MACLEAN'S/DECIMA POLL: ESSAY

A turning away from politics

Rae Corelli January 5 1987
MACLEAN'S/DECIMA POLL: ESSAY

A turning away from politics

Rae Corelli January 5 1987

A turning away from politics

MACLEAN'S/DECIMA POLL: ESSAY

Rae Corelli

The pulse rate provides clues that can help a skilled physician learn a lot about his patient. In combination with other symptoms and signs, it may point to the presence of diseases of the heart, the arteries, the thyroid or the lungs. More superficially, the pulse rate will mirror strong emotion: anger, elation, fear or great stress. As with individuals, so it has become with nations. The social and mathematical science of polling is pulse-taking on a grand scale, and its techniques, computerized and refined to a high degree, can track the mood swings—including the hostilities, the enthusiasms, the anxieties—of populations in the millions.

In the following pages are the results of the 1986 Maclean ’s/Decima national poll. Those results indicate that Canada’s pulse is normal, perhaps a touch on the slow side. The patient appears calm, although there are trends behind the equanimity that may threaten the vitality—and even the relevance—of Canada’s political institutions. Generally, Canadians are distancing themselves from the political process. The poll indicates that a majority are shedding idealism in favor of pragmatism. Many acknowledge a willingness to sacrifice principles to get what they want out of life. Canadians are turning inward to families and careers in search of personal rewards. And almost nine out of 10 say they would never run for public office.

All of that points to the possibility that, six months shy of its 120th birthday, Canada is on the threshold of profound social and political change. Government, the Canadian’s traditional ally and benefactor, is falling out of favor. With parts of the country in the grip of economic stagnation, many Canadians are growing pessimistic about the nation’s economic future while scrambling to support themselves. As a result, individuality, a kind of do-it-yourself citizenship, appears to be supplanting faith in government in the minds of many.

That alienation is a far cry from the confident national mood in 1953, when Northrop Frye, the country’s pre-eminent literary scholar, wrote: “Historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the revolution.” In 1953 self-satisfaction was a forgivable excess. The governed and the governors were solidly united by national pride—in having put more than a million men and women in uniform during the Second World War, in a distinguished record in the Korean War, in the limitless enthusiasm of a collective response to the challenges of peace.

Now, more than three decades after Frye’s observation appeared in The University of Toronto Quarterly, the collaborative spirit between the people and government has begun to erode. Year by year, except for the ebullience of the 1967 Centennial, the sense of national purpose has been diminished in the face of regional rivalries and perceived injustice; by the clamor for language rights, fishing rights and native rights; by disputes over falling oil prices, unsold wheat and slaughtered seals; by the resentments of Western Canada and the Atlantic provinces against Central Canada; and by the grievances of the poor and the elderly and the immigrant. Year by year the demands for relief, for justice, for compensation have gone to government, but the responses, for whatever reason, have only served to widen the gulf.

The Maclean's/.Decima Poll contains evidence that Northrop Frye’s idea of revolution may now be taking shape— not in harsh confrontation but more in cool detachment from national government. Said Bruce Anderson, Decima’s vice-president of public affairs research: “Increasingly, people are looking away from government as the provider and are looking to their own individual means. While we are in a period in which people are mostly optimistic and more or less satisfied, there is a disengagement with the political process.”

At the same time, Anderson said, the country’s government and corporations may have to revise their earlier assumptions that the “baby boom” generation more than anything else wanted to concentrate on promising careers and money. It turned out that what large numbers of baby boomers now wanted were babies and ways to blend careers and family by such means as comprehensive day care for their children.

“All this has tremendous ramifications for governments and employers,” said Anderson. “What people are saying is that their families have become more important. Maybe after 10 or 15 years in the workforce, some people are concluding that all that effort in terms of rewards hasn’t provided happiness to the extent they thought it would. Canadians are very practical in the pursuit of things that bring them satisfaction, and since 1983 they have been more and more concerned with individual issues.”

But it may take more than a high-level recognition of these subtle trends to heal the breach between elector and legislator. A report card on the federal government in The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll shows that many Canadians harbor negative feelings toward Ottawa. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, slipping in public esteem, has been left with the dubious distinction of being graded by half the respondents as no better or no worse than his predecessors. More significantly for the country, perhaps, was the discovery that, given a hypothetical chance at a world reputation in one of five fields, Canadians put business, writing, sports and acting ahead of politics.

None of that came as any surprise to Richard Lipsey, the 58-year-old senior economic adviser to the C.D. Howe Institute, the Toronto-based think tank, and professor of economics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Said Lipsey: “Historically, the difference between Canadians and Americans was that Americans feared government while Canadians regarded themselves as partners with government in fighting a cruel environment. But that is changing. Everywhere I go, people are becoming fed up with government. The cynicism with which Americans have always regarded government is becoming quite a force in this country. We see government as more and more rapacious.” Added Lipsey: “People don’t know what they want, but they know it isn’t style, and I don’t think the parties have any idea of what people want. The political situation in this country is up for grabs unlike any time since the 1930s.”

If Lipsey is right, the history of the country provides few clues about where Canadians, and those entrusted with their political fortunes, go from here. One fanciful clue may lie in the year of Canadian Confederation, 1867. That, in the ancient Chinese calendar, was a Year of the Cat. Those born under the sign are described as reserved and virtuous, calm and placid, even timid. Says a book on Asian astrology, cat people hate “anything that disturbs their quiet life or poses problems for them to solve.” For many Canadians, government and the political process itself pose problems—but problems that some choose to ignore or to set aside in favor of a quieter life.