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Dental equipment.Linda Raymond/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Graham Isador is a writer and photographer in Toronto.

Last year COVID-19 put me out of a job. Like many creative types, my career – if you could call it a career – was cobbled together from a mishmash of contracts and gig work. Mostly I supplemented my time as a playwright by working in freelance journalism. Which is sort of like saying I supplemented my career as an artisanal glassblower by working in decorative pottery. You’d be hard-pressed to classify anything that paid me as essential work. But still… it’s how I provided for myself. And with the onset of the pandemic, those jobs were gone.

In the months that followed I frantically reformatted my résumé, trying to spin my major accomplishments – an undergraduate degree in theatre studies with extensive training in clown and a handful of viral essays about being depressed – as practical real-world experience. I talked about the ability to cultivate an audience. I lied about knowing Microsoft Excel. Thankfully all of this resulted in a handful of interviews. After a few short weeks, I landed what for all intents and purposes is a dream job. Especially given the fact that we are in the middle of a literal plague.

I’m currently working editorial for a startup. My job is writing essays about the origins of the brand and producing charming documentaries about the joys of entrepreneurship. I dig the work and no longer need to send an invoice and four follow up e-mails to be paid, a big change from freelance life. But the most exciting thing about the job for me is that – for the first time in my adult life – I have benefits. Which meant after an 11-year absence I could finally return to the dentist. But all of this begs the question: Why did I need to land a dream job to go to the dentist?

According to Statistics Canada, 6.8 million Canadians avoided seeing a dentist in 2018 owing to cost. That’s nearly a quarter of the country who feel it’s too expensive to get their teeth looked after. I get the hesitation. In my early twenties, I really didn’t care that much about my dental health. Getting your teeth cleaned was for squares, like saving for retirement. Even if I wanted to go, it wasn’t like I had the cash. Working as a busboy I could barely afford my Toronto rent. An extra 400 dollars for a dental checkup was a luxury out of my immediate reach.

As I got older and started to understand the real importance of regularly seeing a dentist – in so much as one of my molars started to ache and there wasn’t anything I could do to fix it – I still hesitated to make an appointment. Working freelance often means cash flow problems. I worried that anything beyond a basic cleaning would mean taking on debt I couldn’t really afford. As a freelancer, I made just below the national average income. I think a lot about people trying to get by with less.

The need for universal dental coverage is something that’s been brought up by politicians over the years, most recently by the NDP. While critics lament the potential costs, rejecting the idea seems insanely crass in the context of the Canadian health system. Break your arm? No problem, we’ll sort you out. Chronic pain in your jaw because of an untreated cavity? Better have insurance, otherwise get lost. In a functioning country, the ability to fix any part of your body shouldn’t be dependent on how much cash you’ve got or the benevolence of your employer. I don’t know why that seems to be a controversial opinion to some people.

I recently had my first appointment. After a decade away from the dentist chair I was more than a little trepidatious going in. To get psyched for the checkup, I spent the walk over listening to Slayer. When I arrived and nervously explained to the receptionist how long it had been since my last appointment, the poor woman seemed a little frightened. I filled out the forms and waited until someone ushered me into the big white chair.

After an hour of X-rays, cleaning and a little blood in my mouth, I was happy to find that I was miraculously cavity-free. I would later celebrate by texting my group chat I was king of teeth. The dentist suggested that the pain I had previously experienced may have been a result of clenching my jaw and grinding teeth at night. Did I happen to be under any additional stress lately? I thought about telling the truth but instead just shook my head and thanked him for his time.

On the way out of the clinic, I looked over the bill. For the first time in my life – thanks to the new job – it was something that I could actually afford. For the first time in my life – also because of the new job – it wasn’t something I’d actually have to pay. I’m glad I didn’t need to fix my teeth, but it’s obvious we need to fix this system.

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