Reflections on Social Change in the Local and Global

At my university, where 98% of students come from outside Canada, I hear a decent amount of admiration for Trudeau. He’s “a feminist,” “better than Trump,” and, the classic, “soooo hot.”

“He talks progressive, but often doesn’t act on it,” I usually tell my friends. Namely, at the climate conference leading up to the Paris Agreement, Trudeau announced that “Canada is back” on the scene of climate action, but set no plan to stop the expansion of Canada’s carbon-intensive tar sands. He has stated his commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples while continuing to structurally underfund key services for First Nations children.

But in general, I know the average Canadian enjoys relative stability and a high quality of life. Many of my schoolmates can’t say that about their home countries.

I’ve cared about social and political issues in Canada since I was young. In high school, I joined a group called Kids for Climate Action to pressure governments to take stronger action on climate change. “We are not old enough to vote,” we told adults, “but our generation will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.”

I moved into university with one question: Where can I make the biggest impact? But I also had a set of convictions. One of such was that the domestic sphere was the best place for me to centre my advocacy; to attempt to ‘fix’ problems in other countries was ineffective at best and neocolonial at worst.

A few classes led me to question my beliefs. One was a statistical methods course for decision-making in international development. We learned that certain development interventions, when based on rigorous evidence, can effectively break cycles of poverty among the world’s poorest. In a philosophy course, we talked about the imperative to global justice: Why should we feel more bound to help those close to us than those in other countries who would benefit more from the same amount of money? I wrestled with this cognitive dissonance for a few months before coming back to Canada.

For my summer job, I was hired as a research assistant at the BC Council for International Cooperation, where I would co-write a report tracking Canada’s progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals are a set of ambitious global targets on issues from poverty to climate change to inequality. The report was to be presented at the UN High-Level Political Forum in New York, where 44 countries would present reviews of their countries’ progress.

The report was challenging on both a strategic and a personal level. There was potential for it to land directly on key government desks. I wanted to appear constructive while still calling attention to points of failure. I was thinking about domestic issues, but within a framework of global ambition.

In interviewing experts on social issues in Canada, I noticed a disenchantment with the UN framework. Many of these advocates had been working on these issues for years; all they’d seen the UN do was give the government a platform for self-congratulation. Yet, some experts noted instances where a UN report or policy had compelled the government to act.

The principle of universality incorporated into the SDGs aims to “leave no one behind.” This points out where Canada lags.

While I don’t think the UN is a silver bullet, I think it does have a role in creating a better world. The principle of universality incorporated into the SDGs aims to “leave no one behind.” This points out where Canada lags: Millions of people who live here still have a worse quality of life than the average Canadian. So the SDGs can serve as a push toward accountability.

In writing the report, I learned more about the concrete realities of social issues in Canada. About 4.9 million people live in poverty. About 4 million people experience household food insecurity. And we have a hard time understanding true rates of issues like sexual violence.

I also couldn’t stop reading about Indigenous issues. I learned that 51% of Indigenous children live in poverty, a rate that rises to 60% percent on reserve. I learned about the Human Rights Tribunal’s 2016 ruling that found the government guilty of discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children by underfunding child welfare services.

All this while the country celebrated its 150 years since confederation. Like many other settlers and Indigenous folks, I chose not to join in: it felt wrong to celebrate the colonial structures that still negatively affect the lives of Indigenous people.

Still, gaining a better understanding of these issues has given me hope that they can be addressed. Poverty is a recurring theme throughout the SDGs. Social assistance rates in Canada are pitiable and can feasibly be increased by further taxing the wealthy. Governments should also invest in more social housing, create a national childcare plan, raise minimum wages, and commit to ending homelessness.

The Trudeau government has an opportunity to make ambitious changes through its upcoming Poverty Reduction Strategy and National Housing Strategy. I will remain skeptical of these promises until I see concrete outcomes. That said, I’ve largely grown up in the political climates of the federal Conservatives and the BC Liberals. Maybe these new governments can offer serious commitments to the most marginalized people in Canada.

I also see promise from social movements. For example, Indigenous Land and Water Protectors continue to resist unsustainable, environmentally-risky resource extraction projects. They call for full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires ‘Free, prior, and informed consent’ before any resource development project can take place on Indigenous land.

Overall, a few takeaways emerged as crucial to success on the SDGs. The federal government should create a set of disaggregated, nationally-specific indicators to track progress on the SDGs. It should take an integrated, cross-departmental approach to problem-solving, addressing poverty at its roots. And reconciliation must involve a meaningful implementation of UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

As for my understanding of where to make impact, I still haven’t figured it out. Something at the nexus of climate change and sustainable development might be the right approach for me. Climate change is a global commons problem; it disproportionately affects the world’s most marginalized; Canada has contributed largely to the problem and yet is well-positioned to take action. Working within the SDG framework did reiterate one thing: movements for justice, both local and global, are necessary and interconnected.

Sadie DeCoste is a Research Assistant at the BC Council for International Cooperation. BCCIC is a network of civil society organizations and individuals that work to share knowledge, build relationships, and develop their capacity towards achieving sustainable global development.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BCCIC or its members.

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