Global sustainable development goals have potential to drive change in Canada

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Shannon Kindornay, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

There is no question that 2015 is a year for change both within Canada and abroad. As noted by Julia Sánchez, President-CEO, Canadian Council for International Co-operation, in her blog on Canada’s engagement with global social justice, not only are Canadians facing an election year in 2015, but changes are afoot on the global stage. This year, governments will negotiate a set of universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations to replace the Millennium Development Goals that will expire at the end of 2015. These goals will apply to all countries, including Canada, and present an opportunity for governments to prioritize social justice and address the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and exclusion under a transformative global agenda. 

CCIC has been calling for Canada to do better. Their “We Can Do Better 2015” campaign is timely, calling for Canadian leadership on the SDGs, including tackling inequality, women’s rights and climate change both at home and abroad. Indeed, it may be time for Canada to set some sustainable development goals – for itself.

A recent report by the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) and the Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS) looks at how the SDGs might be applied to Canada across nearly a dozen of the candidate SDGs currently under negotiation at the United Nations. The report looks at potential domestic priorities for Canada in the areas of poverty reduction, education, employment and inclusive growth, energy, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, disaster resilience, governance and contributing to global public goods and sustainable development in developing countries. And the report’s findings clearly show that greater leadership is needed in Canada to address our sustainable development challenges going forward.

In nearly all areas examined Canada’s Aboriginal peoples fall behind. Whether we are talking about poverty, education and employment outcomes, air and water quality, infrastructure needs, personal security or access to justice – it is clear that Canada will need to prioritise addressing the ongoing marginalization and exclusion experienced by Aboriginal peoples. Realising the SDGs for all people in Canada will clearly require efforts by the Canadian government, provincial governments, Aboriginal leaders and others going forward. The report also shows that gender inequality remains a significant challenge for Canada – and spells out key challenges related to personal security and women’s political and economic participation in Canadian life.

The report also spends a significant amount of time on what ranks high on the list of controversial issues for Canada under the SDG agenda – balancing environmental sustainability and economic prosperity, particularly in the natural resource sector. The report unpacks the myriad of jurisdictional issues related to energy and the environment, including addressing climate change, and provides a narrative on progress to date and where additional efforts will be needed to realise the SDGs in Canada. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and not withstanding efforts at provincial, territorial and local levels, the report highlights the need for greater federal leadership to address climate change as a key issue.

The SDGs have potential to serve as a driver of change for Canada – but conversations to date have not been widespread beyond the usual suspects in the development and environment communities. Many domestic constituencies remain unaware of the global agenda. The challenge now will be building momentum on the SDG agenda and getting political buy-in across sectors. As the NPSIA and CSLS report demonstrates, Canada’s academic community has an important role to play in translating the global development agenda into indicators and policies that respond to Canada’s unique development challenges. At the end of the day, progress on sustainable development in Canada will take efforts from federal, provincial, territorial and local governments, as well as the private sector, civil society and academia.  CCIC’s We Can Do Better Campaign is taking steps to address this issue – and certainly moving the conversation in the right direction as we move forward on a sustainable development agenda for Canada.

Shannon Kindornay is an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.


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