THE PEOPLE SAY THAT THEY ARE OPTIMISTIC AND HAPPY. STILL, THERE ARE DEEP WORRIES
ALLAN R. GREGGJanuary21989
A SPOTLIGHT ON CANADIANS
THE PEOPLE SAY THAT THEY ARE OPTIMISTIC AND HAPPY. STILL, THERE ARE DEEP WORRIES
ALLAN R. GREGG
As Canadians look back in 1988 and ahead to the new year, it seems that citizens are doing some soul-searching. The fifth annual Maclean's/Decima poll indicates that Canadians are more satisfied now with their own economic situations than during any of the past four surveys. In fact, coupled with earlier Decima polling, those surveys suggest that Canadians generally are happier now—not simply with their economic fortunes but also with the direction the country is headed—than at any time since the early 1970s, when inflation began to erode real incomes. Back then, Canadians began to wonder for the first time since the Second World War whether progress was an inevitable consequence of nationhood.
Since that time, the notion that “progress is normal” has been bombarded by events and experiences that have directly contradicted a comfortable postwar set of beliefs. Most recently, the recession of 1981-1982 caused many people to wonder whether the country’s traditional ways of day-to-day living and solving national problems were appropriate for future realities. The perennial threat of nuclear war and the 1983 American invasion of Grenada shook the traditional insularity of Canadians, made many feel that even if Canada did not influence the world, certainly the world was going to influence Canada. The stock market crash of 1987, while touching only a few directly, provided further collective evidence that something “out there” was definitely amiss.
Bobby McFerrin sings Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and it goes to the top of the charts. But beneath all the outward happiness, it would appear that Canadians are worried. At the same time as most Canadians polled report unprecedented levels of satisfaction with their existing situations, a majority also feels that it is more dangerous now to walk Canada’s city streets alone than it was 10 years ago. Canadians sense that real strides are being made in attaining equality between the sexes at the same time that three out of five believe that violence against women is escalating. Many report that they are no less impatient with other people than they were in the past, but say that racism may be on the rise, threatening the “peaceable kingdom.”
An overwhelming majority of those polled say that they are optimistic about their economic future. But at the same time, three out of four people predict that the average person will be unable to afford to buy a family home within the city limits of major urban centres by the year 2001. And how deep is the optimism when 44 per cent of poll respondents look to the next century—a dozen years away—and hold out the prospect of being unable to drink water from the kitchen tap?
People are happy but also seem to be asking what kind of future and society lie ahead. Polling trends over the years indicate that people feel many foreseen changes will be immutable. Neither they nor their governments will be able to stem the tide of change, but will merely manage it and, hopefully, cope with it. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many are facing “millennium anxiety,” a theme that runs throughout the 1988 Maclean ’s/Decima poll findings.
It is within that context that the population’s roller-coaster ambivalence toward free trade can be understood. In 1985, when the subject was first seriously broached in the Maclean’s/Decima Poll, 75 per cent of those polled felt that free trade with the United States was a “good idea.” But the initial support for free trade began to erode as the arguments against it took on salience for many. That process gained impetus with John Turner’s charge that Brian Mulroney, with free trade, had “sold us out.” But in the end, more than enough Canadian voters indicated that Turner had not convinced them. In doing so, a substantial segment of the electorate decided that they were willing to chance a change of direction for the future. At the same time, as the Maclean’s/Decima Poll indicates, many remain uncertain about what that future may bring.
And so, people know things are good but have been taught that they can no longer expect progress as a given. It is only recently that the lament of business and government leaders has focused on the population’s expectations—saying national problems have their root in a public belief that government can solve all problems, that people can continue to spend beyond their means and that wages and salaries can rise forever. In many ways, the polling reflects a more mature, grown-up and realistic Canada. It suggests, further, that this lament in 1988 is hollow and that Canadians as a people have experienced a crash of expectations.
What many Canadians seem to be saying is that, economically, things may be as good in this country as they are going to get. There seems to be a shift from quantity of life to quality of life—an orientation away from “more” and toward “better.” Three or four years ago, upper-income earners were indicating in the polls that they were prepared to work hard and sacrifice almost anything to get that new BMW. Now, they seem to be saying that maybe a new car is not so important to them; that they would like to slow down and spend more time with their families (or, perhaps, start one if the quest for that BMW had diverted their attention in the past from having children); and that maybe, just maybe, what they would like to do now is throw the kids in the back seat of their car (even if it is not a BMW) and drive to the cottage. But then, if it is polluted there, they are going to be angry.
Lower-income Canadians indicate that what is important to them now is fixing up the school system so that their children will have a chance that might increasingly be denied to them. They also seek assurances that Canada’s health care system will operate as it has in the past to guarantee that they can have dignity and comfort at least in sickness, if not in health.
Allan Gregg is chairman of Decima Research Ltd.
What is being witnessed in the polls may be that different segments of the population are arriving at the same conclusion, even if they are viewing the world from diametrically opposite perspectives. People are seeking a safer, quieter—indeed, maybe even a slower—existence. And the evidence suggests that this is not unique to Canada. For a Republican president-elect to call for a gentler America is a far cry from the truculent nationalism that “Love it or leave it” signalled in the 1960s.
Those shifts in collective North American outlook also would seem to indicate that events like the PCB fire at StBasile-le-Grand, Que., last summer are newsworthy in the late 1980s not simply because the visuals provide a great backdrop for the insatiable maw of television news. Concerns about the environment are real, not simply a luxury afforded by good economic times. And the evidence seems to suggest that, as more and more people seek a better quality of life, they will no longer tolerate compromises or trade-offs that threaten health, safety and the planet.
And as part of the soul-searching, Canadians (arguably for the first time in this century) are looking at the world and wondering what their role in it is. The unease about free trade suggests that most have yet to feel confident about their ability to answer that question. That Brian Mulroney and free trade finally triumphed when Canada seriously considered its future suggests that Canadians at least know part of that answer. And the answer seems to be that, whatever the role, Canada must have a part in the world theatre; that it cannot stand in the wings because then others will write the lines for this country.
Two years ago, I participated in one of the most fascinating and illuminating studies Decima ever conducted. From a long list, we asked Canadians whether our country was better than, worse than or the same as other Western industrialized countries. We looked at our musicians, our medical expertise, our military might, our aggressiveness and more than 50 other variables that we thought Canadians might use to define our unique identity. Of the total list, three attributes stood out where poll respondents formed a consensus—that, as a peopie, Canadians were more peaceable, more tolerant and more charitable than other nations. That may not equal the hairy-chested foundation upon which a nation’s patriotism normally is thought to be forged, but it does speak volumes about how Canadians see themselves.
Canadians do not seem to aspire to military supremacy or even to paramountcy in economic affairs. But they do feel that there is an example to be provided for the world—that moral leadership is a role that Canada can play internationally. The Ben Johnson affair, and the world attention focused on Canada as a consequence, shamed Canada for that reason, unquestionably more than any other. It was not because Canada lost an Olympic gold medal, for Canadians rarely expect to win outright. It was not because of failing to compete, for Canadians seem to have concluded that compete they must and will. When Olympic officials stripped Ben Johnson of his medal for using steroids, the reaction was dismay, even grief, because Canadians are not prepared to compete and win at any price.
In 1988, the Maclean’s I Decima Poll indicates, Canadians know that there is a place for them in the world, and that, over time, they will prevail in an uncertain future. Many are still unsure about which directions and answers are required to provide the confidence to take the next step forward. In 1988, Canadians are soul-searching.
Note: Poll questions in charts on this and following pages are abbreviated. Figures are rounded percentages and may not add up to TOO when irrelevant responses are eliminated. The national poll, of 1,500 people, conducted from Nov. 22 to Nov. 25, is considered accurate for the whole population within 2.6 percentage points above or below the figure given 19 times out of 20.
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