Albertans' opinions differ most sharply along religious, educational lines

Albertans agree on a lot of things but, where they differ in opinion, there's often a pattern.

Take an in-depth look at how our views vary based on age, gender, location, level of education and religiosity

Albertans' level of education and level of religiosity are associated with the biggest differences of opinion in a recent, in-depth survey of 1,200 residents conducted for CBC News. (Left: Mark Felix/Associated Press, right: Shutterstock)

We've talked a lot lately about what Albertans think, as part of our polling series for The Road Ahead project.

We've heard how voters, at this point in time, heavily favour the United Conservative Party over the governing NDP. We've also heard how their views on the leader of each party don't necessarily align with their voting intentions. And we've heard that Albertans, as a group, aren't as conservative as you might think.

We've learned all this through an unusually large and in-depth survey. We asked people a lot of questions, about what they believe — and about themselves. 

The richness of the resulting data doesn't just give us a picture of how this province is feeling, as a whole. It also allows us to explore how viewpoints differ across a whole bunch of demographic lines.

Do Calgarians think differently than Edmontonians? Do men feel the same as women? How do young adults' world views compare with those of their parents?

It turns out there are some differences along these lines. Age, in particular, seems to play a larger role than gender or geography when it comes to people's opinions.

But other factors have an even larger effect.

According to the poll, Albertans are often most polarized based on two things: their level of formal education and how religious they are.

Broad patterns

This isn't unique to Alberta, according to data scientist John Santos, who helped design the poll.

"What we see here broadly aligns with what we've seen from the last seven decades of voter behaviour research," he said.

"That's not to say that things like region and age and gender aren't important. But education and religiosity are certainly the ones that stand out here, as they have in other studies."

Large splits along these lines were seen in the responses to numerous questions in the poll. At the same time, however, there were other questions where demographic differences — including education and religion — had relatively little impact on Albertans' answers.

In short, it's complicated. The data reveal some broad patterns but it's not as simple as saying religious people believe X while agnostic people believe Y. Real humans' opinions are far more complicated than that.

Still, the patterns are of great interest to researchers in voter behaviour.

"Where things get really interesting is when you see huge splits," Santos said. "And we see this with education, we see this with religion."

You can see these splits for yourself in a series of interactive charts below.

To start, we've picked out the poll questions that had some of the largest differences in opinion. As you'll see, those differences tend to fall along educational and religious lines.

We've also highlighted some of the questions that had remarkable levels of agreement — across all demographic groups. These types of responses, too, are of interest to pollsters.

And, just as a heads up: There are a lot of charts. You could spend a bunch of time exploring each one and playing with the data. Or, feel free to scroll through to the questions that interest you the most.

Questions with an educational divide

One of the questions with the sharpest divides had to do with immigration.

We asked whether Canada should reduce the number of immigrants it accepts and Albertans, as a whole, were almost evenly split.

But, among those with a high school education or less, nearly seven out of 10 said we should accept fewer immigrants.

Among those with a graduate degree or higher, it was the exact opposite. Nearly 70 per cent wanted more immigration.

Take a look for yourself with the interactive chart below. You can click or tap on the drop-down menu to look at specific responses for different demographic groups.

Can't see the graphs? Click here to open a version of the story that should work with your mobile device.

There was a similar split on a question about Canada's First Nations.

Overall, a slim majority of Albertans agreed that more should be done to help Indigenous people in this country.

The level of agreement was especially high — 74 per cent — among those with a graduate degree.

Conversely, most respondents with a high school education or less disagreed with the statement.

Take a look at the full data in the following chart.

The sense of western alienation is also related to education levels, according to the polling data.

Overall, 60 per cent of Albertans agreed that other parts of Canada will always be looked after first, regardless of who's running the federal government.

That rises to 75 per cent among those with a high school education or less.

Only 38 per cent of Albertans with a graduate degree, by contrast, felt the same way.

On a more conceptual question about the value of expertise, education levels also played a large role.

Albertans were nearly evenly divided on whether it's better to trust experts or the "down-to-earth thinking of ordinary people." A slim majority leaned toward the experts.

But nearly seven in 10 Albertans with a high school education or less preferred the "down-to-earth" way of thinking.

Those with a graduate degree, meanwhile, sided by a similar margin with expertise.

But this wasn't the only question that we asked Albertans about their fundamental values.

And education wasn't the only factor that corresponds to some large differences in opinion.

Religion did, as well.

Questions with a religious divide

The poll didn't ask Albertans which religion they adhere to.

Rather, respondents were asked how important religion is in their lives: very, somewhat, not very or not at all.

This, too, produced some of the larger splits on particular questions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the largest came on a question about "traditional family values."

Overall, 64 per cent of Albertans agreed we would have fewer problems, as a country, if we put a greater emphasis on these types of values.

That rose to 86 per cent among those who described themselves as very religious, but fell to just 36 per cent among those who said religion played no role in their lives.

Religious and agnostic people also tended to disagree on the idea of trickle-down economics.

Participants in the poll were asked whether it benefits everybody — including the poor — when businesses make a lot of money.

Albertans, overall, were split almost exactly 50/50 in their responses.

A majority of non-religious people disagreed with that assertion, however, while most of the highly religious respondents agreed with it.

In the realm of public-opinion research, Santos said these types of core-value questions "are so powerful" because of what they reveal about how people think.

"They are very fundamental to how people see themselves and see the world — and see their relationship to the world," he said.

"And the answers to these questions don't typically change over time."

But researchers don't just look for questions that yield sharp differences in opinion.

In some cases, it's the questions on which people strongly agree — regardless of their age, gender, location, level of education or religiosity — that can be just as interesting.

Where we agree and 'the things that define us'

Pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the survey for CBC News, said the things that people overwhelmingly agree on are often "the things that define us, as a society."

"And I think it's interesting that one of the things that defines us, as a society, is we want our society to be equitable," she said.

Consider, for instance, the response to a question about whether we should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

A strong majority of Albertans — 77 per cent — agreed we should.

And that sentiment was broadly shared across every demographic group. At least 60 per cent of people in every category agreed, and some categories, including women and young people, had more than 80-per-cent agreement.

Play with the demographics in this next chart and see how little the columns change, compared with the major swings we've seen in the previous charts.

Similarly, check out how many Albertans would like to see more women in politics.

While there is some variation between the demographic groups, again, at least 60 per cent of people in each category agree it would be good to see more equal gender representation in the political arena, which has traditionally been male-dominated.

One other question where most Albertans were on the same page had to do with the future of the province.

The poll asked respondents if they thought "Alberta's best days are behind it" and strong majorities in every demographic group disagreed with that assertion.

In other words, Albertans believe, overwhelmingly, that better days lie ahead.

Take a look for yourself in this one, final chart.

Brown, the pollster, found these results particularly remarkable.

Given how much "pessimism and frustration" Albertans expressed in response to other questions in the survey, she said it's interesting to see how people from all across the province and all walks of life believe things will get better in the future.

"Despite the fact that people are feeling so anxious about the economy and our position in confederation and all those other things — we're still optimists at heart."

The random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018, by Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and larger for subsets.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time or later, or completing it online. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 20.8 per cent.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as we build the city we want — the city we need. It's the place for possibilities, a marketplace of ideas. Have an idea? Email us at:


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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