National Health and Fitness Day Bill—Second Reading

Thank you, Your Honour. I may not sound too fit today, but I hope I’m fit enough to support Senator Nancy Greene Raine’s bill. This is the bill to establish a national day to promote health and fitness for all Canadians.

Senator Nancy Greene Raine, the sponsor of the bill, has long been committed to motivating Canadians to be more active. She is yet another example among us of how we can use our role as senators to raise the profile of important issues and to improve people’s lives. Senator Raine is also drawing on her experiences and reputation as an Olympic medallist — even I remember her skiing downhill — and a well-known, respected athlete and promoter of alpine skiing through programs like the Nancy Greene Ski League, which provides entry-level racing instruction to young children.

This bill is simple, but it’s so important and has a significant purpose. We all know that sedentary pastimes and unhealthy eating patterns among children and across the Canadian population have been on the rise too long. One in three children in this country is overweight or obese.

The causes of this alarming trend are clear: overeating; eating foods that are unhealthy — high in sugar, salt and fat, with negligible nutritional value; and failing to get enough exercise. Only a small percentage of Canadian children, fewer than 15 per cent, are getting the daily amount of physical activity recommended for them.

Senator Raine and our colleagues who have already commended the purpose of this Bill S-211 have painted a detailed picture, a picture that is quite different from what I think most of us knew as children. Instead of running around in the fresh air and riding bikes and playing road hockey with neighbourhood friends, children are planting themselves in front of televisions and computers every day after school and on weekends.

I was just thinking that the only time they look up in the playground is when they bump into each other while trying to stay focused on their iPhones or BlackBerrys.

Imagine giving up one tweet to play hockey on your street.

They are missing out on what to me is the epitome of being carefree, like being so caught up in having fun that they don’t even notice they’re sweating and short of breath. This might sound awful, but if you’ve ever felt it, you know it’s anything but; it’s invigorating.

For the span of at least one generation, the decline in fitness levels has impacted all age groups of our population. In 2007, more than 25 years after the last thorough study of fitness at the national level, Statistics Canada, in collaboration with Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, undertook a comprehensive assessment of the fitness of Canadian adults.

Findings from the Canadian Health Measures Survey show that since 1981, suboptimal fitness levels have become increasingly prevalent, especially among young adults. As we know, this phenomenon will inevitably lead to higher risk of health problems, four times higher within this age group than in the 1980s.

Depending on where you look and what you choose to reflect on — the fate of our population, including millions of children; the role of parents; or the intentions of companies profiting from current-day behaviours — you might feel sadness. You might also feel disgust or frustration, anger, even a bit of culpability.

We cannot be the last generation who remember the options outside of electronic games, specialty and on-demand television programming, instant and fast foods and socializing via our smartphones. Maybe I sound like an old curmudgeon, but I sure don’t feel like one, certainly not after watching Montreal win one of those games on the weekend; and they’ll win tonight. Maybe criticizing the inventions and habits of modern society makes me sound out of step, but I strongly believe that the alternatives help keep us young and that anything in excess is unhealthy.

Though I have never been a professional athlete, I learned so much about the merits of practice, being a team member and powering through my limits from playing pond hockey, river hockey and trying to beat my friends to the finish line. Sport and physical play render some irreplaceable life lessons, as well as a feeling of becoming stronger and better coordinated.

On a personal note, as a senator for Ottawa—Rideau Canal, I’m fortunate to have the canal near my home. Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is my playground all year, from rollerblading to biking to skating. Last year, I skated on it 32 times. I would have done it more if it hadn’t have been so damn cold. Each year, I see children from a local school skate on the canal once. It is once a year; it should be once a week.

More than any statistics and studies, it is the distinct sense of satisfaction and enjoyment associated with these experiences that should be the hook. Everyone should have the opportunity to feel this, and once they do, chances are good that fitness and health will become a greater and greater priority for them.

It is a process, and Bill S-211, the National Health and Fitness Day Bill, is well aligned with it. What Canadians need is to be introduced to the idea that health and fitness matter, that they are worthwhile and attainable goals. Step by step, we can achieve this and then we can advance further.

On another personal note, I have a novel idea where senators could lead by example in this new era of independence.

I was described by a reporter the other day as a free-range senator, so it’s in this capacity that I’m inviting my Conservative senators to walk with me, not down any political path, but down the path of fitness. Perhaps every Wednesday after you have digested all you need to know in your Conservative caucus, we could take a walk along my beautiful canal, nourished in the thought that not only are you doing something good for your country but that you are doing something good for you.

Now, if that isn’t too much for your liking, then let’s launch a “Take a Senator for a Walk” campaign. I don’t know where, but take a walk. Or if you’re Senator Dan Lang, it can be “Take a Senator for a Run” campaign. The added bonus is that if you are fit enough, reporters can’t catch you.

Seriously, for Senator Nancy Greene Raine, this is not a downhill race but an uphill battle to get Canadians to get fit. We can do it but only if we do it together.

In 2010, speaking in her capacity as both a senator and Canada’s Olympic ambassador to that year’s Winter Olympic Games, Senator Raine launched an inquiry here into how to inspire Canadians, especially children, to become more fit and healthy. I will repeat what she said at that time because it is a comment that holds true today. She said:

… everyone knows we have a serious problem. The research has been done. We do not need any more studies to convince us. We also know that it is not a problem that can be easily solved or without the involvement of all levels of government and our citizens themselves.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Health Canada began working in partnership with private and non-profit sector organizations, conducting national campaigns aimed at improving Canadians’ health. From Canada’s Food Guide to advertisements about the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke, these campaigns included a vast range of tactics to reach individuals and society at large. This is when the term “social marketing” really took hold here.

One of the best explanations of social marketing that I’ve heard and that helped me understand how it works is this: Social marketing is not about changing people’s behaviour directly; rather, it’s about affecting the public environment so that people are more prone to reflect on and eventually take certain actions.

I realize that it might be hard to get your mind around this right away, but these words do provide a broad outline of the steps towards motivating people to improve their lives.

If you would like a good current example of how social marketing can be used to improve Canadians’ fitness levels, I encourage you to have a look into the ParticipACTION program. Do you remember that word from so long ago? We should be right back there again. I’m sure that name rings a bell. This program, which originated in the 1970s and only gradually lost our attention after several years of success, has been revived and is once again encouraging us to be more active and to help others in our communities do the same.

One of the initiatives that I particularly like is for children but is aimed at parents, teachers and others who influence them. It is called Bring Back Play.

Just as there are stages to achieving the goal to becoming more fit and healthy, so too are there stages to engaging individuals, communities and all levels of government in inspiring people to achieve better health. If Parliament agrees to pass Bill S-211 and make it law, we will have an important new vehicle for improving Canadians’ health. June 1 will become a day for groups, clubs, individuals, senators and MPs from across the country to hold events to promote active living, to invite people in their communities to try out fitness facilities and participate in fun sport challenges, to do whatever they choose to do to support the crucial goal of national health and fitness day.

From one year to the next, we will see positive momentum among Canadians, organizations from all sectors working together to plan and hold special events. More and more municipalities signed on to do their part. Above all, a growing number of people recognize the importance of health and fitness and are being inspired to take action.

In closing, I would just like to mention a personal note about an old friend in New Brunswick where I grew up in the North Shore, where there is no shore like the North Shore, that’s for sure. I’ve always been inspired by the physical work ethic of an old hockey friend in New Brunswick. He played hockey for Scotty Bowman here in Ottawa — the Hull Canadiens — a long time ago. He should have been in the NHL. His name is Joe Hachey and he’s in his seventies. We just called him “Number 7” of the Bathurst Papermakers, and he is still one heck of an athlete. He literally runs across the Acadian Peninsula, runs, bikes and swims almost every week, from one end to the other. Joe walks, runs, swims and bikes every day. In fact, he was an Ironman triathlete.

I asked Joe last summer, “Why so much focus on fitness?” Now, well into his seventies, he answered, “It doesn’t matter how long I live, but as I live, I want to live well.” It was just a wonderful thing to say.

I would like to thank the good senator, Nancy Greene Raine, for bringing Bill S-211 to us, and I promise to do whatever I can to ensure that it is passed. Once that happens, you can count on me, senator, to continue to be supportive of and involved in this important day, June 1. It will be a pleasure.