Coming Of Age

After a rough ride, Canada’s mood has returned to the confident outlook found in 1984’s first year-end poll

Allan R. Gregg December 20 1999

Coming Of Age

After a rough ride, Canada’s mood has returned to the confident outlook found in 1984’s first year-end poll

Allan R. Gregg December 20 1999

Coming Of Age



After a rough ride, Canada’s mood has returned to the confident outlook found in 1984’s first year-end poll

Allan R. Gregg

Today, most people accept that to understand individuals fully, you must put their adult behaviour in the context of their childhood and adolescent experience. Their experiences structure their outlook and create a prism through which adults view their world. The same process holds for a nation. As we look into the abyss of 2000 and ask “What awaits us?”, it is useful to look back and ask other critical questions: “How did we get here, and how do we see ourselves as a consequence of this journey?” Some powerful clues come from the 15 previous annual polls that I and my associates have conducted for Macleans since 1984. They document the organic evolution of our popular culture and provide a rare insight into the type of people we have become.

Treasured values

Percentage of Canadians saying Canada can thnve in the new millennium by keeping its own values and not trying to become more like Americans

1984— Maclean's cover line declares “A confident nation speaks up”

Palpably relieved to be rid of the Trudeau legacy,

79 per cent of Canadians express optimism about the future. We recognize that the country, and perhaps even the next generation, face problems (principally unemployment), but view them as solvable aberrations. Newly elected Prime Minister Brian Mulroney s clarion call that Canada can be great again strikes a responsive chord. Fully 50 per cent of respondents say they turn to government to look after their best interests.

1985— “A disquieting mood”

Concerns over the economy are combined with the first murmurs of doubt about the notion of free trade. The number of Canadians looking to government to solve their problems drops to 42 per cent. The poll unearths a growing unease with a government focused on trade and the deficit—concerns the public does not share.

1986— “A volatile national mood”

The study finds a population shedding its idealism— questioning whether our problems indeed are solvable— in favour of pragmatism. A quarter of respondents express concern about the government’s preoccupation with free trade. While still optimistic about the future and satisfied with their personal situations, Canadians are disengaging from the political process and turning more inward, towards family and local community. Much of the analysis centres on a growing cynicism and concludes that we are on the threshold of profound change.

1987— “How we see ourselves”

The stock market crash signals for many the end of prosperity as a birthright. Concern over AIDS surfaces for the first time. The top issue is free trade, as dissatisfaction with Mulroney outstrips satisfaction. Canadians still hold out hope for the future

The poll suggests a rude awakening for Canadians. Underlying worries are more acute and multifaceted than ever before. Concerns now include: crime, rising racism, violence against women, AIDS and even the quality of drinking water. The “newness” of these problems brings an urgency to the question of what kind of future we face. We conclude that a crash of expectations is imminent as Canadians come to recognize that, as individuals and as a nation, we cannot shelter ourselves from a changing world.

1989—“An uncertain nation: Canada at a crossroads”

Little happiness is expressed over the re-election of the Mulroney government, as problems are seen to deepen and become more entrenched. Taxes and the new GST top the pop-

but are losing faith in the solutions put forward by their leaders, and in their leaders themselves.

1988—“A spotlight on Canadians”

illations concerns. Free trade—the cornerstone of the Mulroney re-election—is associated with job losses. The Meech Lake accord asks the public to focus inward on government-inspired constitutional issues at a time when Canadians are concentrating on acute personal problems and looming global crises. Macleans concludes that the poll “exposes deep and even bitter divisions among Canadians, not only over their definition of Canada and what it should be, but also between language groups and regions.” Government is now seen not as solving national problems but as making an uncertain world worse.

1990—“A shaken nation bares its anger”

“The rift between Quebec and English Canada has widened dangerously,” Macleans writes. “Canadians as a whole are suffering from a massive loss of confidence in politicians and in the political system itself.” For the first time, a greater number of respondents are less rather than more proud to be a Canadian than a decade before. We conclude that the “mood is grim and, politically, it verges on anarchy.” The findings, however, hint at what Canadians increasingly view as the antidote to “systems failure”—public consultation, as in the then-fashionable “town-hall meetings.”

1991—“An action plan for Canada”

Reflecting the popular belief that politicians and political solutions are completely incapable of solving national problems, Macleans organizes a citizens’ forum. This wholesale

Social issues are driven by nontraditional sources of power-women, young people and society’s have-nots

loss of faith is reflected in the highest levels of pessimism we have ever detected. In fact, as governments of every stripe and in every region align in an all-out effort to galvanize public support for their Charlottetown accord, Canadians report by a 3 to 1 margin that the recession is more important to them than constitutional reform. A new protest movement emerges as 46 per cent of Canadians say it is “likely” they will vote Reform.

1992— “Hope in hard times”

With the defeat of the Charlottetown accord, the public’s attention shifts back to the economy—the 64 per cent expressing concern in that area is the highest ever detected. The sense that “politicians just don’t get it” deepens, but the poll finds that much of the political alienation is linked directly to economic dissatisfaction. Rejecting not only their politicians but their solutions, Canadians are more prepared to entertain new solutions. We have come to accept that “the future is not what it used to be.” We see a population rejecting both radical Conservative philosophy and the ’60s notion that government can solve problems on its own.

1993— “How we differ”

The year sees the return to Liberal government and the ascendancy of the Bloc Québécois in Quebec. Regional differences in the nation’s issues agenda are

more pronounced than in years past—the West is increasingly concerned with government deficit and debt, while Central and Eastern Canada continue to be consumed with jobs and unemployment. Canadians seem to conclude that if no one is speaking for the national interest, “it is up to me to pursue my own.”

1994— “Looking inward”

The poll reveals “a sharp contrast between private satisfaction and public crankiness.” Pluralities to majorities report a worsening of everything from health care (44 per cent) and the quality of immigrants (47 per cent) to income disparities (60 per cent), the behaviour of young people (76 per cent) and violent crime (85 per cent). Yet Canadians also claim widespread satisfaction with their personal lives—relationships, families and even sex. There is a darker side—as one expert concludes: “We are becoming a nation of greedy, amoral self-promoters.”

1995— “Can Canada survive?”

The wafer-thin rejection of sovereignty in the Quebec referendum seems to fatigue English Canada and embolden Quebec. One out of three Canadians and one out of two Quebecers believe “the country will cease to exist by the end of the decade.” The population is on the verge of concluding that those aspects of Canadian life that had given us a common sense of pur-

Fingers on the pulse

There is no way we could draw the analysis we are presenting this year about Canada in the next millennium if we couldn’t base it on our previous years of research.

—Allan Gregg, chairman, The Strategic Counsel

The main constant in 16 years of Maclean’s year-end polls is Allan Gregg, who combines an insatiable curiosity about shifting attitudes in Canada with a rare ability to pluck the salient trends

from the mass of numbers generated in a complex national survey. For the first 11 years, Gregg conducted the poll with his associates at Toronto-based Decima Research. In 1995, he and three partners—Christopher Kelly, Michael Sullivan and Tim Woolstencroft—set up their own company to provide market

and public-opinion research services. As chairman of The Strategic Counsel, Gregg has continued to work closely with Maclean’s editors to shape the annual examination of the Canadian psyche. Sullivan, a partner at the firm, also plays a major role in the project, which, for the past five years, Maclean’s has undertaken in partnership with CBC-TV’s The Magazine. “We’re not only trying to make news,” says Gregg of his commitment to the annual sounding, “we’re trying to explain news.”

pose and character—opportunities for the next generation, the quality of our social programs and our national civility—will exist, if at all, only as pale imitations of what they once were. I conclude these are “the blackest polling results” I have ever examined.

1996— “Future imperfect: Canadians are ready for fundamental changes in society”

Canadians, it appears, have concluded that government simply is not an important force in their everyday lives. Asked which party has the best solution to their most pressing problem, 76 per cent say “none”—the oppositions ideas are no more appealing than the governments. Canadians finally seem ready to accept that “tough times require tough solutions.” Their ability to weather the storms of the early ’90s seems to give them confidence to find new solutions for the nation. For the first time, a sizable group (11 per cent) shifts its attention away from economic issues to social concerns.

1997— “A confident Canada: united by bedrock values—and a growing optimism”

Two years after just two per cent of respondents believed the deficit would be solved by 2000, 43 per cent feel it will at least be lower in “the next few years.” Rather than lashing out at those who might threaten stability, Canadians show a remarkable tolerance, even an embracing, of diversity. Canadas youth, far from reflecting the greed and myopia of an early decade, give voice to a greater acceptance of differences. Aging baby boomers also report their own quest for a more spiritual existence. But the population finds that the gap between rich and poor is widening.

1998— “Looking to the future: voices of tolerance”

We find that Canadians believe the “punches are still raining down, yet feel they are increasingly adept at fending them off. Still, uncertain of the end result, they are content to catch their breath and save their strength for future rounds.” Canadians offer a more positive outlook for themselves and the nation. Anxiety over our social system increasingly displaces economic concerns. The public appears to accept imperfect leaders for imperfect times. In short, still cautious Canadians seem more at peace with themselves, their leaders and their nation.

And now our 1999 year-end review in some ways comes full circle to our first cover line: “A confident nation speaks up.” Ninety per cent of Canadians claim we have a unique identity, separate and distinct from all other countries. Fully 77 per cent believe it is based on a strong sense of our own history and appreciation of what we have accomplished as a nation, rather than simply a desire not to be American. And with the same conviction, 81 per cent hold to the view that we can thrive in the next millennium by keeping our own values and not trying to become more like Americans. These powerful numbers reflect a confident nation at ease with its unique self

Yet we have also changed in profound ways. We have cast

off what now seems a laughably naïve notion that our problems are eminendy solvable aberrations. Now, we view them as complex, enduring and even immutable, but nonetheless manageable. In a phrase, the past 13 years caused us to grow up. And like an adult, while we may be less idealistic, outraged and invulnerable, we also feel wiser, more resilient and comfortable with ourselves. We have learned to appreciate who we are—even if we have difficulty defining our qualities. We are more confident today than any time in the past decade. We recognize problems will not go away simply because we wish them to.

Only a dwindling few still turn to government to look after their best interests. But we no longer view government as a retrograde force. Instead, we expect a balanced, pragmatic approach to problem-solving and look to government to arbitrate the public good when it comes in conflict with private interests. And while we acknowledge our increasing exposure to American influences and the threats these pose, we show no signs of succumbing.

The trauma of recession shook us out of our complacency. Our loss of faith in traditional leaders and authority nudged us towards greater selfreliance. The failure of the tried-and-true forced us to entertain new approaches and solutions. Looking into the abyss of national disintegration caused us to appreciate all that we had to lose.

Shifting priorities

Percentage citing various topics as “the most important problem facing Canada” over the years

■■ Social services/ ■■ Unemployment/ health/education economy ■“ Taxes/GST Government/

Our national focus now turns, for the first time in at least two decades, to social concerns—to the quality of health care, to the future of education, to the plight of those for whom prosperity is elusive. These concerns are driven by nontraditional sources of power—women, young people and society’s have-nots. This is a new dynamic. The issues of the past 15 years—free trade, the GST, constitutional reform and deficit reduction—have not emanated from public opinion. They were the concerns of government, bureaucratic business leaders and those who shared the beliefs of those elites.

Now, the agenda is shifting. The demand for change comes from a constituency whose voice has rarely been heard in the ’80s and ’90s. And what it is demanding is not to ask ourselves what we want to become in the future, but what will we seek to preserve from our past. EH]