BUSINESS WATCH

A frightening threat to Canadian values

Pollster Allan Gregg fears that Canadians are no longer willing to be ‘more generous, more tolerant, more peaceable’

Peter C. Newman March 26 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

A frightening threat to Canadian values

Pollster Allan Gregg fears that Canadians are no longer willing to be ‘more generous, more tolerant, more peaceable’

Peter C. Newman March 26 1990

A frightening threat to Canadian values

BUSINESS WATCH

Pollster Allan Gregg fears that Canadians are no longer willing to be ‘more generous, more tolerant, more peaceable’

PETER C. NEWMAN

Chances are that 1990 will be marked in history not only as a season of momentous international upheaval, but as the year something fundamental shifted in the Canadian character. “I’m frightened about what I’m finding out there,” pollster Allan Gregg told me recently. “Canadians have historically felt inferior about a lot of things, but not about their inherent goodness. It has almost been a sense of moral superiority—that while we may not be economic or military leaders, we’re somehow better people. That’s why we get so excited about peacekeeping assignments, exporting environmental technology and, in general, leading the world by example. That used to be the Canadian character; that was what made us different. We considered ourselves to be more generous, more tolerant, more peaceable.”

Gregg, who continually surveys the national mood for commercial clients as well as the federal Tory party, has detected a sullen change in this tolerant view of the world. The change runs far deeper than angry ripostes to headlines about Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie declaring themselves English-only, or Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa disallowing outdoor signs in languages other than French. “The reaction I’m reading is just not consistent with the Canadian character as I know it,” Gregg has concluded.

Part of the rapid change in Canadian attitudes undoubtedly reflects the accelerating pace of international events; nearly every morning that we turn on the TV or radio news, there’s almost a new world out there. Suddenly, anything seems possible, and the idea of a different kind of Canada—or no Canada at all—no longer falls beyond discussion.

“I still haven’t found a cogent explanation for the phenomenon of transition around the globe,” Gregg said. “It’s as if a whole bunch of world leaders had suddenly taken LSD. Domestically, it does mean that the status quo is not going to be maintained, and that’s tremendously unsettling because Canadians have smugly

subscribed to the notion that progress in predictable directions is normal. Now, a millennium-anxiety has taken hold, and a lot of traditional guidelines for individual and collective behavior have been shattered, leaving most Canadians disoriented and confused.”

Gregg isn’t sure what comfort, if any, our politicians can provide, but believes that most voters are looking for well-motivated rather than charismatic leaders—someone to spearhead a last-ditch attempt to mould order out of Canada’s current chaos, as globalization and free trade with the United States rob us of individuality. In a 1989 Maclean ’s/Decima poll, Canadian and American respondents were asked whether they had ever experienced physical assault or robbery; if they owned handguns, and if they would use them; whether they obtained illegal drugs; and if they had ever been victims of racism. “Except for the question on handguns, there was no difference in replies between Canadians and Americans,” Gregg reported, “which signifies that we’re going through a period of pretty significant change.” He added: “Canadians seem to be saying to themselves, ‘I want to be different, yet my life is increasingly the same.’ It’s very difficult because we don’t have a map to drive

down these new roads. In my own business, for example, I’ve always believed that experience was worth something, but now I’m being constantly confounded when I look at a piece of new data which is totally inconsistent with my view of the world. For example, nearly every survey we do shows that the family is more important to people and that people want to slow down professionally; yet the same data indicate that they’re personally more ambitious than ever and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve their objectives. People just can’t orient themselves in a world that’s changing so rapidly.”

Gregg emphasizes the Meech Lake debate as the flash point for most of the national discord, with every region of the country hanging its growing grievances on the constitutional impasse. Atlantic Canada believes Ottawa has abandoned it for not voting Tory last time out; Ontario is experiencing the “thud theory” (he who falls from the highest height, lands with the biggest thud); the Prairies are convinced Central Canada is cooking up conspiracies to subvert local prosperity; while British Columbians remain genuinely convinced that no one represents or understands them.

Because Ottawa has championed winning approval for Meech as the be-all and end-all of the country’s destiny—the only path to a Canadian future—citizens of the regions outside Quebec are asking why so little is being done to resolve their own problems. “You almost get the sense,” said Gregg, “that Canadians are beginning to feel fairness and tolerance are not the operative rules of the game right now. The rules have changed, we have to get tough with one another, and being intolerant and unfair is not only countenanced but the only way out.”

With half or more of Canadians west of the Lakehead, according to Gregg, now believing that the country would be better off with only one official language, the unwritten contract of the Trudeau era has finally been broken. That pact called for acceptance of French as an alternate language across the country, giving Quebecers access to public services in their own tongue. In return, Quebec would accept Confederation and keep quiet. For a while, at least, the historic bonne entente seemed to be working. Then came Botmassa’s sign law, Bill 178, which took away a basic right of Quebec’s English-speaking citizens.

Some of Quebec’s most important business leaders have since gone on record favoring independence. “That brashness of the new Quebec,” noted Gregg, “is very different from the whining, inward-turning threats during the Lévesque period, when French Canada seemed to be saying, ‘We want to separate, but don’t really dare.’ Now, a lot of Quebecers seem to be saying, ‘Hey, we’re ready to leave, and we know we’ll survive.’ ”

But Gregg says that the most dangerous national trend is that growing pluralities, both French and English, seem to be gleefully anticipating the unravelling of Meech, so they can pioneer a new style of nationhood in their own image.

That would mean the death of the Canadian dream.