Inclusion for All: A Canadian Roadmap to Social Cohesion Insights from Structured Conversations

2. Income distribution, equity, inclusion and access

Canada’s strong tradition of income redistribution, social programs, health care, and relatively good record in regard to social and gender-based disparities was considered to be central to social cohesion. However, participants were worried about increasing polarization of wealth and income and the rising number of poor neighbourhoods in our cities.

Mediating institutions and programs foster access for all and bridge gaps different groups. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the multiculturalism policy, and the use of two official languages were seen as important for protecting equity and access. Policies that promote peace, security and safety were also identified as part of the infrastructure allowing for participation and involvement in communities and national society. Inclusion for Canadians means having access to resources and opportunities at the community level and being able to access them in safety. Violence is one of the worst enemies of inclusion.

Poverty and Disparity

No topic evoked more widespread concern than the persistence of poverty in contemporary Canadian society. The experts consulted recognized that some groups are consistently more vulnerable to poverty and exclusion. Children, street youths, seniors and people with disabilities, as well as immigrants, were seen to be particularly at risk of underemployment, poverty and exclusion. The term “social exclusion” is used to draw attention to the social dimensions of poverty. Those who live in poverty have constraints on their ability to participate fully in the community. As well, economic need often accompanies and exacerbates other forms of marginalization. Others may experience social marginalization that is unrelated to their economic status. For example, victimization and child abuse represent extreme instances of exclusion from social safety and protection. The response, then, needs to link economic well-being with social inclusion. A final difference between a focus on poverty and a focus on inclusion recognizes that all of society is harmed when specific groups are not able to share fully in the national goals of equity, access and participation.

Participants noted that on the one hand, economic disparity between well-off and vulnerable groups is increasing, while, on the other hand, more middle class Canadians are exposed to economic insecurity. Frequent lay-offs or irregular work without benefits are becoming more prevalent. Families and children also experience the drop in economic security that often follows divorce, separation and other family changes. Risks to children and youth from economic or social pressures on the nuclear family can be countered by extended family or community supports. The consultations stressed that children and young people need community supports.

Changes in society and in public policies interact with economic changes in shaping the evolving structure of disparity and poverty. For example, the current job market requires ever-higher levels of literacy, numeracy and skills.

Tuition fee increases mean less access to higher education; education is becoming a privilege for the wealthy only…. People in poor neighbourhoods need health services more, but they access them less.

We are contributing to the problem when we agree to international trade policies that may hurt our institutions… The Americanization of our processes and values can mean adopting practices that may reduce cohesion, like racial profiling.

Social cohesion is about collective action, how people deal with each other, whether society is fair, reasonable and inclusive. As society becomes more diverse and fragmented, how do we deal with that?

Yet the income differential between families is increasing so that some children have excellent early access to technology and early learning opportunities while others have very limited access. At the same time as family and market opportunities are changing, public support for education may not be keeping pace with the growing level of need.

Multiple Forms of Exclusion

High rates of migration and mobility raise the spectre of economic insecurity as well as the probability that informal networks of support from friends, neighbours and the extended family may be weakened. Communities with few long-time residents are less likely to have a network of supportive connections. Cuts to social spending and regional economic failures can cause dislocation. The work of the Canadian Rural Partnership raised questions about the social deficits emerging in rural Canada, which are linked to poverty, illiteracy and higher rural infant mortality. Being at risk of violence and victimization can also lead to social exclusion. Most problematically, many Canadians suffer from multiple forms of exclusion. For example, those who are poor and disabled are more likely to be victimized and to lack access to services when they are. The poor are less likely to use community health care even though their need may be greater. Youth and representatives of community organizations noted that poor communities may lack access to resources such as community spaces, money, housing and a clean environment. Poor children may find it harder to afford education with increases in tuition fees. Federal researchers, youth and front-line workers noted that new data from the National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth demonstrates that students are better prepared for school and better able to get along with others when they live in communities with resources such as parks, libraries and preschool programs.

Groups that have been marginalized should be empowered and involved in institutions and positions of power.

The tools used before—the institutions and the social safety net—may not be available in the future.

Participants looked at these issues through a social cohesion lens and emphasized the effect of economic exclusion on social exclusion – on participation and connections, and the sense that one belongs to a society.

According to the executive director of a food bank, her clients were unlikely to be active participants and engaged citizens because they were discouraged about the prospects for having any effect on decision making. The challenge is to address marginalization in a way that promotes efficacy, involvement and social capital.

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