WHAT WE BELIEVE
MACLEAN'S POLL 2006
We want to ban porn. We’re unsure about abortion. But gay adoption is fine. Just how did we get here?
In late 2003, around the time our government began experimenting in earnest with legalizing gay marriage and decriminalizing marijuana, The Economist pronounced— rather grudgingly, and with all sorts of caveats—that Canada had become “rather cool.” Not cold. Cool. It was a giddy moment, and we’ve grown quite attached to this view of our country, forgetting perhaps that Canada the Cool—the Open-minded, the Progressive, the Inclusive—is actually a very modern concept. As recently as the early ’70s, nobody would have accused us of that. Back then, contentious issues were bubbling to the surface. Activists, academics and policy wonks squabbled over how to establish feasible guidelines for gender equality, bilingualism and multiculturalism overnight. In 1975, Reginald W. Bibby, then an assistant professor of sociology at York University, took this charged moment as a perfect opportunity to conduct one of the first-ever wide-scale surveys designed to map out the values, attitudes and beliefs espoused by Canadians. As it turned out, your average Canadian circa 1975—despite a probable affinity for Bad Company and K.C. & The Sunshine Band—was pretty square. More than a third of us, for instance, believed that a woman shouldn’t work outside the home if her husband was capable of supporting her. Half of us believed that black people and white people should not marry. Three quarters of us believed homosexuality was aberrant— and abhorrent. “The fact of the matter is,” says Bibby, “the data back then really shows that bigotry was alive and well. We were pretty down on a lot of groups.”
111 1975, one in three
Canadians believed that
married women should not be employed if their husbands could support them. (Today it’s one in 10.)
of Canadians say recreational marijuana use is okay
But even then, it was clear that baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1964— held markedly different views from their parents and grandparents. As a group, they
were veering off into some trippy social territory. “In a number of areas, like homosexuality, there was a dramatic, geometric jump in approval,” says Bibby, now a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge. He continued his research, now referred to as the Project Canada Survey Series, for the next 30 years, presenting boomers with the same questions every five years, and comparing their answers to those of Canadians younger and older. His data, to be published this fall in a book called The Boomer Factor: What Canada’s Most Famous Generation is Leaving Behind, explores how this generation has reformed, reshaped and reimagined the country, and the attitudinal legacy boomers will leave behind as their years of influence draw to a close.
Bibby’s findings—to which Maclean’s was given exclusive advance access—illustrate how, in only three decades, we have transformed ourselves from a relatively homogenous group into one of the most pluralistic societies in the world. More than anything, says Bibby, Canadians today identify personal freedom as our No. 1 goal—above family life, friendship, a comfortable life, or a rewarding career. And because we demand the freedom to make our own choices, the thinking goes, we’d best be willing to grant the same privilege to others—to live and let live. Which, it turns out, is what we’ve done. “Over a very short period of time,” says Bibby, “we’ve taken a multi-everything outlook in Canada.”
of Canadians approve of, or accept? the idea of gay couples adopting children
Men Women Approval of homosexuality (1975) (2005) Approval of gay marriage (2005)
Today, we can see this philosophy starkly reflected in our views on non-traditional lifestyles and family configurations. Forty per cent of Canadians believe there is no one ideal family model. “Thirty years ago, there was only one type of family as far as most people were concerned: mother, fa-
ther and 1.7 kids,” says Alan Mirabelli of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family. But the boomer generation and their children have grown familiar with divorced, single-parent and combined family scenarios, and Canadians are now less likely to say, with any certainly, that only the nuclear family model works. “By and large,” says Mirabelli, “if people have had a good experience in their own family life growing up, they aspire to repeat that experience. If their family form was mother, father, 1.7 kids, then that’s what they aspire to for themselves. If they’ve been through a divorce and had a step-parent relationship and it’s been successful, they’re more likely to say there is no ideal form.”
This same attitude extends to our feelings about interracial and homosexual relationships. For example, in 1975, only 55 per cent of Canadians approved of whites and blacks marrying. Today, 94 per cent are perfectly happy with the idea. Likewise, approval of same-sex relationships hovered at only 28 per cent then; today, more than two thirds of us approve. “From 1990 to 2005, there was just a dramatic shift there,” says Bibby of gay issues in general. “We’re one of the world leaders there. I’d like to think AIDS awareness had something to do with it. And there’s a sense of more compassion. The media and a lot of high profile people have certainly gotten behind the rights and the difficulties of people who are gay and lesbian.” Gay marriage,
THE BOOMER LEGACY
“I approve of marriage between blacks and whites.”
_In 1975 Now
Boomers 81% 92%
All Canadians 55% 94%
Fewer Americans approved of blacks and whites marrying in 1990—48%— than Canadians did in 1975—
while it remains a contentious issue, has the wholehearted approval of almost half of all Canadians, and an additional 22 per cent who disapprove on a personal level say they accept gay marriage as a matter of civil rights. Similarly, 6l per cent of Canadians believe that gay couples should be able to adopt, including the 21 per cent who personally disapprove of the idea.
Many of these changes have come about as a result of Canada’s official policies of multiculturalism, and from personal experiences. Then there’s the XX Factor: Canadians have become more tolerant, Bibby argues, as a result of women’s increased public influence. According to his findings, women are quantifiably the more compassionate sex. And as they’ve come to establish a stronger voice in public life, they’ve helped to guide and shape the broader public’s views on “person-related” issues such as same-sex marriage, child abuse, pornography, poverty, and racial and gender discrimination. “Whether it was in 1975, or in any survey since,” says Bibby, “the proportion of women who saw these issues as very serious would invariably exceed that of males.” Only one third of boomer men approved of homosexuality in 1975, compared to over half of boomer women. Today, 76 per cent of Canadian women say they approve of or accept gay marriage, compared to only 63 per cent of men.
This trend continues to accelerate among the younger generation. “Teens in general simply are so much more accepting of diversity,” says Bibby. “They’re more compassionate in areas relating to things like capital punishment and euthanasia, and open to religion and spirituality. But they’re led by young women.” Today, 83 per cent of women age 18 to 34 accept gay marriage, the highest acceptance rate of any group surveyed.
Part of what differentiates modern Canadians from our American counterparts is the fact that we generally tend to embrace the notion of relativism—the idea that when it comes to lifestyle choices, there are no absolutes. “Americans still believe in truth,” says Bibby. “They really do maintain that there are some things that are true and some things that are false.” Canadians, however, are more likely to see things in increments of right-ish and wrong-ish. The most important reason for this, he says, is the religious composition of our respective societies. Roughly a third of Americans identify themselves as members of evangelical or conservative Protestant groups (compared to eight per cent of Canadians), which leads them to adhere to very traditional family values. “That kind of composition simply translates into some very important differences,” he says. “If you look at the evangelicals in the U.S. and Canada, the percentage who are opposed to, say, gay marriage is almost identical. If you look at mainline Protestants here—like Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians—and you match them up against their counterparts in the U.S., they come out very much the same. Catholics come out very much the same on both sides, too. So the thing that tips the scale is that American life is characterized by such a large number of evangelicals. They shape the overall picture.”
WHEN IS IT OKAY FOR A WOMAN TO HAVE AN ABORTION? Percentage who said yes in 2005: CDA USA When her own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy 92% 85% When she becomes pregnant as a result of rape 86% 76% When there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby 84% 72% When the family has a low income and cannot afford more children 57% 41% When she is not married and does not want to marry the man 52% 42% When she is married and does not want to have any more children 53% 42% When she wants an abortion for any reason 43% 40%
As such, the two countries’ views on social and sexual diversity remain notably different. For instance, more than a quarter of Americans disapprove of marriage between blacks and whites. In the U.S., only 64 per cent of people believe that
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try, compared to 78
per cent of Canadians. And while 60 per cent of Canadians approve of homosexual relations, only 38 per cent of Americans feel the same way. “There is a much stronger pocket of American society that holds what can still legitimately be called highly Puritan values toward sexuality, which are
IT’S FINE FOR JOE PUBLIC, BUT NOT FOR MY KID... Generally, Okay for I approve my children Getting a divorce 70% 41% Unmarried sex 65% 53% Cohabitation 73% 53% Children out of wedlock 57% 33%
Canadians believe the nuclear family—mom, dad and kids—is the ideal model
closely linked to taboo and shame,” says Alexander McKay, research coordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) in Toronto. “That’s why something like the exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple [on TV] would be seen as an inherently harmful thing, whereas here, we might scratch our heads
and wonder what’s the big deal.”
When it comes to marijuana, that most contentious of plants, Canadians are, if anything, more in favour of legalization now than ever. Sixty-three per cent of us say we accept recreational pot use in general (including 29 per cent who wholly approve of the practice). Support jumps even higher—to a whopping 93 per cent acceptance rate—when it comes to the legal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. By contrast, only about a third of Americans say they would support legalization.
And yet, while Canadians are collectively more open-minded than our southern neighbours, we still tend to aspire to very traditional lifestyles for ourselves. Most of us say that, ideally, we envision ourselves belonging to a traditional nuclear family. We plan to marry and have children, and we plan for those marriages to last forever. “Despite the family experiences of many Canadians in the post-1960s,” says Bibby, “what is changing are the outcomes— not the aspirations.”
We also wish the same for our children. For instance, 73 per cent of Canadians approve of the idea of couples living together without being married; when it comes to their own child, however, only 53 per cent of people say they would approve. Similarly, while 70 per cent of people approve of divorce in the general population, only 41 per cent say they would approve of their own child getting a divorce. But there’s an important distinction between “approve” and “accept”: even if Canadians say they don’t approve, the overwhelming majority of us say we would be willing to accept our children’s choices. “The family is the most adaptive institution in the world,” says Mirabelli. “It’s very much like an elastic band. It stretches and contracts depending on the economy and the culture which surrounds it.”
In other ways, certain groups have seemingly become more conservative in the decades following the sexual revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s. During that period, and in the time immediately following, Canadians’ acceptance of sexual experimentation was at an all-time high. For the first time in modern history, relatively large numbers of us mused openly about the possibility that monogamous relationships—and by extension traditional marriages— were passé. “In 1975, by way of illustration, the percentage of boomers who said they approved of extramarital sex was 26 per cent,” says Bibby.
“Now, it’s down to 16 per cent. I think some of that reflected just the immediate impact of the sexual revolution. That was the mood of the time.” Among younger Canadians today, those numbers are even lower. Only 12 per cent of Canadians age 18 to 34 accept the idea of married people having affairs. Similarly, in 1975,94 per cent of boomers said they were okay with the idea of premarital sex. Today, among young Canadians age 18 to 34, that number is 77 percent. Bibby theorizes that more youth today may be willing to follow their churches’ values than at the height of the sexual revolution.
McKay, however, suggests the drop is more likely the result of a
generation of better educated young people. “Young people today are much more knowledgeable about sex—what they’re getting into, what the potential implications are,” he says. “And they’re far more likely to take precautions.”
For example, says McKay, recent research shows that sexually active Canadian youth are clearly limiting their number of sexual partners. “I don’t think it reflects a return to conservative values,” he says. “I think it’s a logical extension of the sexual revolution because now people are able to make truly informed decisions.”
Another significant shift has appeared in our attitudes towards pornography. “We’ve seen a gradual increase in favour of banning the distribution of pornography since the ’70s,” says Bibby. Currently, more than 40 per cent of the population—and almost half of adult women—would have us not just regulate, but prohibit pornography entirely. Younger women, age 18 to 34, are more open-minded about it than boomer women and, perhaps not surprisingly, men are far more likely than women to indicate approval of such pastimes as phone sex and viewing pornography on the Inter-
PERCENTAGE OF CANADIANS VERSUS AMERICANS WHO APPROVE OF... In 2005: CDA USA Homosexual relations 60% 38% Premarital sex 80% 64% Legal abortion available on demand 43% 27% Immigration 78% 64%
THINGS WE DON’T APPROVE OFFOR OURSELVES OR ANYONE ELSE Viewing Internet porn Using phone sex lines 49 /o of Canadian women favour banning the distribution of pornography altogether. (A third of men do, too.)
net. “My hunch is that many people have linked pornography and phone sex with their concerns about things like child abuse and sexual assault,” says Bibby. “But younger women, I think, are not as willing to waive individual rights—even in an area such a pornography.”
Of course, McKay points out that the findings may have a lot to do with how our interpretation of the word “pornography” has evolved. “I think many people today—when you use the term ‘pornography’—are going to associate it with images that are clearly harmful, such as child pornography and sexually violent material,” he says. “Whereas in the 1970s, when you mentioned pornography, that could include everything from Playboy to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Perhaps the only area in which there has been very little movement is on the subject of abortion. In Canada, 43 per cent of adults agree that women should have the option of a
legal abortion upon demand, up from 37 per cent in 1985. (Only a quarter of Americans feel the same way.) In Canada, however, levels of support tend to climb depending on the woman’s reason for opting for abortion. For example, if she comes from a very low-income family and cannot afford more children, 58 per cent of people approve. If there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby, 86 per cent approve. If a woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy, 92 per cent approve. These numbers, amazingly, remain virtually unchanged since 1975. “When you get into these specific kinds of areas, it seems like people are just locked into them,” says Bibby. “Obviously the religious factor is an important one, but other people who are not necessarily actively involved in religious groups are still very much anti-abortion. It’s simply an area where there hasn’t been much movement over time.” M
HOW THEY DID IT
Undertaken every five years, sociologist Reginald Bibby’s Project Canada surveys have been monitoring social trends in Canada since 1975The latest, his seventh, was conducted between July and late November 2005. The surveys are sent by mail. The weighted national sample of 1,600 respondents is considered accurate
within +/2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Breakdowns by region, age and gender have a slightly higher +/of four to five percentage points. His six prior national surveys, with weighted samples of approximately 1,200 each, are considered accurate within +/3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.