Time to add First Nations’ imperatives to an alternative GDP index

A year ago, B.C. had Canada’s top provincial economy. Valued at $306 billion, it was forecast to grow at a sizzling 4.9% in 2020, and, of all the provinces, only B.C. was experiencing job growth.

RBC predicted that it would lead the country in capital investment.

And then, along came the pandemic.

With COVID-19, much of what B.C. considers to be a “good life” has shifted. Where we once considered rising investment, growing job numbers and increasing provincial income as hallmarks of life success, in a world of daily virus briefings, shuttered retail shops and travel restrictions, a good life now is counted as having enough food, access to nature for socially distanced activities and healthy friends and family.

The coronavirus has highlighted how narrowly our society defined economic success as an ever-increasing cycle of production and consumption.

B.C., like Canada and most countries around the world, measures its economy using gross domestic product  (GDP). Developed in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression, GDP is a crude proxy for gauging economic performance in that it measures national income and economic growth above all other factors. It reflects the values that were considered important at the time of its creation for a “good life” – namely money and the production of goods.

COVID-19 has shown that a singular focus on 1930s GDP indicators alone no longer describes what is important to provide security and well-being to all British Columbians.

Yet for B.C. Indigenous people, the concept of a good life has always been more than just money and goods. An Indigenous good life is one that is made “richer” with clean air, regenerative wild fisheries and forests, socially healthy families, the passing down of cultural values, excellent education, respect for traditions that values Elders and living Indigenous knowledge, a responsive health-care system and a natural environment that sustains our collective – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – well-being.

This way of living has been refined over millennia and varies within each First Nations culture, language and location. And it’s not unique to B.C. Countries around the world like New Zealand, Iceland and Finland are increasingly adopting new indices of well-being that measure economic income, plus a full suite of good-life indicators, including the environment, culture, safety, leisure time, health and education. These worldwide well-being indices measure life values that are remarkably similar to those held by B.C. Indigenous peoples.

In early 2020, the BC Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN) began a nearly year-long study of more than 40 worldwide well-being indexes to learn how the adoption of well-being principles could improve B.C.’s economic, social and environmental sustainability.

The most globally well-known, and perhaps the most advanced well-being index work, is in New Zealand. New Zealand’s 2019 Well-being Budget, its associated Living Standards Framework and relevant Indigenous Maori well-being outcomes, offer valuable examples in how to build a more productive nation by incorporating Indigenous economic, environmental and governance knowledge into a modern economy.

Based on the worldwide review of good-life indices, the BCAFN’s final report recommends creating a made-in-B.C. well-being index modelled after key international well-being standards, including the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Better Life Index and the United Nations World Development Index, and incorporating local Indigenous knowledge that would go beyond the limits of GDP to improve the economic, social, health and environmental situation of the entire province. This is particularly important as the province works to overcome the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As other peoples and countries around the world start to appreciate what First Nations people know as Indigenous values in their revised GDP-alternative economic measurements, it is time that B.C. measured the overall well-being of the province using the timeless knowledge of this land that includes the understanding that a good life cannot be reduced to 1930s GDP-defined inputs of consumption, investment, government spending and net exports. •

Mark Podlasly is the director of economic policy and initiatives at the First Nations Major Project Coalition and a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation.