Even Canada needs breakthroughs to reach UN global goals

In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed that, “the Sustainable Development Goals are as meaningful in Canada as they are everywhere else in the world, and we are committed to implementing them at home while we also work with our international partners to achieve them around the world.” With this forthright pledge, the prime minister joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel among G-7 leaders in stressing the universal nature of the economic, social, and environmental targets embedded in the SDGs. 

It’s a novel challenge for a country like Canada to benchmark itself against the SDGs. In a new working paper, we translate the U.N. framework into a country-level diagnostic tool. We find that, amid Canada’s many remarkable societal accomplishments, the country is not yet fully on track for any of the SDGs. Importantly, this does not suggest the goals are unachievable. The absolute distance to reaching the targets is often small, but the current trajectory is simply not fast enough.

Here we describe some key results, followed by a short description of the methodology, which could apply to other advanced economies too.


Our approach emphasizes the SDG ethos of “no one left behind,” so when targets aim to reach “all” people or “universal” coverage, we interpret this literally as 100 percent. In Canada, each percentage point of the population represents more than 360,000 people, so even 97 percent access on a measure implies more than 1 million people being left behind. Similarly, if an indicator has been stuck at 97 percent coverage for many years, we classify it as a problem requiring a breakthrough, rather than celebrating its proximity to 100 percent.

As shown in Table 1, we assess a total of 73 SDG-relevant indicators (see rationale below) and find that:

  • 17 are on track, meaning on course for the SDG target.
  • 12 need acceleration, meaning they are currently on course to cover at least half the distance to the target but not yet the whole way.
  • 26 need a breakthrough, meaning they are currently on course to cover less than half the distance to the target.
  • 18 are moving backwards.

Table 1: Summary of Canada’s domestic status on 73 SDG indicators


On the positive side of the scorecard, Canada has successfully surpassed absolute global standards on issues like extreme income poverty, child mortality, and maternal mortality. It has also achieved, or is on track to achieve, universal access to social protection, secondary education, and modern energy services. However, at the other end of the spectrum, issues like access to safe drinking water, child obesity, and food insecurity have all shown negative trends in recent years.

Some other findings include:

  • Canada requires a breakthrough in order to cut domestic poverty by half by 2030.
  • Indigenous people throughout the country tend to face the most severe overall disparities, including on child poverty, food insecurity, access to medical care, reported violence, and confidence in public institutions.
  • Different Canadian provinces tend to lead or lag on different SDGs, but there is troubling consistency in the stark challenges faced by Canada’s three northern territories, where indigenous people comprise significant shares of the population.
  • Despite Canada’s reputation for strong public institutions, only 57 percent of Canadians are estimated to have “some” or “a great deal” of confidence in the courts and justice system.
  • While the current government is actively promoting “feminist” policies, Canada is not yet on track for any of the gender equality indicators assessed, including pay equity, violence against women, or share of women in leadership positions.
  • On climate change, Canada still requires a breakthrough in order to meet its 2030 emissions targets. Among other environmental issues, the country needs considerably faster progress to reach its 2020 targets for protecting land and marine areas.
  • Amid rapid changes in the economy and future of work, a large share of the population is being left behind in terms of basic literacy and numeracy skills. Well over 3 million adult Canadians might lack crucial literacy skills while more than 5 million might lack core numeracy skills.


Our methodology takes a “by the book” approach to interpreting the SDGs. As shown in Figure 1, we start with the full set of 169 targets and filter them down to the 78 that are outcome-focused, quantitatively assessable, and relevant to high-income countries. For a few dozen of these targets, the SDG language lends itself directly to empirical assessment. For others, we set proxy targets where possible—translating words like “significantly reduce” into a 50 percent reduction, or pairing a concept like “access to green spaces” with an indicator measuring the share of people living within 10 minutes of a park. We then find data to assess 61 targets through 73 indicators, as reflected in Table 1 above.

Figure 1: Logic tree for identifying assessable SDG targets in Canada


A note on process

Preparing this paper prompted us to reflect on the nature of conducting SDG assessments. Simply put, it requires a large amount of work. Canada is a relatively data-rich country, so we were able to draw from a wide array of sources, many published by Statistics Canada. A variety of judgment calls had to be made in the course of interpreting the official SDG framework, so we welcome feedback in all respects. But the intensive process of filtering targets and identifying disparate indicators draws attention to the need for policymakers to keep refining SDG benchmarks and data portals. A one-stop-shop database is required for monitoring progress across issues, geographies, and demographic groups. If the SDGs are to be achieved, analysts and citizens need easy ways to track both who and what is being left behind.