Health Canada should reinstate ParticipAction funding
Advertising convinced a generation of Canadians to get fit

The recent cancellation of the ParticipAction program, is another example of our country's belt tightening approach: hit programs that benefit the young, and leave those targeting seniors untouched. But this time, policy makers are being too clever by half.

Recently I went cross-country skiing at Cap St-Jacques. The experience was a shock to my sorry, out-of-shape 37-year old body. At least a half dozen seniors passed by me during the run. They were friendly enough, often giving me encouraging, sympathetic smiles as they raced ahead. But this did little to soothe my damaged ego.

Many of those seniors were products of ParticipAction's advertising. In the 1970s, the organization ran a ground breaking ad comparing the health of the average 35 year old Canadian, with that of a 60-year old Swede.

That stunningly simple ad shocked a generation of Canadians by demonstrating the importance of physical activity in contributing to a healthy lifestyle. Similar ads followed, and the results were impressive. According to ParticipAction data, the number of "regularly active Canadians" increased from 5% in 1971 - the year the program was founded -to 35% in 1995.

It's hard to know how much of this is due to ParticipAction's advertising, but there are indications its contribution was substantial. Someone in his 60s today, would have been in his 30s when those ads ran. It's probably no coincidence, that today's seniors - who were exposed to those ads -- are much more active and fit than their predecessors.

But today's youngsters will no longer benefit from ParticipAction programs. Budget cuts over the last decade had already almost emasculated the agency's effectiveness. Much of its recent advertising has been largely forgettable. But the program's demise comes precisely at a time when younger Canadians need it most.

The Internet economy - which our youth are more tied into - is starting to have an effect on their already sedentary lifestyle. Although television time may be down a bit, youngsters with Net access are spending about eight hours a week online. That total does not include video games.

It's no surprise that the number of obese kids, between the ages of seven and fifteen has doubled. Even in the height of summer, many suburban parks are like ghost towns, as our children wallow at home in their couches.

But it's not just kids. Much of our country's productivity increases are due to the longer hours Canadians are working. Recognizing these longer workdays, one Montreal ad agency even employs a chef to serve employees breakfast at the office. The longer hours leave employees less time for exercise. That means more stress, and greater absenteeism.

Our youth need the health information generated by the ParticipAction program more than ever.

But the vast majority of government cutbacks over the last 20 years, have hit programs that disproportionately benefit the young such as education, family allowances and welfare.

But few governments have dared interfere with programs targeting seniors. For example governments had been trimming budgets for more than a decade before they touched health care - which disproportionately benefits seniors. And the outcry was so large much of the funding is being restored.

Ever since Brian Mulroney's failed attempt to balance spending cuts across generations by trimming federal pensions, governments have left the elderly alone.

The reasons are simple. Seniors form a growing proportion of the population, they have lots of time to follow the political process and most importantly: they vote. Younger Canadians -- increasingly disenchanted with the process - are far less likely to follow it, and even if they voted more, their small numbers would have little impact.

But the baby boomers and seniors who control the political process ought to realize that cutting ParticipAction is not the answer. This year, the first of Canada's post-war baby boomers turn 55, the age many expect to retire at. Soon after, they will begin collecting pensions from the Canadian government.

When that massive generation has finished its transition into retirement, there are expected to be only two working Canadians for each retiree. But there was little money put away to fund those pensions. These are to paid for by taxes levied on today's youngsters.

If Canada's youth are going to work the long hours to pay the taxes required to fund our country's growing pension and health care costs, they are going to have to be in good shape.

The cheapest way to do that is to get them to stay active. And that means restoring ParticipAction funding.


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