The sustainable development goals cover 17 areas, which we have covered in some detail. However, together they focus on three areas; economic, social and environmental. For progress to last, balanced improvements are required in all three areas. As a synthesis we have considered the trajectory Ontario has taken in the last year to try to better understand the sustainability of our progress.
One method to analyze our trajectory is to assess whether Ontarians are living more economically secure lives. We scrutinized our social protection programs and other supports for low-income individuals.[i]
Changes over the past year to universal social protection programs, in particular with Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW), have the potential to exacerbate Ontario’s battle with poverty. A possible change to the definition of “disability,” will affect eligibility for ODSP, and could impact future recipients. Some experts predict that fewer people with disabilities than those eligible under the current definition will qualify and that more people will have to rely on OW.[ii]. In particular, newly diagnosed people with “episodic” disabilities such as mental illness, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, HIV, and some cancers are at risk of not being accepted for ODSP. OW offers less money and less security than ODSP. This change in combination with a reduction in the rate of increase for ODSP recipients decreases the level of protection offered for those who rely on benefits. Similarly, this year’s decreases in funding to children’s aid societies, as well as the cancellation of the Transition Child Benefit, will intensify the issue of child poverty. [iii]
Economic prosperity is also being affected by the affordability of basic needs. For instance, childcare access in the Greater Toronto Area is limited because of capacity issues and also because of the price. The new Ontario Childcare Access and Relief from Expenses (CARE) tax credit, provides a maximum of $6, 000, but it may prove to be an inadequate subsidy. The top three cities with the highest childcare costs are in Ontario, with the median cost of childcare costing close to $20, 000 per year in Toronto.[iv] Taking this into consideration, it is unclear whether this subsidy will allow low-income families to access quality childcare that could help their children and themselves exit the cycle of poverty.
The affordability of basic necessities is impacted by the purchasing power of individuals. With the cancellation of the minimum wage increase to $15/hour, the ability to prosper has narrowed. Wellesley Institute has published extensive work on the income that is needed to live a healthy life in the GTA. Based on that study, the cost of thriving is between $46,186 and $55,432 after tax for a single person age 25-40 living in the Greater Toronto Area.[v] This is substantially more than the $29,000 that a full-time minimum wage worker currently earns per year. A $15/hour minimum wage would not result in an income near the thriving wage; however, it would enable individuals to have the capacity to live a lifestyle that is closer to that threshold.
Strong welfare systems and other social protection programs, are critical for sustainable development and to produce a healthier society. Over the past year the trajectory is towards changes that undermine the economic security of those who are most vulnerable; including people who are unemployed, those with low incomes, those with disabilities and families with children. These changes may have impacts on our public health.
Many of the policy and funding changes apply to various targets across several SDGs. Two of the targets focus on the promotion of mental health and well-being, as well the treatment and prevention of substance abuse.
Mental illness accounts for about 10 per cent of the burden of disease in Ontario. The Canadian Institute for Health Information released data that concludes that more Canadians are hospitalized per day for health conditions and injuries caused by alcohol or drugs than for heart attacks and strokes combined.[vi] We have increased the availability of alcohol and decreased restrictions on gambling and both will lead to increased rates of addiction. A recent study has found that emergency room visits due to alcohol consumption have dramatically increased[vii]. Mental health and addictions services need increased funding. The $3.8 billion increase announced over a 10-year period leaves Ontario well short of what is required and stagnates sector. Further, anticipated reductions at Public Health Ontario and in the public health system may exacerbate the issue by decreasing prevention programs, as will the closure and cancellation of some overdose prevention sites.,
It is of note that at a time of increased vaccine hesitancy reduction in funds to Public Health Ontario and the public health units may undermine our ability to prevent outbreaks .
The SDG targets also focus on good quality education for youth and adults, as well as equal access. Elementary and secondary schools, along with vital extension programs for racialized youth, have been impacted by funding changes that will affect the quality of teaching, as well as support programs available to students. The management of large class sizes by teachers will impact the individual attention that each individual student may receive, possibly impeding their learning.[viii] The changes to the eligibility and amount provided by OSAP grants are problematic for low-and middle-income families. The lack of subsidized funding may impact students’ ability to pursue professional graduate programs.. Education is an important social determinant of health and being able to facilitate and enable individuals to access it is critical to building a healthier province.
Changes in employment laws are also relevant with the SDG targets emphasizing protection of labour rights and promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers. Employment and working conditions are important social determinants of health. Many of the noteworthy adjustments are associated with the repeal of the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, which affected personal days, scheduling changes, equal pay for equal work, and holiday pay. Studies have shown, paid sick days can make a crucial, sometimes even fatal difference, when workers choose to work through their sickness. Moreover, inspections are an effective way of ensuring compliance among employers and that workers’ rights and safety are protected. A rollback of the number of inspectors is an example of a change that skews towards decreasing employment protections and benefits.
Violence against women and gender discrimination is a global issue Nearly 50 per cent of all femicides in Canada took place in Ontario.[ix] The expert panel which was disbanded also worked to promote gender equality in education, decent work, and health and well-being – all which impact women’s health. Other changes have been the repeal of acts that would address gender discrimination in the workplace, cutting funding to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) institutes that have been promoting the inclusion of women in that field, and reducing funding to rape crisis centres. The trajectory seems to be towards less support for initiatives that promote gender equity.
SDG targets reinforce the need to reduce inequalities. Many underrepresented populations have also been affected by changes over the last year, including the Franco-Ontarian population, and Indigenous populations. These include the closure of the French Language Services Commissioner’s office, and an overall decrease to the Indigenous Affairs ministry, changes to the anti-racism directorate may impede the province’s efforts to improve the health and well-being of racialized groups.[x] Budget changes and conditions imposed on the LAO will affect racialized and marginalized Ontarians who are in desperate need of legal assistance.
The aggregate of the changes that affect our physical, mental, and social well-being indicate that Ontario is moving backwards on its goal of fostering better health outcomes and championing social inclusion.
The United Nations resolution on the SDGs reiterates that social and economic development depends on the sustainable management of our planet’s natural resources. Several targets listed under various SDGs stress the significance of addressing environmental problems.
One approach to addressing the sustainable management of the environment is reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The most significant of Ontario’s environmental changes over the last year pertain to GHG emissions. It has been determined that one of the more effective steps to mitigating on-road emissions is investing in public transportation.[xi] The Ontario government’s plans and commitment to invest in the expansion of Toronto’s subway system is a mechanism to divert drivers to transit use, reduce congestion, and impede sprawl, resulting in positive environmental outcomes. However, during this period, an effective mechanism in reducing emissions and building capacity was discontinued. Ontario’s cap and trade system covered over 80 per cent of the province’s GHG emissions. There has yet to be an analysis on the overall reduction of GHG emissions in Ontario due to cap and trade, however, environmental advocacy organizations, such as the Pembina Institute,[xii] Environmental Defense Fund,[xiii] and the David Suzuki foundation[xiv] have asserted that such a program that has emission targets and places a price on pollution is beneficial. The other lost benefit from the cancellation of the cap and trade system is the funds it accrued towards environmentally friendly projects. It has resulted in the effective closure of several green initiatives programs, including the GreenON Industries Program, which provided significant financial support for eligible clean technology projects and large-scale technology deployment and facility modernization. It also resulted in the closure of the GreenON Small and Medium Businesses program which offered financial incentives for capital retro-fits and energy saving projects. It is difficult to ascertain whether the climate change plan that has been unveiled in the last year will offer effective measures to combat environmental issues, however, the plan appears to lack a crucial element. Environmental agencies claim that an effective climate change policy places a price on emissions,[xv] whereas this plan provides funds to companies to incentivize reducing emissions.
The importance of addressing climate change is evident in the health impacts of the hazards that a changing climate can generate, such as floods, extreme heat events, air pollution and infectious diseases. Approximately 21,000 people die prematurely every year in Canada as a result of air pollution.[xvi] The UN SDG document alludes to mitigating and demonstrating resilience in reaction to such dangers. The decrease in funding for flood management will result in negative impacts from this hazard to additional communities, particularly low-income populations.[xvii] Ontario’s means of addressing the environment in innovative ways has also been hindered with the elimination of the environmental commissioner and chief scientist positions. These positions were integral to building adaptive capacity to climate related hazards.
Other SDG targets pertain to harmful chemicals and conservation of ecosystems. The repeal of the Toxins Reduction Act interferes with reaching these targets, as do the changes in the Endangered Species Act. The United Nations released a report in 2019 highlighting the consequences of the rapid acceleration of species extinction and the negative consequences it holds, including threats to water and food security, and human health.[xviii] Further, exposure to toxic chemicals such as hormone disruptors and air pollutants adds billions of dollars in health care costs and significantly increases the burden of chronic diseases such as cancer and asthma. This is illustrated by the toxic chemicals found in bodies of water surrounding Grassy Narrows that have affected Indigenous communities for decades.
Canada’s evolving environment is of growing concern, as a report published this year indicates that Canada is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world, with some northern parts of the country experiencing three times the global rate.[xix] This indicates that we are not making the significant progress required to ensure our environmental longevity, and the changes within the last year cannot be said to be improving the situation. The current precarity regarding the country’s environmental health has the potential to intensify unless more rigorous and robust measures are implemented to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.
The successful pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals requires a multi-sectoral approach. Through the process of evaluating Ontario’s progress against each SDG based on the relevant targets, it appears that are our progress has stalled for particular goals. For other goals, a case could be made that we may have moved backwards. When assessing our progress through the dimensions of sustainable development, it would seem that over the last year Ontario was not on a trajectory to ensure that the needs of current inhabitants are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Ontario requires a collective and collaborative effort to recouple economic progress with social progress and environmental protection to ensure that no one is being left behind.
[i] Government of Ontario. (2014). Realizing Our Potential: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (2014-2019). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from https://www.ontario.ca/page/realizing-our-potential-ontarios-poverty-reduction-strategy-2014-2019.
[ii] Monsebraaten, L. (2018). Making sense of Ontario’s social assistance reforms. Toronto Star. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/11/19/making-sense-of-ontarios-social-assistance-reforms.html.
[iii] Centre for Disease Control. (2019). Adverse Childhood Experiences. Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html.
[iv] MacDonald, D., and Friendly, M. (2016). A Growing Concern: 2016 Child Care Fees in Canada’s Big Cities. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved June 28, 2019, from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2016/12/A_Growing_Concern.pdf
[v] Kumar, N., McKenzie, K., and Um, S. (2017). Thriving in the City: What does it cost to live a healthy life? Wellesley Institute. Retrieved June 22, 2019, from https://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Thriving-in-the-City-What-does-it-cost-1.pdf.
[vi] Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2019). Common Challenges, Shared Priorities: Measuring Access to Home and Community Care and to Mental Health and Addictions Services in Canada. Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.cihi.ca/sites/default/files/document/shp-companion-report-en.pdf.
[vii] Myran, D.T., Hsu, A.T., Smith, G., and Tanuseputro, P. (2019). Rates of emergency department visits attributable to alcohol use in Ontario from 2003 to 2016: a retrospective population-level study. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 191(29), 804-810. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from http://www.cmaj.ca/content/cmaj/191/29/E804.full.pdf.
[viii] Mathis, W.J. (2016). Research-based options for education policymaking: The effectiveness of class size reduction. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved July 10, 2019, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Mathis%20RBOPM-9%20Class%20Size.pdf.
[ix] Dawson, M. (2018). 106 Women and Girls Killed by Violence: Eight-Month Report. Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. Retrieved June 21, 2019, from https://femicideincanada.ca/sites/default/files/2018-09/CFOJA%20FINAL%20REPORT%20ENG%20V3.pdf.
[x] Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2018). A Collective Impact: Interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service. Retrieved July 22, 2019, from http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/public-interest-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-discrimination-toronto-police-service/collective-impact-interim-report-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-racial-discrimination-black.
[xi] Burda, C., Haines, G., Bailie, A. (2010). Reducing GHG Emissions from the Personal Transportation Sector in Ontario. Pembina Institute. Retrieved July 12, 2019, from https://www.pembina.org/reports/driving-down-carbon-report.pdf.
[xii] Hastings-Simon, S. (2018). Ontario’s price on carbon pollution must continue to work for the economy and the environment. Pembina Institute. Retrieved July 20, 2019, from https://www.pembina.org/media-release/ontarios-price-carbon-pollution-must-continue-work-economy-and-environment.
[xiii] Environmental Defense Fund. (2018). How cap and trade works. Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://www.edf.org/climate/how-cap-and-trade-works.
[xiv] David Suzuki Foundation. (2017). Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/carbon-tax-cap-trade/.
[xv] Environmental Defense Fund. (2018). How cap and trade works. Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://www.edf.org/climate/how-cap-and-trade-works.
[xvi] Health Canada. (2018). Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada. Retrieved June 24, 2019, from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/sc-hc/H144-51-2017-eng.pdf.
[xvii] Kumar, N. (2018). Cities, Climate Change, & Health Equity. Wellesley Institute. Retrieved July 28, 2019, from https://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Cities-Climate-Change-Health-Equity-WIJune-2018-fv.pdf.
[xviii] United Nations. (2019). UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedent’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. Retrieved June 24, 2019, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/.
[xix] Government of Canada. (2019). Canada’s Changing Climate Report. Retrieved July 22, 2019, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/sites/www.nrcan.gc.ca/files/energy/Climate-change/pdf/CCCR_FULLREPORT-EN-FINAL.pdf.