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Canada ranked 21st out of 165 countries in progress in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) 2021 report. But the dashboard showing Canada’s progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where green indicates progress, is lit up with yellow, orange, and red.
Education quality is the only goal Canada achieved and maintains. Aside from that, the report says significant challenges remain in zero hunger, good health and well-being, gender equality, and life below water. Also, major challenges remain in responsible production and consumption, climate action, life on land, and partnerships for the goals. In short, Canada is very behind in its progress to tackle the SDGs.
“This by itself is alarming,” says Michelle Baldwin, senior advisor at Community Foundations of Canada, about the many challenges remaining for the country, “but in reality it’s likely that COVID-19 has and will continue to hinder any progress we may have been seeing pre-pandemic. There is a lot of work to be done.”
Baldwin says that while COVID-19 revealed the importance of the SDGs by further exposing crises like anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism, gender inequality, and the climate emergency, the pandemic still required immediate attention.
“The cognitive load this has had on society has slowed down the attention to the 2030 agenda and yet the urgency of our need for societal transition and transformation continues and has been accelerated,” says Baldwin.
The myth of Canadian exceptionalism
But the pandemic isn’t the only factor that’s slowing down Canada’s progress with the SDGs. Chúk Odenigbo, founder director at Future Ancestors Services, explains that Canada’s tendency to deflect from its problems is deeply inhibiting our development.
To assume issues like white nationalism are American problems, or that poverty isn’t a major Canadian issue is both ignorant and unproductive. And though the pandemic has surfaced many social issues, as Baldwin says, to a point that Canadians can no longer ignore them, that habit of deflection is ever present.
Odenigbo says Canada has a “very good PR” team — made up of governments and development organizations — which is, “basically making invisible the problems that we have; we have a habit of making poverty seem invisible, and we have a habit of doing what we can to really make sure that it doesn’t seem like we have any sort of ‘real issues.’”
So when it comes to working towards SDGs, Canada ends up focusing on international development efforts instead of its own national development, says Odenigbo.
“A lot of the organizations that really focus and centre the SDGs, including the Alberta Council of Global Cooperation, tend to be organizations that look outwards — outside of Canada and how Canada can support other countries in achieving their SDG goals, but are weary to look inwards.”
Shifting the scale of climate action to a provincial level
When it comes to climate change, Canada has become exemplary of the devastating impacts with forest fires, floods, and heatwaves. And yet, according to the SDSN’s 2021 report, major challenges are still present in terms of climate action development with “stagnating progress.”
Odenigbo explains that the lack of positive development within climate action might be because while Canada has been working towards the issue on a federal level, the problems are vastly different for each province. There isn’t a one size fits all solution.
Given that Canada is a massive landmass, the environmental issues in New Brunswick are vastly different from what locals face in British Columbia or Nunavut.
While there are some initiatives within provinces to take lead on sustainable development (including British Columbia which has the BC Council For International Cooperation), the SDGs are primarily a national responsibility.
“The SDGs by the United Nations were frameworks designed to be broad enough for each country to take and adapt to their own circumstances,’ says Odenigbo. “Does it make sense for us to try and adapt it to Canadian circumstances or does it make more sense for each province to take the SDGs and adapt them to the provinces’ unique circumstances? I think it might actually be harming Canada that we are trying to do things at the pan-Canadian level for the SDGs, when the SDGs were designed specifically to be enacted as locally as possible.”
Revisiting the ‘Leave no one behind’ framework
One of the foundational promises in the UN 2030 Agenda is to “leave no one behind” — to transform deep rooted systemic inequities by identifying what marginalized groups need and implementing change to policies. Though COVID-19 has, in the last two years, helped in pointing out these inequities, there’s a long way to go for Canada implementing this promise as a reality.
Katelynne Herchak, Indigenous policy manager at VIDEA, says Canada hasn’t quite stepped up in taking initiative to adopt the “leave no one behind” framework.
“Why do we still have boil water advisories? Why is there still gender-based violence predominantly in Indigenous communities? Why is there an education gap between on-reserve and off-reserve? These are things that don’t have to happen anymore. This shouldn’t happen in the first place, but these things can be fixed,” says Herchak.
Adopting a decolonization framework is key, according to Herchak.
“Indigenous people have always been experts in international development and sustainability and environmental stewardship. The Indigenous way of development had ceremonies, songs, trade routes and relationships that were mutually beneficial. And then the western perspective of development has been colonialism. And so how do we move away from doing that?”
The first step in shifting towards decolonization is to involve more Indigenous people within organizations, says Herchak, adding that this is what they do at VIDEA by ensuring that they hire Indigenous folks from across Canada, including Indigenous youth through their international Indigenous youth internship program. Herchak also says that the inclusion is “woven throughout the organization” from the management level to general staff that inform how they work.
The path towards resiliency
A major mental barrier to shifts to sustainability, Herchak says, is that oftentimes leaders within sectors don’t know where to start when it comes to tackling the SDGs. They don’t know how to switch up their systems, and thery’re comfortable in the way they operate. The fact that Canada has fallen behind on these goals can make tackling these challenges even more daunting. So why should we continue working towards them?
“We have no choice,” says Herchak, adding that, “these are achievable things, and people are already doing this work. There’s so many people that are passionate about the SDGs, are passionate about their community projects.”
If someone is working on education within their community, they’re already tackling SDG number four, says Herchak. “This is stuff that’s already going on, so amplifying these things that are going on within communities can inspire more people and make it seem less destitute of our future.”
These shifts and collaborations can be easier than they seem. Baldwin points to the beginning of the pandemic when individuals and organizations make changes fast because they had to. “For example in philanthropy, COVID-19 demonstrated that funders can rapidly shift decades-long cultural modes of working — whether providing unrestricted funding, removing reporting requirements, or launching participatory grantmaking.”
Similarly, working towards the SDGs in a meaningful way requires cross-sectoral collaboration and shifting power dynamics.
“The SDGs offer a shared vision for the sectors to collectively work towards and to leverage their assets and resources towards a common purpose. We need to move beyond the status quo and conventional approaches to achieve truly transformative changes and this will require all sectors.”
Funded by the Government of Canada’s Sustainable Development Goals Program