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Ministers John McCallum, right, and Maryam Monsef, centre, help Syrian refugees try on jackets at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Feb. 29.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada ranks second in the world when it comes to turning economic prosperity into social progress, says a global ranking released Tuesday.

The 2016 Social Progress Index grades countries on how well they perform in the categories of "basic human needs," "foundations of well-being" and "opportunity." Within these categories, countries are also measured against 53 indicators, spanning nutrition, shelter, personal safety, tolerance and higher education. To arrive at a ranking, researchers scour a broad range of data, looking at how fairly laws are enforced, whether residents feel rent is too high and the strength of community safety nets.

"Measuring people's real lived experience in that way is actually very powerful," said Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative (SPI), which compiles the index annually.

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In 2010, researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first conceived of a global ranking system that would complement hard economic indicators often used to gauge a country's success, such as gross domestic product. In 2013, the first SPI was tested using just 50 countries and then expanded to 133 countries the following year.

The data are pulled from many well-known public databases, including the World Health Organization, the Pew Research Center, Gallup World Poll and the United Nations Development Programme. Twenty-seven countries with insufficient data were excluded from the index, including wealthy nations such as Singapore, Qatar and Bahrain.

"You can actually get broader perspective on how your country or society is doing to inform your policy choices, where you spend money, what you prioritize," Mr. Green said of the SPI's appeal to policy-makers. Already, the European Union is using the index to inform regional policy.

CANADA'S RESULTS AT A GLANCE

Canada scored best in:

  • Personal rights
  • Access to advanced education
  • Tolerance for minority communities

Canada scored worst in:

  • Environment quality
  • Mobile phone ownership
  • Obesity Rates

Overall rankings This year, Finland came first among 133 countries. For a second year in a row, the Central African Republic, torn apart by civil war, came last. Overall, Canada topped or tied 14 separate indicators. Canada is up from its previous sixth-place ranking, but researchers caution comparing the 2016 index with last year's result, given the back-revision of data and changes in methodology.

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"Canada is in the very high social-progress category. That top core group of nations is tightly clustered, so we see some rank changes year to year," Mr. Green said.

Here's a breakdown of how Canada compares to countries with similar GDPs per capita:

Basic human needs Canada received high marks for meeting basic human needs, with excellent access to food, quality electricity and high childhood education rates. It also scored well on political rights. Residents enjoyed protections to freedom of speech, the right to assembly and private property. The data also showed low violent crime rates and little worry for political terror.

Access to advanced education Researchers reserved the most praise for Canada's access to higher education. In this category, Canada ranks first overall with particular emphasis on women's average years in school (15.65) and years in postsecondary education (1.64). The study also found that almost half of postsecondary students attend a top university.

Environmental quality Canada continued to disappoint when it comes to the environment. Researchers docked marks for a lack of substantive biodiversity and habitat protection, pushing Canada to 90th place, behind Indonesia and Ethiopia. High greenhouse-gas emissions, the scourge of most countries, weren't up to standard, resulting in a 77th-place ranking.

The study notes that a higher GDP often correlates with better environmental protection, but Canada still comes second to last amongst other G7 nations, beating only the United States.

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"Canada, relative to other countries of similar wealth, is underperforming," Mr. Green said. In last year's rankings, Canada also scored poorly in the environmental category.

Other areas of concern have been well-reported in the media over the past two years. Inadequate access to water for rural communities made headlines during last year's election, when many aboriginal reserves complained about the lack of quality drinking water .

A high proportion of traffic deaths also concerned researchers.

Mobile telephone subscriptions Canada's worst ranking came from poor mobile telephone subscription numbers. Only 81 per cent of Canadians own a mobile telephone, the data showed, pushing the country to 102nd, behind Iraq, Republic of Congo and Venezuela. This tepid performance in mobile phone ownership was also flagged last year as an area of concern.

However, Canada's weaknesses are minimal compared with the United States. One of the world's wealthiest countries, it tumbled to 19th in the rankings. When matched up head to head, the researchers found Canada beats the United States on 10 of the 12 components.

"Another disappointing result for Americans, who are getting a pretty raw deal when it comes to translating the country's wealth into social progress," Mr. Green said.

The world as a whole showed strength when it came to providing basic nutrition and medical care.

Tolerance and inclusion The overall scores for countries were weak when it came to tolerance and diversity, with struggles to achieve tolerance and inclusion across the income range – with the exception of Canada.

"It's striking how well Canada does on tolerance and inclusion. For a big and diverse country, to be doing so well, that's actually quite a significant achievement," Mr. Green said.

"Perhaps there's a lot Canada could be teaching the rest of the world about how to build a successful multicultural society."

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