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During tough economic times, we must take action to ensure that Canada’s economy grows, but those actions must not be at the expense of other aspects of lives. The recent release of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) brought attention to the importance of looking beyond just economic indicators when considering how well we are doing as a country. Over the 15 year period covered by the CIW, we saw Gross Domestic Product per capita (GDP) increase by 31% and the CIW increase by only 11%. While this trend is troubling enough, of even greater concern is that among the eight domains that comprise Canadians’ wellbeing, leisure and culture has fared the worst. Our leisure and culture actually declined by 3%.

Several factors have contributed to this decline: people are socialising with family and friends less often, less time is spent engaging in arts and culture activities, fewer people are visiting our National Parks and National Historic Sites, and fewer hours are being spent volunteering for recreation and culture organisations in our communities. And lower levels of volunteering affects not only the wellbeing of the people who enjoy giving of themselves, but the wellbeing of the people who receive the benefits of the volunteers’ efforts and the wellbeing of the community as a whole which benefits from a more vibrant and connected populace. There are, however, some positive trends – participation in physical activity has increased, we are taking slightly longer holidays, and fewer of us are spending long hours at work each week. Nevertheless, the overall patterns suggest we are having less fun and feeling much more time stressed.

Some observers have suggested that we must step back and make better choices, that we should be more active, be more engaged in our communities, and change our behaviour. However, we must resist feeling that the decline in leisure and culture, and hence our wellbeing, is purely a consequence of personal choice. Rather than “blame ourselves”, we need to address the broader systemic problems that have relegated leisure and culture to an afterthought. Recent cuts in support for the public agencies and non-profit and voluntary groups typically responsible for leisure and culture activities reflect the lack of priority they have on the minds of policy makers. Setting policy is all about making choices and deliberate reductions in our capacity to develop and provide meaningful venues and opportunities for participation in leisure and arts and cultural activities threaten the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and Canadian society at large.

We must strengthen our resolve to sustain and further develop leisure and culture resources. We must demand more from our elected officials and bureaucrats to protect those opportunities and places where we celebrate our culture, our humanity, our sense of ourselves. Without those opportunities, we are less well as a society.

Bryan Smale is the Director of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) and a Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. For more information on the CIW, please visit www.ciw.ca