Since 1948, the World Health Organization has defined health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. While full health in that sense may be unattainable, it remains a powerful aspiration. Who does not wish for a long life in good health for themselves, their loved ones and friends — and by extension, for everyone in their community?
I recognize that health and well-being might not be the only value that Canadians care about, but it surely is one of the most important. And who does not expect their governments, at all levels, to help people thrive by bringing in policies and programs that both protect us from harm and create supportive physical, social and economic environments? Such policies make it easier for us to make healthy and sustainable choices, rather than unhealthy and unsustainable ones.
In an earlier column on this theme, I suggested two fundamental principles of public health: Ecological sanity and social justice. So in broad terms, if you are interested in the health of this and future generations, support the party that has the most ecologically sane and socially just platform. Here are some specific areas where you might look for evidence of a commitment to well-being.
First, food and agriculture, because we are what we eat, and because this sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and our overall ecological footprint. Given the importance of food for our health, you would think it would be an important concern for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (yes, that really is its name!). Think again. The Department says its mission is to provide “leadership in the growth and development of a competitive, innovative and sustainable Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector.” Health gets merely a passing reference, and hunger is ignored.
We need an integrated national food and agriculture policy that puts health and the elimination of hunger in Canada at the centre. Within such an overall policy, the Department should be ensuring that the agricultural sector supports the new Canadian Food Guide, which closely reflects both Michael Pollan’s advice — “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants” and the Lancet-EAT Commission’s report on a healthy and sustainable diet. A low-meat diet, combined with a less intensive, organic and ecological system of agriculture, will benefit both human and ecosystem health.
Second, energy policy. Any government that takes seriously the health of today’s young people and future generations — rather then the profits of their fossil-fuel industry supporters — will be leading a rapid transition to a low-fossil-fuel future. A good place to start would be a commitment to no further expansion of existing fossil-fuel infrastructure (so no tarsands expansion and no new pipelines) and a very rapid shift of all fossil-fuel subsidies and tax breaks to the conservation and clean-energy sector.
Third, transportation. The health and environmental benefits of active transportation (biking and walking) and public transit are very well documented and very significant. So while the federal government does not have a large role in urban planning, look for parties that will make significant investments in active transportation and transit. Just as important, a health and environment-conscious government will stop all investment in infrastructure that supports further utban sprawl (such as the very dumb McKenzie interchange).
Fourth, economic policy. Greta Thunberg said it well at the UN: “All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Conventional economic growth is what has gotten us into this mess; beware any party that thinks we can just carry on with more ‘business as usual’ growth. As I noted in a June column, New Zealand has adopted a well-being budget, “placing the well-being of New Zealanders at the heart of what we do,” according to the Minister of Finance. We need this in Canada.
So as you contemplate where to place your vote in this federal election — or at any election, for that matter — you might ask which of the parties or candidates comes closest to the sort of policies I have described here. They are the ones that are most likely to improve the overall wellbeing of Canadians, especially those with the worst health, in this and future generations.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.