If you don’t know there are potatoes in the borsch …

My Polish ancestors used to say: “If you don’t know there are potatoes in the borsch there could be orphans working in the mine.”

In other words if you don’t know what’s going on in your own backyard there could be big problems elsewhere.

The truth of that proverb is brought home in a recent Brookings Institution report: Who and What Gets Left Behind which assesses Canada’s progress toward meeting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agreed upon by all 193 United Nations members. It’s the first such study of a G-7 nation.

The results are disturbing and sobering.  While Canada is a prosperous country and continual ranks at or near the top of the world’s most liveable countries it comes at a terrible price. 

The study reveals Canada is actually going backwards on a number of indicators. For example: rates of hunger, obesity and malnutrition are rising. So is access to affordable housing and safe drinking water;  exploitation trafficking and sexual violence against children; reported crimes against women, marine pollution, and the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.

Progress is also stalled on meeting a number of other goals. For example, three million Canadians still live in poverty and the numbers are barely changing. Similarly, major breakthroughs are needed to achieve progress in recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Indigenous people, immigrants and people with disabilities are disproportionately represented among those who don’t enjoy what most of us take for granted. Food insecurity among indigenous peoples is more than twice the national average for example.

None of this information is new. Most of it has been reported on. However, to the best of my knowledge it’s never been collected in one place. Certainly no one has connected the dots this thoroughly between our social and environmental challenges.

What may be old is our approach no matter how innovative it seems to be.

Whatever we are doing as entrepreneurs, innovators, organizers, policy advocates and activists isn’t achieving the results we want. Clearly it’s time to shake it up.

Lots of suggestions come to mind including:

  1. An annual national report card on social/ecological justice based on the Sustainable Development Goals to keep us on track. Maybe the Community Foundations of Canada could take their excellent Vital Signs initiative up a couple of levels?
  2. More joined up actions between social and environmental groups. Working together to expand the clean energy economy while reducing poverty for example.  

As for the metaphorical potatoes in our borsch – they are the people who have been left behind. Who live and deal daily with the disparity and injustice referenced above. Shaking it up means bringing them into the heart of the action. Truly. Not as subjects of research or ethnographic studies or participants in labs but by realigning our actions to support their observations and their solutions. Even though they are the main ingredient few notice. Few have tasted their solutions. Few fund their efforts. They don’t fit nicely into social innovation criteria even though they survive and thrive by innovating.

Now that we know my Polish ancestors wouldn’t want us to rest on our laurels. 

NOTE: Brookings has just released a followup report to the one above, A Canadian North Star: Crafting an Advanced Economy Approach to the Sustainable Development Goals which outlines their suggestions for Canada fulfilling its SDG commitments at home and abroad. It’s worth a read.


Now more than at any other time in our history, we need to bring our intelligence and imagination to sustain our life support systems. ~ 

Musical accompaniment this post is Rescue by Halifax based Neon Dreams. Purchase their music.


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Adversity Makes you Wiser

The World Needs More Peacemakers not Social Innovators

Death’s Tug of War with Mystery and Science

Confessions of a Non Swimmer in the Currents of Culture

Artisans for the Common Good

Visit socialchangequotes.com to browse Canada’s largest collection of quotes about social change, curated by Al Etmanski.

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