Canada’s economy is still growing, for the most part, but for many citizens, that’s not translating into feeling much better off.

A national index of well-being, released Tuesday, shows many Canadians are still bruised by the effects of the 2008-09 recession, as quality-of-life measures have lagged economic growth. Some areas, such as living standards and time spent on leisure, tumbled in the downturn and have not recovered.

The index, based on 64 indicators in eight categories such as health and time use, aims to give a fuller picture of the country’s progress than the traditional measure, the gross domestic product.

“Even as the economy, broadly speaking, based on GDP, is improving … we’re sacrificing the importance of things like people’s leisure and culture, aspects of their [sense of] community, health and so forth,” said Bryan Smale, director of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which is based at the University of Waterloo.

The index shows the Canadian economy expanded 38 per cent between 1994 and 2014, while improvements in Canadians’ well-being grew just 9.9 per cent. The gap between growth in per-capita GDP and well-being has never been greater in the two-decade period.

The biggest decline in that time is in leisure and culture – areas that can enrich lives, alleviate stress and build connections with others, such as socializing with others or taking a holiday. Canadians are spending less time engaging in the arts and cultural activities, and less time on vacation. The paper noted that 2014 household spending on recreation, culture and sport fell to its lowest level in the 21-year period.

“Since the recession … people are less able to protect that part of their income for things they really value – their free time. That’s getting hit,” said Prof. Smale, a professor at the University of Waterloo whose research interests include time use and social indicators.

Canadians, particularly women, are also still struggling with a time crunch. Its “time use” category shows people are spending almost 30 per cent less time with friends. Commute times are longer and just 35 per cent are getting enough sleep – down from 44 per cent in 1994. At the same time, it says work has become more precarious – one in three workers do not have regular, weekday work hours, up from one in four in 1994.

Living standards have fallen since the recession, by its measure, amid a decline in housing affordability, higher long-term unemployment and greater food insecurity.

There are bright spots – most notably in education, the only category that has kept pace with economic growth. More Canadians are finishing high school and university, with greater participation in adult education.

“Community vitality” is another area of improvement, amid lower crime rates and a strong sense of community belonging.

The index paints a comprehensive portrait of how Canadians are faring, said Andrea Cohen Barrack, CEO of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which uses it to target investments and measure the success of its grants over time.

“Because it was developed in consultation with communities across the country, it is a reflection of what matters to Canadians in a holistic way,” she said, adding that it’s the “only index of its kind in Canada that balances economic indicators with other quality of life measures.”

The index draws on almost 200 data sources, most of them from Statistics Canada. This is the first time the index has been released since 2012, and is based on annual data up to 2014 – meaning it does not capture the period dating from last year’s federal election.

Its advisory board includes Allan Gregg, social commentator and pollster, and Karen Farbridge, former mayor of Guelph, Ont., while about 30 professors, researchers and consultants are part of its research advisory group.

Complementary measures to GDP are gaining the attention of some policy makers – Britain, for example, now tracks “national wellbeing.” They’re not without criticism, however; some economists have noted that the weighting or inclusion of different measures is subjective.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 12:01AM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 7:45AM EST