Here at Upstream, we’re promoting ideas aimed at rethinking our traditional approach to public policy in Canada. We’re looking at the root causes of social and economic ailments instead of just treating the symptoms. Our goal is to change the conversation about the key challenges of our time—income inequality, climate change, and the need for collective action. Will 2019 be the year Canada’s decision-makers take an upstream approach to policy making? Here’s what I’ll be tracking.
Income inequality isn’t resolving itself in Canada. On the first working day of this year the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released its annual report on average CEO pay compared to the average Canadian income. Bad news: the highest paid 100 CEOs in Canada made 197 times more than the average Canadian income earner.
As Wilkinson and Pickett wrote in their international hit The Spirit Level, countries that tolerate high levels of income inequality do worse in terms of public trust, crime, health, mental health, and other key indicators of wellbeing.
In 2019 I’ll be looking for three core shifts:
(1) Corporate measures to contain CEO compensation packages in order to share company profits more broadly with the employees who make it happen.
(2) A breakthrough in the Canada-wide debate over a $15 minimum wage. Alberta has led the way and the minimum wage didn’t kill its economy. Ontario was on track to go from $14 an hour to $15 but the new provincial government has frozen the minimum wage, despite the fact that the rise to $14 an hour didn’t create the job disruption that the business lobby warned. There is a growing grassroots movement for $15 and Fairness. I’ll be watching for new provinces to take up this challenge: it’s a key tool in wiping out working poverty.
(3) There’s the provincially mandated minimum wage and there’s the living wage. A living wage is voluntarily paid by a growing number of Canadian companies who get it: pay a living wage and your employees are better able to pay basic household bills, which reduces major stress, induces a sense of loyalty, and reduces worker turnover. Win-win. The living wage movement in Canada has been sprouting over the past few years—I’m looking for a pan-Canadian movement, led by employers, to emerge in 2019.
Will 2019 be the year that Canada turns reconciliation into an action verb?
Employment and working conditions
The rise of precarious work is reminding us that it’s not just the number of jobs we create that matters; it’s the quality of those jobs. Last year I released a report, co-authored by CCPA-Ontario Senior Researcher Ricardo Tranjan, that showed precarious work isn’t concentrated in low-wage jobs only—we find it’s spreading into professional jobs too.
What are the hallmarks of precarious work? The lack of full-time permanent jobs, including involuntary part-time or contract jobs, many of which don’t provide benefits, sick pay, or retirement plans. To date, no government in Canada has addressed the rise of precarious work head on—nor have they changed antiquated labour and employment laws to fully catch up with this seismic shift in the labour market. Will 2019 be the year? I’ll be watching.
I’ll also be watching for governments to catch up with the need to create a “just transition” program for workers caught up in fading industries, such as oil patch workers and industrial workers. It’s time for a post-industrial national job strategy in Canada.
Early childhood development
Evidence shows that kids who have access to the best early childhood learning supports are hardwired for greater success as adults. Most provinces are adopting full-day kindergarten strategies but Canada lags behind more innovative Nordic countries by not creating a universal national affordable child care strategy. There is a federal election in 2019—I’ll be crossing my fingers, watching for this to become a central feature of the election debate.
Ask what we can do to reduce income inequality in Canada and most Canadians will say: education. But most provinces starve their school systems of the needed investments to provide the best public education. Too many schools have high student to teacher ratios; too many schools are in disrepair; too many schools cut corners on special education, music, arts, and other specialized programs. Will 2019 be the year Canada realizes every dollar invested in great elementary and high school programming and infrastructure is an investment in a future well-educated, high performing workforce? How is your province doing on this front? This is far too important a policy file for governments to ignore.
Will 2019 be the year we elevate the discussion to bolder, big picture thinking?
Last winter the news was filled with overcrowded emergency rooms due to a particularly harsh flu year. We all know the emergency room is the public health care venue of last resort; we also know that front-end investments in preventative care are inadequate. Neglect one part of the health care system and the symptoms show up in the emergency room. Election upon election features promises to eliminate “hallway medicine” but that takes visionary investment. It’s the right way to go: will 2019 be the year the provinces and federal government create a new agreement to fund upstream thinking in health care provision, taking a “whole of government” approach to policy making instead of just reducing health issues to one ministry?
One word: undeniable. Two words: climate change. Three words: bold action needed. In 2018, the discussion about climate change got mired in the political rhetoric of high taxes. It’s sad enough that the debate is stuck in how high a price we need to put on greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent humans from killing the planet. Will 2019 be the year we elevate the discussion to bolder, big picture thinking? Everything is at stake. Extreme weather events are just the beginning—and most jurisdictions lack any robust, modernized plan to counteract the effects of more flooding, forest fires, ice storms, tornadoes, and other unnatural disasters caused by global warming. It’s up to us.
2018 was the year of #metoo, which brought down a lot of powerful people. It’s also a year where talk about the gender pay gap came in fuller view. Will 2019 be the year we move toward greater equity in the workplace, including more robust anti-harassment policies? Women are single-handedly shifting the frame on these issues and I’m hopeful—though any solution needs to start from an intersectional standpoint, because we know that women experience sexism differently depending on age, race, immigration status, disability status, and more.
Will 2019 be the year that Canada turns reconciliation into an action verb? As former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a November 29, 2018 speech: "Thinking that good intentions, tinkering around the edges of the Indian Act, or that making increased financial investments — however significant and unprecedented — will in themselves close the gaps, is naive. Transformative change and new directions are required." Listen to prize-winning journalist Tanya Talaga’s incredible Massey Lecture series and make a plan to do your part—be part of the change.
Mass media technology
Are we contributing to polarizing debates by getting stuck in our echo chambers on social media? It’s one thing to be right, but are we wallowing in our righteousness? Or are we taking advantage of the openness of social media to broaden our tent, listen to others, seek points of common understanding and consensus? This part is really up to us: we can use social media to contribute to further polarizing debates—I’m right, you’re wrong—or we can use it to help grow the audience for the things that we believe in.
Everyone is affected by the social determinants of health. Our challenge in 2019 is to use this as a tool to grow our movement; to grow the number of people who are out there saying: “Let’s think upstream.” And that is my greatest wish for 2019.
Trish Hennessy is the executive director of Upstream.