We Are Canadian

The 17th year-end poll finds a confident population shifting its focus towards renovating the social safety net. Tax relief can wait—it is time to fix health care and other problems.

Robert Sheppard December 25 2000

We Are Canadian

The 17th year-end poll finds a confident population shifting its focus towards renovating the social safety net. Tax relief can wait—it is time to fix health care and other problems.

Robert Sheppard December 25 2000

Boring? Moi? For being Canadian? I don’t think so. What’s more, fully 70 per cent of my compatriots agree with me. So what that most Americans see us as a giant Minnesota. Or that the world has a long history of dissing Canada—a “few acres of snow,” sniffed Voltaire, not even worth having a decent war over. That is not the way we see ourselves. The 17th annual Maclean's year-end poll, conducted this year in partnership with the Global Television Network, dared to suggest: “Some consider Canada to be a boring country where nothing exciting happens.” And seven out of 10 respondents snorted: “Boring? Not in my backyard.” Excitement even verges on the giddy (80 per cent or more rejecting the boring thesis) in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan. And a solid majority of Quebecers (58 percent), bless their sardonic Gallic hearts, feel that the old shoe they call Canada still has some zip to it.

OK, so maybe we are not all Jim Carreys (though we do seem to produce more than our share of international funnymen). But at the turn of the millennial wheel, Canadians may be excused for a certain amount of collective swagger. Confident about the future? No question, an attitude surprisingly shared by groups that have been shortchanged in the recent past—young people, for instance, who came of age in a time of government cutbacks and a stubbornly jobless recovery. Canadians are also, ahem, very sexually satisfied—judging by what they tell pollsters (page 38). And the poll finds a population almost vitriolically dismissive of politicians even as it is not quite ready to give up on government as provider and, last month, voted the old gang back in Ottawa.

This is a tough crowd. Tolerant but quirky, its opinions ebbing and flowing with all the subtlety of a lava lamp. Some examples:

• A clear majority would insist that new immigrants adopt Canadian values. But large majorities also believe strongly in affirmative-action programs for visible minorities.

• Recognize gay marriage? Only 40 per cent agree. But suggest banning homosexuals from teaching school and 67 per cent will run you out of town on a rail. Fewer than 20 per cent think a prohibition on gay teachers is appropriate.

• On the world stage, we still see ourselves as boy scouts, proud of our peacekeeping tradition, eager to do more—as long as we don’t have to expand the military budget.

• On the home front, we are much tougher-minded: 75 per cent of Canadians feel that young offenders, regardless of age, should be tried for violent crimes in adult— not youth—courts, a finding that is consistent across the ages from teens to pensioners.

Call it the contradictory Canuck, the unbearable pragmatism of being Canadian. “Canadians are probably the most non-ideological people in all the world,” suggests Allan Gregg, chairman of The Strategic Counsel, the Toronto-based consulting firm that conducted the poll. Pragmatism, however, does not mean there are no grumpy parts.

British Columbia, with an unpopular provincial government and an economy not firing on all cylinders, is noticeably out of sorts. Quebec has a significant number of its citizenry still concerned about jobs. Saskatchewan, with a farm economy in the doldrums, has the most worriers about the future. (Mind you, as noted, they are also among the least bored with Canada.) But asked to look back 25 years, 50 per cent across the country think life is much better today: there is more opportunity, more tolerance, better physical well-being (page 58). Quebecers particularly enjoy the amount of sexual freedom they have now.

And the nation’s young, the 20-year-olds, feel they have high ethical standards, higher at least than those of their self-indulgent boomer parents.

The flies in the ointment—and they are giant, New Brunswick-sized ones: the sense that health care, the quality of the environment, the education system, feelings of personal safety and ethical standards have all lost ground in the past quarter-century. This is part of a trend. For five years now, social concerns have been creeping up the ladder of what Canadians are fretting about. For two years straight, they have topped the Maclean's year-end survey, part of an increasingly entrenched belief, says Gregg, that many of the country’s key social institutions—hospitals, schools, social services—are broke and need fixing.

So what is the agenda here for federal and provincial governments? And who is driving it?

Restoring the health-care system is clearly at the top of the list, cited by 35 per cent of respondents as Canada’s biggest problem (page 48). If you want to know why, ask someone like Jane Don, a 33-year-old mother of two in Bur-ington, Ont., and one of the 1,400 Canadians who took the time to answer our questionnaire (page 52). Married, and a work-from-home mom, Don says there was a noticeable difference in care during the birth of her daughter seven years ago and that of her son, who is 3 1/2. “For my daughter,” she says, “I had a nurse with me the entire time I was in labour and the doctor was always nearby.” For her son, there were two nurses and one doctor for five women, and when they all went into the final stages of labour within a few hours of each other the medical staff was constantly rushing from patient to patient. As a result, Don says, she picked up an infection and had to go on antibiotics.

Don is not bitter at the system and sides with the vast majority of Canadians--in every province--who want to see more money shifted from other government programs to health care. No parallel private system for her. But the two-tier idea, the bogeyman of the recent federal election campaign, is clearly gaining ground, dividing Canadians along regional and perhaps generational lines. In three of the four western provinces, a majority of those surveyed are willing to consider a two-tier system.  The exception--another Canadian quirk--was Alberta (60 per cent against), the province that many see as pioneering that idea with its new law to expand the range of private clinics. Fifty-five per cent of Quebecers, who have seen their government shipping cancer patients to New England to alleviate backlogs, are also open to a parallel system. So, too, are those who are least likely to call on its services—the young. While 50 per cent of Canadians reject a private system operating alongside medicare, two-thirds of those in their 20s are prepared to give it a try.

If there is one group that stands out in the survey, it is that Gen X cohort, the one that history and a zigzag economy almost forgot. Now in their late 20s and mid-30s, they graduated high school in the teeth of a recession. Some faced two—in the early 1980s and again in 1990. They were always the last on and the first off the job wheel.


The Canadian Story

The poll respondents’ Canada includes the CBC. Only one third want to see the public broadcaster sold to the private sector, with backing for privatization highest in the Prairies (42%) and among men generally (40%), and lowest in Ontario (30%) and among women (27%).

A significant majority—61 per cent, fairly evenly distributed across the country—also approves of rules requiring a high proportion of Canadian content on TV and radio.

But the consensus slips on the issue of foreign ownership of the media. Only 50 per cent say Canada should restrict outsiders’ control of the press and broadcasting, with support for restrictions especially low in Quebec at 39 per cent.

We Like the Money, but Don’t Call Us Americans

It may come as some surprise that fully 45 per cent of respondents agree that Canada should have a common currency with the United States. The poll participants also show relatively tough law-and-order attitudes, and some willingness to consider a private component to the health-care system. But it would be a mistake to interpret these views as a growing Americanization of Canada.

Q: Should Canada move closer to the United States in its laws and attitudes?

Agree   21%  Disagree  72%


As recently as four years ago, Maclean's was documenting their sad fate. Burdened with college debt, working two and three jobs at a time, they were being told by their teachers not to expect a smooth career path like the milk-fed baby boomers who went before. Ah, but never underestimate the value of adversity. Coral Edmonds didn’t. The 25-year-old from Prince George, B.C., is on her third career. She tried nursing school for a couple of years but didn’t like it. She was a cook in a restaurant briefly. Now as she waits to write the provincial test to be a registered massage therapist, she has started her own business, giving relaxation massage in people’s homes. Says Edmonds: “I got tired of waiting for something to come up and just made it happen.” Edmonds laughs that most of her friends are “still lost” in college or university courses trying to find their way. Some others in that age bracket, mid-20s to mid-30s, are among the high-tech wealthy whose sudden affluence is changing the complexion of upscale neighbourhoods, cottage country and, in some cases, charitable giving. As a group, they appear to be a step outside the rest of the country on a handful of important issues.

On the national mood, for example, Canadians as a whole are, well, modestly bullish. They are slightly more optimistic about the future this year than last or of the past seven years, when the poll has posed that question. Importantly, they are also much less pessimistic than before. (We are Canadians, after all: we hedge our bets.) But those in the under-39-year-old crowd are much more confident still than other Canadians. Fully 67 per cent of those in their 20s and 30s expect their personal prosperity to increase over the next few years, while only 45 per cent of Canadians overall do. And younger Canadians are much more optimistic about their own personal financial situations than they are about the country’s: they expect to get ahead.

Younger Canadians, too, are much more tolerant of diversity and much more open to change on the health-care front than their elders: by significant margins, they are the most willing to embrace a two-tier system. And in some respects, they reflect older values: among 20-year-olds, the flame of bilingualism, dimming elsewhere, still commands majority respect; and while 52 per cent of Canadians feel governments are trying to do too much and should be cut back, 51 per cent of those under 30 feel it would be wrong to reduce the size of government and have it do less.

Is this the writing on the wall, a young person's guide to the Canada of tomorrow? (Fix the dream, governments, or we do-it-yourselfers will take it on and make you irrelevant.) Perhaps. But this is a country of many constituencies and many quirky contradictions. Fear of a high-tech brain drain, caused in part by a perceived flight from high taxes, tops everyone’s to-do list. But ask Canadians how they would divvy up each $100 Ottawa had to spend from government surpluses and tax cuts come in as a third option ($26), well behind paying down the national debt ($32) and increasing spending on health and other social programs ($42).


Stop or I'll... Negotiate

Canadian peacekeepers might want to brush up on their diplomatic skills. Contrasting responses to two poll questions suggest Canadians aren’t particularly eager to give them better hardware to do their job, given other considerations.

82% Agree that Canada should be a leader in peacekeeping efforts around the world

But asked to choose between investing in a stronger and more up-to-date military or funding housing for all homeless in Canada, there is no contest:

Stronger military 19%

Housing the homeless 75%

Hard-nosed on Crime

No issue tests the defining Canadian characteristics of compassion and tolerance as sorely as crime.

Agreeing that Canada should:

75%  Try all young offenders, regardless of age, who are accused of violent crimes in adult court

55%  Have a death penalty for first-degree murder

Disagreeing that Canada should:

34%  Ensure that prison is used only as a punishment of last resort

On the other hand, concerns are all relative. When asked to choose between building more prisons to keep offenders off the streets for their whole sentence or funding affordable, high-quality child care for all parents, the respondents’ preference is clear:

More prisons   23%

Funding child care 70%

What is more, those hard attitudes do not translate into permission for teachers to go tough on kids.

Q: Schools should be allowed, in some circumstances to use physical punishment on students.

Agree   31%

Disagree 64%


Asked to elaborate on the country they want to have in the next few years, Canadians set among their top-ranked priorities: keeping skilled workers, eliminating homelessness and becoming a world leader in environmental protection. More and more of what are called quality-of-life issues—as opposed to bread-and-butter economic concerns—are coming to the fore, demanding attention. And different groups are driving different concerns. Sometimes it’s women (the gender gap has been growing on social issues in recent years); sometimes it is the elderly or the young who appear to be leading the charge. What underlies this uptick in Canada’s social conscience? Is it simple consideration of others in a time of relative plenty? Or does it stem from a collective desire for stability, a sense that—now that you ask—things are going pretty well right now, let’s not rock the boat? (Or go easy on those young offenders who may?) The data can be read either way.

Since You're Here, Act Canadian

In Canada—a land of immigrants and the home of multiculturalism—the prevailing attitude, in fact, is that those who are allowed in should act Canadian.

Q: Canada should...insist that immigrants adopt Canadian values

Agree 71%

Disagree 20%

Increase the number of immigrants each year

Agree  33%

Disagree 49%

Don’t rock the boat. As we officially enter the 21st century, a profound sense of “coping” (as Gregg calls it) is sweeping the land and, with it, sweeping away our sense of ourselves as a dull people in a cold country. “I laughed when I was asked that boring question,” chuckles Roland Chamberlain, a 34-year-old mining administrator from remote Baie Verte, Nfld., who took part in the Maclean’s survey. “We’re not like America. And there is certainly not much happening way up here. But it’s never boring.” Chamberlain is a winter-sport guy, so he likes the Newfoundland snow. He likes the fact, too, that he can jet away for business meetings in Halifax or Toronto and not feel part of the rat race. And though these are down times in the gold-mining industry, he is feeling “kind of all right” about his own prospects. Kind of all right. We are Canadian. Hear us roar. E3

Embracing Free Trade

In 1988, with the pending Canada-U.S. free trade agreement the hottest topic in that fall’s general election, it was also the top issue in Maclean's year-end poll, cited by 42 per cent of respondents. The opposition Liberals campaigned against the deal and many Canadians feared for their jobs, but Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives returned to power and the agreement went into effect on Jan. 1, 1989.

Two years later, free trade simply disappeared as a concern, with negligible numbers of respondents mentioning it in subsequent polls, even with the North American Free Trade Agreement extending the trade zone to include Mexico in 1994. This year’s poll shows how free trade has simply become part of the Canadian economic fabric.

Q: Canada should have free trade agreements with many countries

Agree 71%

Disagree  17%