A national report card

ROBERT MILLER January 6 1986

A national report card

ROBERT MILLER January 6 1986

What a difference a year makes to the mood of the nation. A year ago the inaugural Maclean’s/Decima Poll of public opinion reported that Canadians were in a buoyant frame of mind. They had great expectations of a new Conservative government under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. They had come through the worst of a gruelling economic recession and were looking forward to increasing personal prosperity. The question of negotiating freer trade with the United States scarcely existed. And the spectre of an epidemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was almost as remote as Halley’s comet—then 404 million miles from Earth. This year, as the second annual Maclean’s/Decima Poll reveals, millions of Canadians have grown more skeptical about Mulroney’s performance and candor, divided on the overall state of the economy, uncertain of the consequences of impending trade negotiations between Ottawa and Washington and worried about catching the incurable AIDS.

At the same time, as 1986 dawned, many values remained constant. The Canadian people once again seemed happy to report general satisfaction. The new Maclean's/ Decima Poll is reported in detail in the next 31 pages. But its overriding—and most reassuring—finding is that Canada continues to be a remarkably contented and confident land, a nation of individuals who believe in hard work while retaining their compassion for the less fortunate. According to the poll, 82 per cent of the population believes that economic success flows from individual effort—rather than luck or privilege. At the same time, the poll shows that Canadians are aware of the troubled world beyond their borders. One vivid example: 57 per cent of respondents said that they or their families had contributed money to African famine relief during 1985.

Overall, 73 per cent of respondents declared that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their “personal economic situation right now.” A year ago the inaugural Maclean’s/Decima Poll found that 76 per cent expressed such satisfaction. As for “personal economic prospects,” this year’s poll found that 80 per cent of respondents were either optimistic or very optimistic—a response identical to that at the end of 1984. Declared respondent Alec Stanimirovic, a 19-year-old Toronto student whose parents, Robert, 42, and Vilma, 42, emigrated from Yugoslavia in 1963: “We are very happy here, very optimistic. There is a lot of freedom, a lot of opportunity.”

But Canadians were far from smug. Once again in 1985, economic issues dominated. The new poll showed deep divisions of opinion about the state of the economy, with a third of the respondents rejecting the prevailing notion that Canada is going through a period of recovery. As well, there was a strong minority—38 per cent—which disagreed with the suggestion that individual sacrifice now would lead to greater general prosperity later.

Unemployment, which currently stands at 10.2 per cent of the work force, remained the predominant concern, with 45 per cent of respondents naming it as “the most important issue facing Canada today.” A year earlier, when the unemployment rate was 11.3 per cent, 53 per cent cited it as the number 1 issue. The decline indicated that some of the heat had gone from the issue, but the reality of a chronic job shortage continued to trouble Canadians—including the majority who held down a job. Maclean’s commissioned the poll from Toronto-based Decima Research Ltd., one of Canada’s best-known opinion research organizations which specializes in public affairs and issues. The objective: to test the nation’s mood by recording and analysing the answers to 57 questions. In all, between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3, Decima researchers conducted 20-minute telephone interviews with a total of 1,575 Canadians 18 years of age and over. The sample—it included 75 pre-screened young, upwardly mobile professionals (“yuppies”) between the ages of 25 and 40—was scientifically selected to mirror Canadian society in terms of age, income, sex and marital status. And it was geographically weighted to enable inter-regional comparisons. According to Decima chairman Allan Gregg, “A sample of 1,500 weighted cases produces results accurate for the whole population within 2.6 per cent 19 times out of 20.”

This year’s special report on The Maclean’s/Decima Poll features the voices and faces, the hopes and fears of the people who constitute the country. All respondents received an assurance of anonymity and a pledge that their individual answers would not be divulged. But each was asked whether he or she would consent to a follow-up interview by Maclean's reporters. A total of 213 agreed, providing Maclean's with a rare chance to record the candid opinions of ordinary Canadian men and women on a wide-ranging list of topics.


A little more than a year ago Canadians swept Mulroney and the federal Conservatives into power with an unprecedented majority, returning 211 Tories to the 282-seat House of Commons. But analysis of this year’s poll responses suggests that the public’s once-fervent enthusiasm for the Prime Minister has cooled somewhat as his government has come increasingly under fire in the crucible of high office. Mulroney could take comfort from the knowledge that 31 per cent of respondents credited him with doing a better job than his predecessors in “helping the country work together,” while only 15 per cent said he was doing worse. And 25 per cent declared he was better than previous Prime Ministers at improving the economy and creating employment while 19 per cent said he was not performing as well. Less comforting for Mulroney, a full third of respondents thought he was doing a worse job of “being open and straightforward with the public” while only 20 per cent said he was doing better. And 31 per cent said he was worse at protecting the poor compared with only 12 per cent who said he was better. Said Decima’s senior research consultant, Bruce Anderson, 28, who supervised the poll: “As might be expected only one year into a mandate, the results indicate a wait-and-see attitude about the Prime Minister.”

The Economy

The new poll revealed a decline in the number who looked first to government for economic leadership. A year ago 49 per cent of respondents cited government, 32 per cent named business and 10 per cent chose unions when asked to say which of the three they expected to “look after your best economic interests.” This year only 42 per cent picked government while 33 per cent chose business and 14 per cent looked to unions. As well, there remained a lack of unanimity on the status and even the direction of the economy. Among respondents, 38 percent said they believed the economy was going through a period of long-term recovery, 27 per cent said the recovery was short-term, and 34 per cent declared Canada was still in the grip of recession.

Free Trade

A year ago the issue was virtually unknown. This year, however, two per cent of respondents declared it to be “the most important issue facing Canada today”—to them more pressing than unemployment, nuclear war or government spending. And 75 per cent of respondents said that they supported the professed intention of Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan to seek a more open trading agreement between Canada and the United States. Unarguably, free—or “freer”—trade is an issue whose time has suddenly come. But despite their overall support for the concept, 55 per cent said they would oppose it if it harmed their own province. And 37 per cent feared that Washington might prove better than Ottawa at negotiating. Said 63-year-old Peter Manierka, a Toronto machinery manufacturer: “We cannot afford to go into this without complete knowledge. It would be dangerous to open up the issue and then turn back on the U.S..”


As a generation they are at once admired and reviled, with a lifestyle that evokes envy for its conspicuous consumption or contempt for its self-interested materialism. They are the yuppies—the increasingly popular acronym used to describe young, upwardly mobile professionals. According to the poll one adult Canadian in 10 believes he or she is a yuppie, and 18 per cent of the population expects to become one. But the poll shows that fully half the country is unfamiliar with the word “yuppie.” And among the other half, 31 per cent felt it carried a positive connotation, 28 per cent believed it did not, and the rest of the respondents said the term was merely neutral.


Unlike many European and Asian societies long inured to strict and all but insurmountable class divisions, North Americans traditionally have regarded themselves as egalitarians and their society as virtually classless. Indeed, millions of immigrants moved to Canada and the United States to escape hidebound class structures and to seek a richer life. But according to The Maclean’s/Decima Poll, as Canadian society has evolved—and matured—it has begun to fragment into divisions of class based on economic status. To be sure, egalitarianism predominates; an overwhelming 89 per cent of respondents placed themselves in the middle classes, while only two per cent described themselves as “upper class.” But, significantly, nine per cent thought of themselves as “lower class”—a designation that left 68 per cent of its membership either discontented or despairing of moving upward. Decima’s Gregg said he regards the apparent emergence of a dissatisfied lower class as a potential problem for Canadian society.


The poll reveals that Canadians see themselves as a nation of lovers—attractive, faithful and overwhelmingly satisfied with their sex lives. Asked to rate their physical appearance on a scale of 1 to 10, 74 per cent of respondents ranked themselves at 6 or higher and only four per cent put themselves at 4 or lower. There was also solid evidence that most Canadians do not believe variety of partners is the spice of sex life. A total of 69 per cent said they had had only one partner in the preceding year, while only seven per cent acknowledged having had four partners or more. At the same time, 74 per cent of respondents claimed to be sexually active, and 89 per cent said that they were either “somewhat satisfied”or “very satisfied” with their current sex lives. Indeed, as the overall poll results made clear, Canada remains a very satisfying place to live, as well as love.


The highly publicized AIDS-related death on Oct. 2 of Hollywood actor Rock Hudson and continuing media coverage of the frightening disease evidently made a profound impression on Canadians in 1985. Although physicians to date have diagnosed only 404 cases of AIDS in Canada, nearly half the adult population worried about contracting it. Among poll respondents 20 per cent said that they were “very concerned,” and a further 26 per cent said that they were “somewhat concerned” that AIDS would somehow strike them. Although experts say that AIDS is most often transmitted through sexual contact, 82 per cent of respondents declared that they had not changed their sexual habits because of it.


Despite their general sense of well-being, most Canadians go about their daily business accompanied by fundamental fears or idiosyncratic phobias. Such concerns are all but universal, part of the human condition, and Canadians are probably no more timorous than any other national group. Indeed, a full 18 per cent of respondents claimed to have no constant worries or no opinion. But the vast majority of respondents, asked to mention only one fear or phobia, was less intrepid. The most frequently cited fear: the threat of war, particularly nuclear war—mentioned by 16 per cent. The most commonly cited phobia: heights, including the fear of flying.

Foreign Aid

The internationally televised July 13 Live Aid rock-music spectacular for African famine relief was only a one-day event. But it raised a worldwide total of more than $66 million and touched millions of Canadians. It also helped change attitudes about the overall question of foreign aid. No fewer than 55 per cent of respondents said they watched at least part of Live Aid. And 34 per cent said Live Aid had helped persuade other Canadians to do more for the world’s needy.