The perception gap

January 2 1995

The perception gap

January 2 1995

A nation transformed


For all the turmoil of the past decade, Canadians have not lost faith in themselves


"A confident nation speaks up” was the headline of the inaugural issue of the Maclean’s/Decima poll a decade ago. Our first nationwide sounding of public opinion made it clear that, after 20 years of virtually uninterrupted Liberal rule, the government of Pierre Trudeau had become associated in the public’s mind with excessive intervention into the private sector, unnecessary conflict with the provinces and an unrelenting and indefensible commitment to the status quo. Against this backdrop, it was not surprising that Canadians had just embraced a new Conservative government that represented a more laissez-faire approach to business and promised a “Time for change.” Indeed, in 1984, the people not only felt change was inevitable—they anticipated and welcomed it.

Compared with a decade ago, the For all the turmoil of the past decade,

behavior of young people is now... 1 1

ü Canadians have not lost faith in themselves

Much better



Somewhat better

About the same

Somewhat worse Btï'tü

Much worse Iktü

Do you agree or disagree that... ?

The next generation will probably not be as dedicated to hard work as were previous generations.

Strongly agree It Elfi

Agree EMM

Disagree EEEB

Strongly disagree BEŒI

In the years ahead, the family will become more important than ever.

Strongly agree Ikjjfe1

Agree Kfrfól

Disagree EEÍÜ

Strongly disagree

Percentage of respondents aged 18 to 24 who said that young __ people’s behavior is now worse EEI

Of those aged 65 and older


Stayed about the same PiiV/Ê


Little could we have known that a decade later

this confidence would deteriorate into such a virulent antipathy towards Brian Mulroney’s government that it would produce the most resounding electoral defeat of an incumbent in Canadian history. But this year’s poll makes it palpably clear that it was not only the fortunes of the Mulroney government that suffered in those 10 years. Canadians, too, feel they have been traumatized by events and let down by their leaders, and have seen the optimism they had about the future contradicted by their day-to-day lives.

In many ways, this finding should be a surprise to no one, for between 1984 and 1993, Canada and Canadians went through a seemingly neverending series of anguished debates and setbacks. I was the Tory party pollster, and g of course Mulroney has to 2j take his share of the blame I for those problems. But g there were also larger forces I at work. The promise of free I trade (lest we forget, 94 per cent of Canadians thought it was a “good idea” in 1984) eroded into the bitter and divisive election of 1988, which in turn segued, without pause, into the worst recession in the memory of anyone under 50. Repeated promises of deficit reduction produced little except more and new taxes—and a further escalation of the nation’s debt. And the resolve to end Quebec’s “humiliation” at being left out of the 1982 patriation of the Constitution led to a threeyear preoccupation with an issue that totally failed to square with the population’s growing concern over the economy and the prospect of unemployment.

For all this, we still believe that “Canada is the best country in the world in which to live.” Today, however, we embrace this notion with significantly less ardor than we did in 1984. (While the overall support for Canada as “best country” has gone down only slightly, from 1984’s phenomenal 96 per cent to 91 per cent now, there has been a

big drop-off in enthusiasm.

Respondents going beyond “agree” to say they “strongly agree” with the sentiment are down to 39 per cent now from 55 per cent then.) In fact, this year’s poll finds more Canadians believing that almost all facets of society that we tested had deteriorated rather than improved. Two notable exceptions, where respondents still see improvement: Canada’s international reputation and the prospects for women’s advancement in the workplace.

When the findings are put in context, however, it seems clear that the erosion of confidence has been pronounced in two areas. A decade ago, the pervasive unhappiness with an incumbent administration might have caused Canadians to question whether government could still provide for the public good. But, in fact, the population still believed that the political system could at least arbitrate its differences and add definition to what in fact was in the public interest. And for all the dinner-table derision, politicians were still conceded as the stewards of that prerogative. Today, however, half of the population reports a growing gap between those who govern and their constituents, and a majority of these constituents believes the reason is simply that our politicians and other power brokers “no longer represent the interests of average Canadians.”

For a nation that looked to government, historically, for everything from building its transportation and communications systems, to helping those who could not help themselves, to staving off the influences of foreign domination, to pro-

tecting minority interests—in short, to defining the population’s uniqueness as a people and a nation—this change is something akin to being orphaned. Canadians no longer defer to the authority figures they traditionally relied upon for guidance, answers and protection.

No less unsettling, the decade past has also shaken Canadians’ faith in the inevitability of economic and financial progress. Since the Second World War, generations of Canadians were brought up to believe that not only was progress desirable, it was also to be expected. But the political dislocation, social upheaval and technological change that were hallmarks of the past decade taught Canadians that it was unwise, if not impossible, to cling to that core belief. Left without their most potent philosophical compass, Canadians lost much of the unifying focus that had underpinned a stable and civil society. Put simply, Canadians asked: “If I can no longer believe that if I work hard I can be anything I want, and if I can no longer believe that my children can expect to be better off than I am, what can I believe?” The absence of any widely held answer to this question simply added to the national unease.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, this decline in the nation’s fortunes is not perceived to be rooted in the erosion of the

Over the past 10 years, the healthcare system has...


Stayed about the same Improved



Percentage who said the health-care system had deteriorated, by province:



Tracking the most important issue

I Unemployment/ economy

! Government/Gov’t spending/deficit

National unity/ the Constitution Taxes/GST Environment

Free trade Crime/violence Other/don’t Know

Over the past 10 years, the gap between the wealthy and the middle class has...

Narrowed significantly IE

Narrowed somewhat ME

Stayed about the same Increased somewhat increased significantly KMIM

What is the main reason for the increase?*

Tax loopholes for the wealthy fcfcM Higher taxes on the middle class EVM

Ä decline in job and financial

opportunities for the _

middle class WMl

The best education is available only to the wealthy MMjflh

Ä decline in the middle-class work ethic HfflM

All of the above likWi

*Asked of those who said the gap had increased.

Percentage who blamed a decline in job opportunities, by age:





Over the past 10 years, the gap between what is important to average Canadians and the elite has...

Narrowed IMfl4

Stayed about the same Increased


Over the past 10 years, relations between men and women in the home have...


Stayed about the same Improved




Have opportunities for women to move into senior positions in the workforce improved or worsened over the 10 years?


Worsened Stayed the same Improved


Worsened Stayed the same Improved



‘A lot of people are struggling in our economy and there is great distress about whether they can pay the rent or cover costs’

average Canadian’s own financial well-being. Instead, Canadians lay the blame for their problems and their lost sense of calm on a system that no longer appears to be working—be it judicial or governmental—and the changing behavior and values of “others”—be they young people or immigrants.

The picture that emerges is one of a people who still feel they have a great country and still believe they may be able to flourish in it. But many now complain of having to face ever-growing barriers that threaten the values they embrace and, consequently, stand in the way of the fulfilment of their aspirations. The distemper we note in these soundings of public opinion, in turn, is fuelled further by the conviction that these impediments are not of their own making, and, instead, have been erected and created by leaders who are in charge of a system that is breaking down and by fellow Canadians who fail to share their appreciation of those traditions and values. You can almost hear the frustrated voice of old Canada in this part of the data, bemoaning the fact that things are not the way they used to be. Rather than welcoming change, these Canadi-

ans now face the future with far more trepidation.

As negative as this analysis may seem, the poll also reveals a continued resilience in the Canadian spirit. Having detected a decline in their environment and noted their resulting disquiet, Canadians still feel they share enough common ground, that the country is sufficiently strong to weather these storms and, in the end, that they can regroup and overcome the adversity of the past 10 years. But the people also report that they will rely less than they have in the past on “others” and their traditional leaders to produce the solutions they seek. Instead, in search of a deeper root to anchor them from the dislocations produced all around them, Canadians have turned inward. They have become more consumed with family and with confronting problems they feel they themselves can resolve.

Not so much a “confident nation” any more, Canada nonetheless continues to be a resolute one—anxious and determined to see the deleterious trends reversed, yet still uncertain as to precisely how this will happen. While ironically, within this context, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien remains the most popular political leader in modem times, the poll responses give the sense Canadians will not wait forever for a more stable time to materialize. I sense equally that Canadians today are probably less able and willing to take another decade of the kind of battering they feel they have experienced over the past 10 years.

While the analogy is somewhat inelegant, the public condition today is similar to that of a person who has been assaulted unexpectedly and, in his view, without provocation. His first instinct is to curl up in a protective fetal position, waiting in trepidation for the next blow. For the time being, the assault appears to have stopped. If current conditions continue, Canadig ans—like this abused individual—will prob| ably recover and continue on their previous I course, bruised but no wiser as to why they 5 encountered this unpleasant experience. I But if the blows begin to rain down again, it I is just as likely that we will rise up, full of o fury, rather than put up with any more.

Allan R. Gregg is president of Toronto-based

of calm Decima Research.