May 2004: Well-Being Measurement -- The Next Step

The time is ripe for a Canadian Genuine Progress Index (GPI)
May 1, 2004

Last June, the key directive from the Canada Well-Being Measurement Act was approved by a vote of 185 to 46 in the House of Commons. Motion M-385 states:

"... that in the opinion of this House, the government should develop and report annually on a set of social, environmental and economic indicators of the health and well-being of people, communities, and ecosystems in Canada." (See Hansard for June 2, 2003 at the Government of Canada Web site or

If the federal government, under new Prime Minister Paul Martin, were to establish this institution before the next election, whoever forms that government would come into an office “rewired” with a high-resolution view of the country it is to serve. The antiquated view of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be upgraded. No longer would money spent cleaning up oil spills be considered as beneficial to society as money spent educating young people. The new generation of well-being measurement would enable decision-makers to see how actions taken and the events of time influence the many factors affecting Canadians.

Where does this put the Canada Well-Being Measurement Act? Our elected representatives have advised the government to create this institution. It is a victory for the Act, and as much as can be hoped for from a private member's motion. It is now up to a department of the government to bring forward legislation. The most appropriate department for this purpose is the Ministry of the Environment.

It may or may not be necessary to redraft the wording of the Act as it was approved last summer. If changes are made, there are two essential elements--public input and non-partisan reporting--that must be part of the institution in order to optimize its potential for securing the future.

Paul Martin was the focus of the well-being measurement campaign when he was Finance Minister. He thanked Liberal MP Joe Jordan, who introduced Motion M-385, for the inspiration when he funded the Environment and Sustainable Development Indicators Initiative (ESDII). That initiative developed indicators to track forest cover, air and water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, the extent of wetlands, and educational attainment, and how those things affect economic performance. The public wasn't involved, however, and the information is only intended for use by the Minister of Finance. Nevertheless, it demonstrated that Martin understands that there is more to well-being than simply cash flow.

By allowing the Environment Minister to bring the Act forward, Prime Minister Martin would make history. Canada has already attracted international attention with the proposal. By actually setting up and activating the institution, Canada would lead the world. A Genuine Progress Index could restore balance to public policy and rekindle a sense of hope for those who despair at the decline of environmental health and social cohesion. Genuine progress could become the defining feature of a Martin government.

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Here are the essential elements for effective Well-Being Measurement:

1) The public must be involved in identifying the circumstances to be monitored.

An institution for monitoring the nation's well-being must have a place for anyone to speak up to identify circumstances they sense might endanger the future.

Politicians, government managers and professionals understand many problems, but they are not the only ones with such insight. There are many people who, though acting in no official capacity, still have a keen awareness of situations affecting well-being. It is not unknown for people trained in management to overlook matters of concern to those who are not. Indeed, the problems not currently being managed are the most likely to catch us unaware.

2) The well-being indicators decided upon must be managed and reported independent of political interpretation.

It is human nature to be selective about what we tell others if we feel the information might negatively affect their opinions of us. The more that is at stake, the more selective we become. If a person's livelihood is endangered, it is not unknown for them to actually revise details. Indeed, “conflict of interest” regulations are a response to this well-known characteristic. Since MPs and Ministers, in particular, are often judged on the basis of how well the country is doing, it would be inappropriate for any of them to be in a position to have a final say over what information is collected and which of those details are shared with the public.

The Canada Well-Being Measurement Act names the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Auditor-General's Office as the best person to manage the institution. Well-being measurement is for the benefit of everyone. It provides “eyes and ears” that are critical for sensing threats to well-being. To put such an institution into the hands of anyone who might be judged on the content of the information would be a mistake.

Canada could become the first nation to adopt a Genuine Progress Index. Our elected representatives have voted for it. One more push could bring it about. The time is ripe. The need is great.


(Mike Nickerson is national coordinator of the Sustainability Project and the Seventh Generation Initiative. He has been a leading proponent of a Canada Well-Being Measurement Act for many years. For more information or a public participation kit, call him at 613-269-3500, by e-mail at [email protected] or write to P.O. Box 374, Merrickville, ON K0G 1N0)