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Institute of Wellbeing issues first report, creates index on quality of life

Jun. 10, 2009 Get Medbroadcast Health News via RSS Feed

Provided by: The Canadian Press
Written by: Anne-Marie Tobin, THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO - A new index is being created to measure the well-being of Canadians, which will go beyond what we learn about ourselves from economic indicators like the GDP.

The new Canadian Index of Wellbeing will measure eight areas of life, including health, education, state of the arts and standard of living, says Roy Romanow, chair of the non-partisan and independent institute that will produce the index.

In addition, it will tally figures on participation in the democratic process, quality of environment, the way Canadians use their time and the vitality of communities - including volunteer activities.

Romanow, a former premier of Saskatchewan and commissioner on the future of health care in Canada, described the project as "absolutely necessary."

"Right now in Canada, the one measuring stick, if I can use that phrase, that we have - that dominates everything - is the GDP, gross domestic product, sometimes called the gross national product," he said in an interview prior to the launch Wednesday.

It has become a surrogate for telling Canadians whether they're better or worse off, Romanow said, but in reality all it does is measure goods and services produced. But not all things that are produced are good for our lives, communities or health, he added.

"We'd like to have a complementary mechanism of measuring those things which the GDP does not, namely the quality of life."

The data being crunched will come from Statistics Canada, the CIBC employment quality index and a variety of other sources, he said.

On Wednesday, the newly launched Institute of Wellbeing, which is affiliated with the University of Waterloo, issued its first report dealing with three of the eight areas of life that will eventually be covered by the index.

Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards in Ottawa, is the co-author of the living standards component, which looked at data from 1981 to 2008.

"Average incomes did fairly well in Canada, but what happened was much of the gains went to the top 25 per cent of the households, so median incomes - that's the middle family - actually only increased by around two per cent, over that whole period," he said. "That's very small."

The report said average real net worth in 2007 was up 73.3 per cent on a per capita basis and 51.7 per cent on a household basis from 1981.

As well, Sharpe said there's been a historic decline in the poverty rate - it was 9.2 per cent in 2007, down from 16 per cent around 1996. There were marked declines in child poverty and poverty among seniors, he noted.

"But the problem is, we're going to lose that. All this progress we've made through public policy and economic growth, we're going to unwind much of that with the next years to come because of this recession," he said.

The health portion of the report said Canadians' life expectancy rates are among the best in the world - a Canadian born in 2005 could expect to live to 80.4 years, up from 74.9 years in 1979.

But the health picture isn't all rosy, according to Romanow.

"If you plumb further down into that figure, you'll see some very disturbing aspects about life expectancies - for example, in the three territories - or life expectancies with aboriginal and native organizations," he said.

A child born in Nunavut in 2004 could expect to live only 70.4 years, the report said.

"These are circumstances where their health outcomes are worse, I suspect, because their incomes are also worse," Romanow surmised.

In terms of community vitality, the report said 61 per cent of Canadians were members of non-profit, voluntary organizations in 2003 compared with 51 per cent in the late 1990s.

And the number of people reporting six or more close friends dropped from 40 per cent to 30 per cent between 1996 and 2003.

Romanow said three more components that will comprise the index will be reported in the fall, and the other two will likely come in 2010.

As the eight domains are reported, researchers will concurrently be working at developing what they hope will be a single indicator, similar to the GDP, he said.

The composite figure "will be able to tell us as Canadians ... where improvements need to be made or where changes in policies should be implemented, or whether we just simply need a new initiative."

The idea originated about a decade ago when the Atkinson Charitable Foundation in Toronto was concerned about identifying scientific data that could tell us as a society whether Canadians are doing better or worse, Romanow said.

He came on board after filing his health-care report in 2002.

The advisory board is identified as the Institute of Wellbeing, and it's guided by experts who have been working on data for years, Romanow said.

There is a "virtual relationship" with the University of Waterloo, to give it an academic home.

"It's a citizens' group, not owned by any government. We're non-partisan - all we want to do is get the facts out there so that Canadians know and governments and communities respond accordingly."

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