DECIMA POLL

A confident nation speaks up

Peter C. Newman January 7 1985
DECIMA POLL

A confident nation speaks up

Peter C. Newman January 7 1985

A confident nation speaks up

DECIMA POLL

ESSAY

Peter C. Newman

Treading water is no longer our national sport. Instead of cringing before uncertain economic indicators, shaking fists at politicians or bowing to hidebound social restraints, most Canadians at mid-decade are confident about themselves and optimistic about their country.

That surprisingly sunny national mood is based more on perceived than on real improvements, but it is no less pervasive for all that. Instead of condemning the past, dreading the present and nervously squinting at the future, Canadians (at least those who are healthy and have jobs) seem delighted with their lives and prospects.

The Maclean's/ Decima Poll, described in the pages that follow, documents our halcyon outlook—a snapshot of a nation in a state of grace without pressure. An astounding three-quarters of Canadians surveyed pronounced themselves satisfied or very satisfied with their economic lot: an even higher proportion was optimistic or very optimistic about the future.

Blessings: As if to validate these buoyant findings, three very different individuals trekked across Canada this past fall, each in turn making us see ourselves in a new light. First off, there was Pope John Paul n, his white cassock streaming in the wind as he hopscotched across the land, blessing everything in sight. On his last day here he declared that the nation’s “heritage in a free and enterprising people makes Canadians particularly well suited to remaining open to all the calls of the world, to promoting peace and to living actively in generous solidarity with those of our brothers and sisters who are most in need.”

He was followed in short order by Queen Elizabeth n,who was gracious enough to proclaim, “Canada can give to the people of a troubled world a notable example of social peace and material prosperity and also the hope that such blessings may one day be theirs as well.”

To top it all off, a few weeks later Marc Garneau confirmed those papal and royal benedictions with some pronouncements of his own. “My country is very fantastic,” he enthused, whirling 220 miles above Chicoutimi in the space shuttle Challenger. “We are lucky to be Canadian, to have such a big and wonderful country.”

All three were reflecting the common refrain that runs through much of what happened in this wide land during 1984. No one could articulate precisely why or how the prevailing mood changed, but as if by prearranged signal most Canadians became fed up with the inferiorities that have held our psyches so firmly captive. Not since frontier days has there been such a surge of self-reliance, such a determination by individuals of all ages, both sexes and most circumstances to strike out on their own and exercise more control over their lives.

Jargon: The leading-edge Baby Boomies are busy earning, parenting and competitively comparing leisure pursuits. A capsule sampling of their jargon reflects the evolution of their ethic. In the 1960s their goal was to do “our own thing”;

in the 1970s they wanted to achieve “self-actualization.” Now the code word is “individuation”—a subtle change from selfishness to selfreliance. Instead of concentrating on “getting it together,” most people now want to “make it happen.” Part of the reason for this rising tide of confidence is the multiplying use of personal computers. Having a world full of data ready to be summoned at the tip of a finger has helped trigger a spirit of selfaffirmation that is profoundly different from our tippy-toe past. (There remains, incidentally, a definite generation gap in the approach to technology. The use of automatic bank-teller ï machines, for example, is £ booming on university y campuses, while the dollar dispensers are still being boycotted at many downtown corners.)

It may turn out that the combination of modern technology and this new collective will to claim greater individual freedom will finally lift us out of the colonial mind-set that has held us back. Our climb to this still somewhat delicate plateau of emotional security seems to have been prompted by several factors.

At a subconscious level, Canadians are in the process of resolving traditional self-doubts and, instead of searching for a national identity, are putting into practice their separate ones. Maybe it is the final alienation from the American Dream, the realization that any country that tosses up a succession of leaders of the scrap-iron calibre of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan is not really worthy of our envy. And so we finally seem to be judging ourselves according to our own (instead of imported)

values. We no longer rush to ape every American fad, as if the only way to legitimize our behavior were to act as country cousins to the empire south of us. Not only is our separate identity as a nation now taken for granted, but thç Yanks have also changed. No longer bound by any codified ethic such as the hippie wave of the ’60s or the “me”decade of the ’70s, they too are experimenting, so that even if we still wanted to model ourselves on “the Americans,” it would not be at all clear whom we could copy.

The American people went through their own traumas of Vietnam and Watergate in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not until the shakeup of the Great Recession during the early 1980s that most Canadians came face to face with the discomfiting realization that the old methods and the customary safety nets were not working any more. Even the Big Five chartered banks, where Canadians deposit their money and their consciences, turned out to have goofed by lending our hard-earned savings to onetime highfliers such as Dome. The highfliers who shuffled buildings like dominoes found themselves either bankrupt or thoroughly sobered up by the recession’s economic fallout.

The real estate flippers were harder hit than most, but like the rest of us they found themselves adapting to a new postsurvival mentality that has dictated a turning away from uniformity. In everything from sexual predilections to habits of dress, Canadians are beginning to assert a still-undefined ethic of their own—a sense of style rather than fashion, one determined more by individual than peer preference. This unexpected leap of individuality has pried us loose from institutional sources of deference such as the church, governments or unions and business.

Departure: The greatest change of 1984, of course, was political. It was not so much the substitution of one phalanx of guys in blue suits for another that made the difference, but the departure of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Even though we elected him four times, he had become the lightning rod for our dissatisfactions. I recall watching with fascination a

trucker at a motel near Red Deer who had lost 45 cents in a soft-drink machine. He stood back and kicked the thing. Nothing happened. He shook it nearly off its hinges. No luck. Then he stood back, glared at the offending contraption and said, “God damn Trudeau!” After 16 punishing years of Trudeau telling us how ungrateful we were for not appreciating his presence, Brian Mulroney seemed as welcome as the rebirth of green at the end of winter. Mulroney‘s arrival was cause for optimism, even if he has yet to earn it.

Fractious: When Mulroney’s North-Shore-habitant face first hove into view, most Canadian voters considered him an amiable lightweight who could never hope to win the PC leadership. He won it in a walk, and immediately the whisperers bitched that he had no chance of uniting the fractious Tory caucus. He did that too, yet when the election was called Mulroney’s political instincts were once again being devalued. With the exception of his “no whore like an old whore” crack about Bryce Mackasey, Mulroney has moved from strength to strength, exploiting his greatest political asset: the remarkable ability, despite his triumphs, to be chronically underestimated.

He launched his election campaign as the underdog, but when the ballots were counted he had won the largest numerical majority in Canadian political history. His overwhelming appeal to the voters was rooted in something deeper than the mere fact that he is not Trudeau. That came through to me when I attended a PC rally in a Vancouver suburb last July and it started to rain heavily. Even though he was getting soaked, the Tory leader came out on the dais and began dispensing his campaign clichés like so many after-dinner mints. The audience not only lapped up the performance but adopted imitative behavior—umbrellas were collapsed as voters, who wanted to be blessed by the same raindrops wilting Mulroney’s cowlick, spontaneously decided to join their new hero in his dampened state.

Still, on Sept. 4 Canadians deposited their hopes, dreams and expectations on Mulroney’s unshrugging shoulders.