What Canadians Don't Know

There are Canadians who don’t know our capital is Ottawa. But don’t laugh: Can you name your M.P.?

WILFRID SANDERS August 15 1945

What Canadians Don't Know

There are Canadians who don’t know our capital is Ottawa. But don’t laugh: Can you name your M.P.?

WILFRID SANDERS August 15 1945

What Canadians Don't Know

There are Canadians who don’t know our capital is Ottawa. But don’t laugh: Can you name your M.P.?


Canadian Institute of Public Opinion

PERHAPS it’s instinct, or perhaps it’s just raw, unrefined horse sense, but. whatever it is, it certainly isn’t “book larnin’ ” that makes the democratic wheels go round in Canada.

On the theory that what a person knows, or doesn’t know, affects the way he thinks about things, the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion occasionally shifts the emphasis of its national surveys from what Canadians think about things to what they know about things.

And the result is seldom inspiring—or the sort of thing our educators would like to brag about.

But before we start viewing with alarm it might be an idea for the reader to glance at the questions in the panel which accompany this article, and see how many marks he can score. It might help clarify who should view whom with alarm.

For example, if you can tell the population of Canada to the closest million; if you know the name of Canada’s first Prime Minister; if you can give a reasonable definition of the word “bureaucracy”; if you know what the Beveridge report is—then you are better informed than half the adults in Canada.

Remember, Canadians interviewed on these and many other questions had no chance to look it up, and received no prompting of any sort.

To get at these “areas of ignorance,” as pollsters call them, the Institute (better known as the Gallup Poll) used its usual cross-section survey technique, which simply means that the people interviewed represented all types—wealthy, average and poor; young, middle-aged, and old; French-speaking and English-speaking; men and women; farmers, townsfolk and city dwellers; people from all nine provinces— each in its exact proportion to the whole population. It has been shown over and over again that the opinions, prejudices, ignorances and wisdom of such a sample represent, within a very close margin of mathematical accuracy, the opinions, prejudices and so on of the whole population.

Let’s look at the record.

Five in 100 voting-age Canadians cannot tell you offhand that Ottawa is the capital city of Canada. In February, 1943, when the Social Security plan of Sir William Beveridge was making the headlines, and was to become the inspiration for social security plans of a far-reaching nature in this country—at that time three quarters of the population could not tell you, even in the most general terms, what was meant by the Beveridge plan.

A few weeks before the celebration of Confederation Day last July, Canadians were asked to name the first Prime Minister of Canada. Just 45% correctly named Sir John A. Macdonald. A number credited Sir Wilfrid Laurier with this honor.

About the same time this question was put: “What happened on the Plains of Abraham?” Forty-four per cent muffed this one completely. Another 37% gave answers which were hopeleasly vague, such as “A war took place,” “There was some sort of battle,” and so on. Only 19 in every 100 persons interviewed (all, remember, 21 years of age or more) gave any indication that, they knew about the crucial battle between French and English forces on Sept. 13, 1759, in which the destiny of Canada as an English, rather than a French, possession was forged, and in which the names of Wolfe and Montcalm became immortal. (Lest he appear to he assuming a cloak of false erudition, the writer confesses that he had to look up the date. He would have said 1763.)

The Canadian public, through the Poll, has long shown itself in favor of a post war program of selected immigration for Canada. The average Canadian thinks an ideal population for this country would be about 24 million people. Some economists might, admit that this figure makes sense. And yet only about, half the voters of Canada know that the present population is between 11 and 12 millions.

Speaking of millions, last, June some five million Canadians went to the polls to elect a government. And yet a few months before the election the poll found that exactly a third of the adult population could NOT name even one member of the Cabinet, when you excluded the Prime Minister himself. (Incidentally, among those w’ho could name at least one member, Hon. James Lorimer llsley was the best known and the most highly regarded.)

By the same token 33% of the population do not

know the names of their local federal member, and here is one case in which farm people are better informed than their city brethren. Even at that, Canadians show up as better informed than people in United States, about half of whom were unable to name their local congressman in a recent poll.

Continued on page 48

What Canadians Don’t Know

Continued from page 11

These “areas of ignorance” make it tough for the crusader. Suppose, for example, that you yourself were mightily worked up about the question of taxing government-owned businesses such as electricity (in some provinces), liquor, or government-owned war inddustries. You want to “mold” publicopinion one way or the other. The first thing you would be up against would be the depressing fact that two thirds of the public don’t know whether such businesses pay taxes on what they earn or not.

Or suppose you were ',msading for or against the Pan-American Union. You would have to start from the fact that 72% of the Canadian public has never heard of the Pan-American Union, or is unable to give any indication as to what it is.

Or perhaps you are a social reformer and feel that Canadians should get a greater degree of “social security.” You start talking about “social security”—and only 34%, just over a third, of your audience has the vaguest idea what you are talking about.

Slogans Stop Thought

On this question of defining terms the Institute has done a considerable amount of work, the results of which only serve to confirm that old adage about slogans being a device for the stoppage of thought.

How many times have you heard the phrase “free enterprise” used? It’s a good phrase, except that when you use it in a speech, four in 10 of your audience (if it is a representative audience) have no concrete idea what you are talking about. The other six give the pirrase widely varying interpretation. When asked to define this phrase, one respondent said: “It

means you don’t have to obey price control.” Said another, “Free schooling and hospitalization.” Another, “Free things.” Or, “A system whereby work is invented for unemployed.” About three in 10 gave more orthodox interpretations, such as “Freedom from restrictions,” “Private initiative.” “Business without government control,” “The right to free competition and open markets,” and so forth.

A recent survey in United States is reported to have revealed the fact that to some Americans the phrase, “a free press,” means getting your evening paper for nothingand it is probably safe to assume that some Canadians would agree with them.

Or take the much used word, “Bureaucracy.” In a survey last spring a few Canadians defined this word as “bedroom furniture.” To others it means the Dominion Bureau of Statistics. To only 44 in every 100 persons does it mean anything like “rule by a caste of high officials, or this caste itself,” as it is defined in Walter Theimer’s “Political Dictionary.” Here are some of the replies culled by Institute reporters from among the other 66%: “It has to do with the French Government,” “The Jews,” “Class distinction,” “The House of Lords in England,” “Same as socialism,” “Oppositeof socialism,” “The middle class,” “Like a Democratic Government.” These are just some of the thoughts that arise in people’s minds when this word is used

Socialism? To some this means “banquets” or “parties” or “social gatherings”—and socialism has no more ardent supporters than this group. To 38% of the people it means nothing at all. (Theimer’s definition: “A system of common property and planned economy.”)

Communism? Twenty-five per cent can’t define it. Marx would probably turn over in his grave at such definitions as: “A form of religion,” “No privacy,” “Something to do with politics,” “Rule by the poor people,” “Communicating with the people,” “Against Christianity,” “Brotherhood of men, like Christ,” “Those who give money to those who work.”

Twenty-three per cent of Canadians can’t define “capitalism” in words which make sense, unless you accept such definitions as: “Freemasonry,” “Head of the country,” “Heart of the country,” “Stealing money, and then returning it in some way,” “Money used by the Government to carry on,” “Too much money,” and so c.i.

The word “Democracy” came off best of all, but nevertheless was indefinable to 21% of voting Canadians who believed it to mean anything from “A country with a king,” to “getting along with each other.” One of the most succinct definitions came from a prairie housewife, to wit: “It is the state of continuing as an individual potato, rather than becoming a mashed potato.” But Abraham Lincoln could probably take as much credit as anyone for giving the public a working definition of Democracy, inasmuch as his “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” was the most frequent definition used by those who could make a stab at defining it.

It is true, of course, that much of this inability to define much used words and phrases can be attributed to the fact that many people are inarticulate. Perhaps they know what a word means, “but can’t put it into words.’ Nevertheless this doesn’t answer the fact that, even among the articulate, the meanings attached to a word vary often so widely as to make the word a dangerous one to use. I have quoted enough examples to indicate the chaotic impression some of these words create.

War Teaches Geography

The excuse of inarticulateness, however, cannot be used to excuse Canadians from knowing something about geography. There is no doubt but that the fierce meanderings of war over the face of the globe have taught the ordinary person everywhere a great deal about places and place names. For example, it is unlikely that before Pearl Harbor, 45% of Canadians could have told you, with reasonable accuracy, where Guam is. And yet that is the situation today.

Guam was one of five geographical names tested on the Canadian votingage public. The other four were Oslo, Munich, Trieste and Canberra. Of the five test names, Munich, capital of Bavaria, proved to be by far the best known (74% correct) and Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, the worst (36% correct).

Another indication that the war has been a potent geography teacher is indicated by the interesting fact that the younger generation of voters (those from 21 to 29 years of age) came out better than their elders on World War II names, such as Guam and Oslo, but didn’t do so well on “older” names, such as Trieste. And the Munich Chamber of Commerce can thank der late Führer for the fact that so many people were able to place their city. The life of an opinion reporter is full of surprises. Take the interviewer near Red Deer, Alta., who is still recovering from the shock of encountering a farmer who was able—and willing—to give him the exact latitude and longitude of Guam. Not many of the people interviewed reached this peak. There is a lady in Toronto who says that Canberra is “out around Leamington,” Ont. As a matter of fact, Australia’s capital city received a lot of pushing around, and was credited with being in virtually every continent in the world—and, by a transport driver, as being “an island in the Caribbean Sea.” Only 45% (the same number as located Guam) were able to say where Canberra is.

Oslo was made the capital of Sweden by quite a few, instead of leaving it alone in Norway, where 55% of the population put it.

On most questions of general knowledge the people of British Columbia, who already enjoy the highest general economic standard of any province in Canada, show up as the best informed of any province in Canada. City people are usually better informed on factual things like these mentioned than are farmers. And men score a higher mark than women—even on such questions as, “What is the difference between a calorie and a vitamin?” which, at the height of the National Health Campaign a year or so ago, was asked by the Institute and entirely muffed by seven persons out of every 10 interviewed.

What is the answer to all this? The most obvious answer is that on very many questions of fact, of history, of terminology, the Canadian public is ill-informed.

But that is not a complete answer. There are other factors to be taken into consideration. For one thing, Canadians are not ill-informed on a purely comparative basis with the populations of other countries. For example, surveys in the United States, by the Gallup Poll and other research agencies, show that at least we Canadians are as well-informed as our neighbors.

Another point to remember is that in spite of these areas of ignorance the public has shown a really amazing ability to govern itself, and to guide, by the sheer weight of mass opinion, the men and women whom it picks to govern them. I have mentioned this phenomenon before in Maclean’s Magazine, and quoted chapter and verse. In many instances the majority, or mass opinion, has actually been far ahead of its leaders.

You don’t have to have an honor degree from a university, or to have one of those encyclopedic minds which delight the fans of a quiz program, to be able to think clearly, or to make common-sense judgments on broad issues of the day.

In brief, you might get badly fooled if you conclude, from a study of these mass ignorances, that Democracy won’t work. The late unlamented dictators got fooled that way.

But these ignorances do point to something. Perhaps they constitute a challenge to our educational system. Some may conclude that learning, or the acquisition of facts, is not made interesting enough in our schools and colleges, or that graduates have not been sufficiently inspired with a desire to continue learning after they leave school, or at the very least, hang onto what they have acquired in school.

There may be something in this last point. In a recent typical week the Institute found that six out of 10 Canadians (a people which has one of the highest literacy rates in the world) were not reading or had not read a book during the preceding week.