since the recession, Canadians are less able to do so. Coupled with the declines in amount of time engaged in social and arts activities, Canadians appear less able to protect a part of their lives that they most value and by which they are most enriched. When we compare the Leisure and Culture domain with the domain on Time Use, we see that many Canadians are simply too caught up in a time crunch to enjoy their leisure, especially with friends and family. When we see these patterns, it begs the question: Is this really progress?

The latest CIW trends bode poorly for the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society. Should they continue, the benefits associated with having leisure and culture as key components in the lifestyles of Canadians and in our communities will simply not be realised. It is a call to action, especially now as governments at all levels face the challenges of fiscal constraints and often consider eliminating what they erroneously regard as “unessential” services and programmes. As practitioners in the Leisure and Culture area, we can now add the CIW to our toolkit as evidence to strengthen our case about the critical role that leisure and culture plays in enhancing the quality of lives of Canadians. Hopefully, this shift in dialogue will focus attention on broader systemic problems that have marginalised leisure and culture in the lives of Canadians and, too often, in their communities.

For our latest data, please refer to The CIW 2012 Report: How are Canadians Really doing?

Bryan Smale, Ph.D., Director, Canadian Index of Wellbeing and Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo