When Can We all Smile with Dignity?

Post by former CYH blog team member Jannie.


On a sunny Friday afternoon, we set up our Smile With Dignity campaign booth on the busy corner of Kingsway and Broadway in Vancouver, BC. We were out on the streets to gather the stories of people’s teeth, and with these stories we hope to learn more about the gaps and unmet needs of our existing dental care system. These stories are being documented on our Blog as part of a campaign to have basic dental services covered by our public health insurance (BC Medical Services Plan). Our posters, “Dental care is a human right,” hit a nerve for many passersby that day; soon we were overwhelmed with people sharing their struggles and frustrations with a dental system that is neither universal nor equitable.

Smile With Dignity grew out of similar grassroots organization and health advocacy by the Alliance for People’s Health, where the inaccessibility to dental care came up repeatedly among diverse community members. These stories tell the painful and often humiliating ripple effects that sick teeth can cause.

Bob Candleman’s experience is all too common among the stories we heard that day:

It’s simply a question of poverty. I’ve had a number of jobs but my wages don’t keep up with my dental costs. I have continuous dental pain every day for two years, but don’t go to the free clinic because they’ll extract my teeth.

There are stories of untreated dental problems leading to infections, heart disease, stress and anxiety, and other illnesses. Others shared experiences of being embarrassed to smile or show their teeth, affecting their self-esteem, relationships and job opportunities. Oral health is a vital part of our overall health and wellbeing, and the right to dental care is about the right to eat, smile and live with dignity.

It is a twisted health care system that will treat our lips, throat and tongue – but not our teeth. Although the 1964 Royal Commission on Health Services (that led to the creation of Medicare) recommended the inclusion of dental services in universal health care, Canada currently has a private model of dental care provision. A third of Canadians is not covered by dental insurance, and the cracks in this failing system are affecting the most marginalized – such as immigrants, single parents and the working poor – who must pay out-of-pocket, or go without. Most dental problems are preventable, and access to basic dental services is the most effective means of doing so. Nonetheless, achieving universal dental care is ultimately a question of politics and the interest of the provincial government.

As we packed up our booth late that Friday afternoon, we had pages filled with dental stories and signed petitions. Dental care has too long been a neglected issue, and I left feeling hopeful that our collective pressure can create change, just as it had with establishment of universal health care 45 years ago.

To learn more about the Smile With Dignity campaign and get involved, please visit our website.