Canada's dismal record on child and elder care leaves little room for national pride

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The extent to which services for seniors in many of Canada's long-term care homes are terribly delinquent was starkly exposed by COVID-19. In April, nearly half the people killed by the coronavirus were residents of such lodgings, especially those that are privately owned.

The abominable conditions in which they were abused -- deprived of adequate food, bullied, drugged and in some cases left for days in soiled bedding -- were exposed by soldiers who were called to the homes to supplement ill-trained, burned-out, underpaid and overworked staff.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and other provincial leaders have pledged to move quickly to overhaul and improve conditions in these homes. But, since that would entail converting them from profit-obsessed private to public facilities, such reforms are highly unlikely.

National Post editorial indignantly declared that "Respect for seniors should be a principal element of any civilized society. Ensuring adequate care (for them) should be at the top of any priority list" for political leaders.

Pardon my cynicism, but such promises by premiers have been made and broken before -- not just for the elderly, but also for the country's children. Neglect and shoddy care have prevailed at the beginning as well as the end stages of Canada's citizenry.

Over the past 30 years, I've written a dozen or more critiques of Canada's deeply deficient child-care policies. I've cited the appalling statistics that expose this ongoing disgrace, such as UNICEF a few years ago ranking Canada 37th among 41 wealthy countries for children's access to proper nutrition.

Even worse, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at the same time placed Canada last among 25 member countries for the inadequacy and inaccessibility of its child care programs. You might think that Canadian governments would be so embarrassed by this international censure that they would hastily take steps to improve their abysmal child care record. But, no, as they have many times before, they blatantly shrug off all such criticism.

Latest UNICEF rebuke

So the most recent UNICEF report on child care that still puts Canada in the bottom tier of wealthy countries -- 30th out of 38 -- should have come as no surprise. Published on September 2, it ranks Canada 30th in child well-being (mental health and happiness), 26th in child poverty (one in five), and 24th in the provision of parental leave.

One in three Canadian children are overweight or obese, and Canada also has one of the highest rates of adolescent suicide, ranking 29th.

UNICEF notes that Canada's current rate of social welfare spending, at just 17 per cent of GDP, lags well behind that of most other industrial countries -- even  lower than the United States, which spends 18.7 per cent of GDP on its social programs. The major European nations' social spending ranges between France's 31.2 per cent to Spain's 23.7 per cent.

All other advanced countries except Canada and the United States have a complete and comprehensive public health-care system, including pharmaceutical, dental and vision care, as well as the services of doctors and hospitals. Children in these countries don't suffer from their parents' inability to pay for needed medication, eyeglasses or visits to the dentist, as many thousands of Canadian children have to do.

Countries in Europe also guarantee their children free and complete public child care soon after their birth. It's called early childhood education and care (ECEC). Canada, to its shame, still lacks a national, accessible, cost-free, high-quality program of that kind.

Canada far from the best

Despite this despicable childhood deprivation, most Canadians still cling to the myth that they live in the best country in the world. But, as long as so many of the country's youth and elderly are so cruelly neglected and mistreated, Canada has no right to pose as the world's best nation. Or anywhere close to that eminence.

"Canada's children are worlds apart from the happiest, healthiest children in rich countries and worlds apart from each other due to wide inequalities," said David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada. "Improving child and youth well-being in Canada is a matter of political will: if governments want to improve Canada's eight million childhoods, they have the means to do it."

The future, however, looks no more promising. Prior to the pandemic, our federal and provincial governments could easily have expanded public health care to the comprehensive levels Europeans enjoy. If even the least financially endowed nations there, such as Greece and Hungary, could afford complete public health care, so could Canada.

But Canada for the past century has been ruled federally by successive Liberal and Conservative governments, both of which are devoted to preserving the dominance of economic capitalism.

So they dutifully accept the deep poverty, inequality, and misery that inevitably flows from such a ruthlessly iniquitous system. As long as the rich and powerful flourish, it matters little to them that the poor and their children suffer.

They sometimes had trouble convincing voters they couldn't afford pharmacare and other additional social programs when their coffers were full. But now, thanks to the pandemic and the many billions of dollars they have spent to alleviate its ravages, they can and will claim that an expansion of health care and child care really is unaffordable. Though it still emphatically is not.

If the ultra-conservatives happen to win the next election, they would be so obsessed with the swollen deficit that their top priority would be to reduce it as quickly and extensively as they could. They might even go so far as to cut the meagre social benefits we already have. (Meagre, at least, compared with their complete coverage in Europe.) Canada then, instead of just being among the lowest social-spending rich nations, would become the very lowest.

Theoretically, voters in the next federal election could cast most ballots for the New Democratic Party, ushering in a truly progressive regime. The NDP could even decide to enforce the provision of equal rights guaranteed by section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Well, we can still dream, can't we?

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: Rod Long/Unsplash

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