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Trevor Hancock: Push parties for health, human development

This series of columns is about protecting and promoting the health of the population and preventing disease, injury and disability.

This series of columns is about protecting and promoting the health of the population and preventing disease, injury and disability. Recently, I have identified key issues that are important to the health of the population and that should be of concern to the major parties in this election.

These include a focus on human development, poverty reduction, homelessness and food insecurity, recognizing the right to a healthy environment and committing to evidence-based policy. I have reviewed the party platforms looking for their positions on these and related issues. Here is what I found.

None of the parties mention human development as a focus for government, nor do they show any understanding that public policies need to be examined for their impact on health and human development. Clearly, we have a tough but important job ahead of us to ensure they begin to see this as central to the business they are in.

Regarding public health itself, only the Liberals seem to understand that it is not the same as health care. They are explicit in promising to increase funding to the Public Health Agency of Canada, although only in the context of a Healthy Kids Campaign, as well as committing to introducing plain-packaging requirements for tobacco products. They also promise to involve public-health experts on issues such as firearms control and marijuana legalization and control.

The other three parties use the term “public health care” when they mean publicly funded health care, although the NDP has a section on taking a preventive approach. This includes promoting healthy and active living, preventing chronic diseases, implementing plain packaging of tobacco products, banning junk food and beverage advertising targeted at children, as well as preventing youth suicides in high-risk communities.

The Greens also promise to increase the emphasis on preventive care, focusing on healthy lifestyles and diet, while the Conservatives commit only to directing the Mental Health Commission of Canada to study community suicide-prevention programs, and providing capital funding to help establish the Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Centre.

All three opposition parties have extensive sections on the need for evidence-based policy-making and other measures to strengthen the role of public-sector science, and they all have clear commitments to reinstate the long-form census cancelled by the Harper government.

The Conservative platform has no such commitment, and indeed only uses the word “evidence” once, in connection with the link between mental health and drug use.

Respecting poverty reduction, all three opposition parties make commitments to reduce poverty, although only the NDP has an explicit commitment to eliminate poverty, promising legislation and a National Council on Poverty Elimination.

The Conservatives don’t even mention poverty as an issue in Canada; the word appears just once in their platform, in the context of opposing forced marriages internationally.

On basic needs such as shelter and food, only the Conservatives omit any mention of homelessness in their platform, while with respect to food security, only the Greens refer to the issue explicitly. All parties address housing, with the Conservatives focusing on home ownership and not mentioning affordable housing at all. Both the NDP and the Greens promise a National Housing Strategy, while the Liberals promise to renew federal leadership in housing and propose a broad agenda.

As to the safety and nutritious quality of food, the Conservatives pay it scant attention, the NDP and Liberals promise stronger regulation of safety and health and the marketing of junk food, and the Greens focus on creating resilient local economies fuelled by local growers, farmers and producers, with an emphasis on organic and sustainable food production.

Regarding the right to a healthy environment, the Greens say they will enshrine it in the Constitution, the NDP say they will bring in an Environmental Bill of Rights to give all Canadians the right to a clean and healthy environment, and the Liberals and Conservatives do not mention the issue.

So if you want a government that does not recognize poverty, affordable housing or homelessness as an issue, that has no commitment to strengthening the place of evidence in policy-making and is generally weak on population health, then I suggest you vote Conservative.

Otherwise, consider one of the three national opposition parties. And then be ready to push all of the parties to make health and human development more central to the business of government.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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