In recent weeks across the continent we have seen vividly illustrated both the cracks in our social cohesion and also increased capacity for resilience through civic engagement. We watched with horror the images of travellers from Muslim-majority countries detained at airports, and now the unveiling of a new travel ban. We heard with sorrow the grief of the families, friends, neighbours and colleagues whose loved ones were killed or injured in the attack on a mosque in Quebec City. Our commitment to each other as a society, across our differences, suddenly felt fragile.
These most recent events have changed the lives of those directly affected, no question. But this is not just a Muslim issue, it is an everybody issue. It is not about us and them, it is about moving towards a “we” society. We cannot take our social cohesion for granted. Fear and division erode the fabric of community. But we have the ability to reaffirm our vision for a society based on connection, engagement and solidarity. Our health and well-being as individuals and as a society depends on it.
We as Canadians have shown our determination and our resilience. Earlier in the year, millions of people gathered to march around the world in support of women’s rights, including in Toronto and other cities across Canada. Following the mosque attack, crowds came together in a show of compassion, solidarity and inclusion, with a message of welcome to all. Our prime minister responded with calls for love and compassion in the face of fear and hatred.
Researchers and policy-makers are demonstrating the powerful role that social cohesion plays both in individual health and also the health of society at large. Our well-being is closely tied to our opportunities to develop relationships within our communities, experience supportive social networks, and get involved in civic and democratic institutions. Division – whether between rich and poor, urban and rural, racialized and non-racialized, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, newcomers and Canadian-born – corrodes the wellbeing of everyone.
Our health and well-being are affected by our psychological state. Stress has been shown to affect a range of health outcomes, from increased susceptibility to the common cold to increased mortality rates. Feeling excluded from or targeted by society can have direct negative health impacts. When we experience uncertainty or exclusion in our education, employment, or relationships, it affects our health.
Countries with higher social cohesion are more likely to report good health above and beyond what might have been predicted by simply looking at characteristics such as age, gender and income. For example, in more equal societies everyone across the income spectrum does better in regards to health. Similarly, societies with higher levels of social inclusion and connection tend to be healthier societies. “Connected communities” with thriving social networks can contribute to community spirit, resilience and empowerment. On the other hand, social exclusion can create barriers to other critical paths to good health like employment, adequate income, education and housing. Where racism and social division are high everyone has a lower life expectancy not just those experiencing the direct attack.
Prime Minister Trudeau said, “Diversity is Canada’s Strength.” The official motto for the City of Toronto is “Diversity Our Strength.” Asserting our Canadian values and our city’s motto will have a positive effect on health.
There is much that we can do to promote a “we” society. We can ensure that all of us have what we need for a healthy life. This includes adequate and appropriate housing, secure and sufficient income, access to health services, and a sense of belonging and connection. Every one of us can play a role in building this society.
In this time of uncertainty, fear and anger we have an opportunity to rise to the challenge before us. This is a time to redouble our efforts towards a “we” society. Our fear and anger can be turned into positive action as we work to reaffirm our values. This is the path to good health.