Chantale Beaudoin, 21, is a personable public servant who says that she is happy about the rewards of her job. Beaudoin is a secretary with the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, a federal agency just a 10-minute car ride across the Ottawa River from the small rented flat in downtown Hull, Que., that she shares with her husband, Jean Duguay, 32. She expresses confidence that their future—he is a municipal tax assessor—will be even more materially rewarding. But she adds that the high cost of housing worries her. Still, she hopes that well before the beginning of the next century, when she will be 33, they will have children and be able to afford a family home of their own. At the same time, Beaudoin voices concern about what seem to be life’s growing hazards and risks, from violence in the streets to the uncertain impact of free trade with the United States—“the U.S. will try to run us,” she says.
Beaudoin, one of the 1,500 respondents in the fifth annual Maclean’s/Decima poll, talked about her hopes and concerns in a follow-up interview. And, in many ways, the mixture of optimism and anxieties that she expressed about the future of living in Canada reflected opinions registered by men and women of all ages from coast to coast.
Heading out of the 1980s and looking ahead to the year 2001, most of those polled—during the four days immediately after the Nov. 21 federal election—seemed to be confident that their current prosperity will continue. But many of them are apprehensive about the changing quality of life in Canada, including changes affecting personal safety, housing, the environment and morals and manners. Those views emerged in response to the telephone poll’s 81 questions on topics that ranged from politics and pollution to social behavior and sexual habits. Then, 94 poll respondents who agreed to a series of follow-up Maclean’s interviews expanded on their opinions.
Poll respondents have never been more satisfied and confident over their economic situations and outlooks in the five years of the annual Maclean’s/Decima poll. In all, 83 per cent declared themselves satisfied or very satisfied with their current situation. An even more impressive 86 per cent said that they are optimistic or very optimistic over their personal economic prospects in the future. Not surprisingly, satisfaction and optimism increases with income. But even among respondents reporting household income under $10,000 a year, about 70 per cent expressed satisfaction with their present economic situations and 76 per cent were optimistic about their prospects. Explained Beaudoin, whose own income is now above $20,000 a year: “I’ve been promoted to a better position. So has my husband. I think our financial situation will keep improving.”
Beaudoin’s sense of satisfaction with her financial position and her optimism about the future is shared by a broad spectrum of Canadians. The Maclean's/Decima Poll revealed very little difference between men and women, or French and English, on those points. Surprisingly, 85 per cent of rural residents were satisfied with their personal economic situations, compared with 81 per cent of urban dwellers. Homemakers emerge as slightly less optimistic than the majority of Canadians, with 79 per cent expressing satisfaction with their personal situations.
The most optimistic Canadians are so-called baby boomers born between 1946 and 1965 who are now married but have no children. A remarkable 93 per cent of those respondents declared themselves positive about their futures. But the poll indicates that Canadians generally reflect the strength of the country’s economy after six years of steady growth. Remarked Lloyd Atkinson, senior vice-president and chief economist with the Bank of Montreal: “It’s amazing what prosperity will do for the soul.” Atkinson, and economists with some of the other domestic chartered banks, say that final calculations will show that Canada’s gross domestic product, the total value of goods and services produced in the country, grew by about four per cent in 1988, over and above inflationary increases. They also foresee less robust economic growth of about two per cent in 1989, with inflation moving up to the five-per-cent range from four per cent in 1988. Yet the bank economists contend that Canada will escape a recession until 1990 or 1991.
The strong economic recovery from the recession of 1981 and 1982 is also evident in responses to a poll question about standard of living. Slightly over 55 per cent of those polled say that the average person’s living standard improved over the past 10 years, while just over 19 per cent saw a decline in material well-being. A significant gap appeared between English and French-Canadians. Close to 60 per cent of anglophones say that average living standards improved, compared with only 42 per cent of francophones. Marital status also influenced the responses, with only 42 per cent of those who were widowed, separated or divorced citing an improvement in the average standard of living. On the other hand, over 60 per cent of retired people said that the average person is better off now than 10 years ago.
Among the minority of poll respondents who say that living standards are materially worse or no better than a decade ago, individual anxieties persist. Nicole Ruttan, 43, a clerk with the Sears Canada marketing development department in Toronto, said, “I’m paid more now than last year, but I seem to be able to do less with the money.” And she is definitely worried that her standard of living will be eroded by rising costs. Said Ruttan: “The way inflation seems to be overtaking pay, down the road we may not be able to keep the lives we’re used to.” Likewise, Paul-Emile Comeau, a 42-year-old high-school teacher who lives in Comeauville, N.S., 320 km southwest of Halifax, said that inflation is becoming a problem. But he remains confident about his personal financial future. Said Comeau: “I expect to keep pace with inflation. I have a good contract as a teacher. And I’m flexible. I have things I can do if I need more money.”
Whatever reservations some people may have about future economic conditions, Canadians have cast caution to the wind since the last recession. Toronto-based retail marketing consultant Leonard Kubas, president of Kubas Consultants, said that between 1982 and 1987 consumer spending grew at an average annual rate of 4.5 per cent—almost double the average yearly increase of 2.4 per cent in real personal disposable income during the same period. As a result, Canadians have reduced their savings to eight per cent of personal disposable income from historical averages of 12 to 14 per cent, said Kubas.
Consumer spending over the past six years was driven by several factors. Initially, Canadians were making purchases that they had put off during the recession. Kubas said that another major factor has been the formation of new households as baby boomers married and purchased furniture and appliances. There has also been a considerable amount of discretionary spending on luxuries and exotic travel. Kubas said that between 55 and 60 per cent of Canadian households now have video cassette recorders. But he foresees a return to caution and prudence among consumers. “Canadians are becoming concerned about paying down their debts,” he said, “and as they do that, they will spend less.”
Amid such forecasts, many poll respondents also indicated that material prosperity has not been reflected fully in the quality of living. The majority said that average living standards have improved over the past decade, but only 39 per cent saw a similar improvement in the quality of city life, 27 per cent cited no improvement, and 32 per cent said city living has declined in quality. The poll reveals that children play a major role in forming attitudes toward city life. For example, 44 per cent of baby boomers who are single, or married but childless, said Canadian cities are becoming better places to live. By comparison, only 32 per cent of their counterparts with children agreed, and 36 per cent of those said the quality of city life has deteriorated.
Complaints about urban life range from specific fears of crime to a general disenchantment with urban attitudes and values. Moreover, women appear to articulate such complaints more forcefully than men. Toronto resident Velma Walker, 63, a restaurant hostess, says city dwellers have become less open and less friendly. She added: “There is no warmth in a neighborhood. You never get to know your neighbors. This city is full of lonely people.” Said Ruttan, the Toronto clerk: “The city is getting so dangerous it will get to be an armed camp. All you hear about are murders, and they don’t seem to be catching anyone.” Crime in the cities also worries Sherry Weber, a 27-year-old homemaker and mother of three in Guernsey, Sask., 100 km east of Saskatoon. She said that “you go to the city and you see all kinds of weird and strange people.”
Fears about the danger of walking alone at night are far more pronounced among women and the elderly. In all, almost two-thirds of those polled said walking a city street alone at night has become more dangerous over the past 10 years, while only 36 per cent said that the dangers had stayed the same or decreased. But 73 per cent of women said the risks have increased, compared with only 53 per cent of men. Similarly, 74 per cent of those over 65 said the dangers have grown. Said Beaudoin, the public servant in Hull: “I don’t walk alone at night. You hear such stories about rape and robbery. It doesn’t feel safe.”
The Maclean’s/Decima Poll also indicates that three out of five of the poll respondents believe that violence against women is increasing, with most of the rest saying there has been little change in the frequency of that crime during the past decade. Again, a more detailed examination of those overall figures shows that women and the elderly have a more pessimistic view. About two out of three of the women polled and 71 per cent of those 65 year or older say that violence against women has increased.
While the views of ordinary Canadians about rising crime may be based upon personal impressions and instincts, data from the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics tend to support their views. The latest figures available show that the total number of assaults committed annually increased a staggering 67 per cent to 191,700 in 1987, from 114,900 in 1977. During that period, reported sexual assaults more than doubled to 22,400 from just under 11,000. Property crimes have also soared in the past decade. The number of reported break-and-enter offences at private residences surged by 52 per cent to 219,300 from about 144,600 in those years.
In answer to other questions about the quality of life in Canada during the past decade, two out of five respondents said that people’s moral standards have declined, while only half as many saw an improvement and the rest saw no change. More than half of the respondents said that faith in religion and religious leaders has decreased. A significant majority—almost three out of five—said that they believe that sexual promiscuity has increased. Almost two out of five said that racism has increased in Canada, about the same number saw no change during the past 10 years, and the minority said that racism is less prevalent.
Against those largely negative assessments of changing Canadian morals and attitudes, almost three out of four poll respondents said that equality between women and men has increased in the past decade. On the quality of people entering political life, respondents divided among 26 per cent who said that the quality has increased, 27 per cent who said that it has decreased and the rest, who saw no change. The concern that employers show for their employees has increased, said 38 per cent of respondents, while 34 per cent saw little change and 25 per cent said that there was less concern. As for the amount of caring that people generally show toward one another, 33 per cent said that there was less caring while 28 per cent said that there was more and the others said that behavior was unchanged. Poll respondents were more positive about their own behavior: only 15 per cent said that they have less patience with other people, 37 per cent said that they are more patient and the rest said they are as patient as ever.
Asked to cast their thoughts toward the year 2001, most people polled expressed the conviction that their cities will be at least as dangerous as they are now, if not more so. Two-thirds said that by the turn of the century they do not expect to be able to walk on city streets without fear of violence. Three out of four said that the average person will not be able to buy a house with a yard within the city limits of major urban areas. And 44 per cent said that Canadians will not be able to drink tap water by 2001.
Despite those misgivings about the future, most poll respondents maintain a basic sense of optimism about their individual financial situations and the survival of such Canadian institutions as public health care. June Boughen, 52, a legal secretary in Nipawin, Sask., 250 km northeast of Saskatoon, said: “I have grandchildren and I think they’re going to do well economically. We are on an upward trend.”
Although some economists foresee a return of the serious inflation that prevailed as recently as 1982, more than three out of five of those polled expressed the belief that the average person will receive pay increases that will at least keep pace with cost-of-living increases from now until 2001. The most optimistic responses came from Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, while residents of Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the least hopeful—possibly due to the decline in farm income caused by drought and depressed world wheat prices. Only 46 per cent of Manitobans surveyed and 48 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents said that average incomes will keep up with inflation. Said Saskatchewan farm wife Weber: “Around here people are hurting. Men who have always farmed are looking for work.”
Indeed, Weber said that she has already told her eldest son, Dane, 5, that he should aspire to be something other than a farmer. She said that the high cost of land and equipment, combined with the risks, make farming a very stressful occupation. Yet Weber said that she retains a positive outlook on life. Her husband, Dwight, 30, recently took a job at a nearby potash mine. Besides that, Weber said she was impressed by the generosity of the local Mennonites who sponsored a refugee couple from El Salvador. Said Weber: “Around here we do what we can for the rest of the world. When it comes to giving to the needy there’s no problem.”
Against the opposition warnings during the autumn election campaign that Canadian social programs and institutions could suffer under free trade with the United States, almost two-thirds of the poll respondents said that universal public health care will still be available in the year 2001. But roughly one-third said that public health care will not be available then and that Canada and the United States will use a common currency. Saskatchewan respondents were the most pessimistic, with only 46 per cent convinced that the medical care will remain publicly funded.
The two issues that elicited the most widespread concerns about the future are housing and the environment. An overall majority of Canadians still believe that they will be able to drink tap water at the turn of the century. But only 51 per cent of Torontonians and New Brunswickers think so, and in Quebec fewer than 40 per cent of those polled believe that tap water will be fit for human consumption. Said William Lukasik, 38, a Toronto marketing services manager who lives in suburban Thornhill: “Pollution is very much a concern, and we, as Canadians, can do something about it.”
Rising home prices have convinced a substantial majority of Canadians—75 per cent of those polled—that a family home with a yard will be unaffordable for the average big city dweller by the turn of the century. The most pessimistic responses came from Newfoundland, Toronto and British Columbia, where only 15 to 17 per cent said that the single family dwelling will remain a realistic objective. On the other hand, the Prairie provinces remain the most optimistic, with 30 per cent to 35 per cent stating that a home with a yard will be affordable.
The high cost of housing is already an intimidating problem for many young couples. Civil servant Beaudoin said that she and her husband will be forced to look for a home in one of the small communities outside their present hometown, Hull. She also said that they have bought a waterfront lot on a lake at Mont-Laurier, Que., a 2-1/2-hour drive from Hull. If the land rises in value they will sell it and use the profit to make a down payment on a home. Added Beaudoin: “We hope to be able to buy after four years. We have to keep our jobs, save every penny we can and hope prices don’t go too high.”
For young couples like Beaudoin and her husband, buying a home requires determination, resourcefulness—and hope. And those qualities may be needed by many Canadians if the future does indeed bring an increase in crime, more pollution and a less amenable quality of living. But, as the Maclean’s/ Decima Poll indicates, many Canadians are prepared to face those prospects with personal confidence and optimism.