Michael Adams on how we see ourselves

Pollster Michael Adams on the growing sense of being Canadian


Thanks to WikiLeaks, Canadians learned that some in official Ottawa hold some unflattering opinions about them.


Former CSIS director Jim Judd, for example, is said to have advised an American official that Canada is largely composed of insecure wimps who specialize in moral outrage and whose main source of national pride is knee-jerk anti-Americanism. 

If these mandarins took the time to consult public opinion data, however, they would find a very different picture.

This fall, Environics  updated its Focus Canada research program, which we began in 1976. The picture that emerges from this polling data suggests that insecure anti-American Canadians — if they were ever a dominant chunk of the population — have been replaced by a people who are proud of their country, its freedom, its diversity and its symbols.

A surfeit of symbols? Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets Quebec's Bonhomme Carnaval beneath a painting of Sir John A. Macdonald in the PM's parliamentary office in November 2010. Canadian Press)

Over the years, as we have found, Canadians lost considerable confidence in politicians and political parties, but they are more positive than ever about our parliamentary system.

Most have little interest in tinkering with our electoral process, our system of government, or our Constitution.

In addition to Parliament, at least in the abstract, Canadians continue to place great importance on such national symbols as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the flag, our national parks and the national anthem.

We also like the RCMP, multiculturalism, and Canadian literature and music. Farther down the list of national symbols that make us proud are hockey, bilingualism, the CBC, and our national capital.

The Queen, however, is not widely seen as an important national symbol — and, alas, we went into the field too early to ask about William and Kate.

Where we stand

On the pressing issues of the day, Canadians think our economy is relatively strong and that our standard of living is good.

In fact, nine in 10 of us feel that our quality of life is better than that of our southern neighbours.

The founding president of the Environics group of research and communications companies, Michael Adams is a noted public commentator and the author of six books, including, just published by Penguin Canada, Stayin' Alive: How Canadian Baby Boomers Will Work, Play, and Find Meaning In the Second Half of Their Adult Lives.

On the whole, Canadians are relieved that we seem to have dodged the "Great Recession" but they express caution about the near-term and say this is no time for a shopping spree.

The data also shows that we like the free-market system as much as Americans do, but we are more likely than them to say taxes are generally a good thing, because we realize taxes support valued public services like health care and education.

Our beloved heath-care system is the most sacred of our cows and Canadians continue to strongly endorse the public system. Eight in ten feel health care should be funded through tax dollars rather than insurance and other means (although a majority now believe we should be able to purchase medical services to ensure timely access).

On other issues in the news, Canadians today are less likely than at any time in our 35 years of tracking to believe crime is increasing. What's more, in terms of crime-related public investments, most Canadians favour a focus on prevention over enforcement and punishment.

Public support for the death penalty remains at an all-time low. Over the past decade, in fact, Canadians have increasingly expressed the view that convicted murderers should be sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole, instead of execution.

As well, increasing majorities of Canadians favour gun control, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. And roughly six in 10 believe that the global economic crisis is no excuse to stop working on environmental issues.

We like Parliament's ceremonial mace and the Mounties. But we really don't think crime is on the rise. (Reuters)

Pluralities of Canadians believe that aboriginal problems are more the result of public attitudes and government policies than they are self-inflicted.

We want the emphasis of government policies to be on improving the lives of our aboriginal neighbours both on and off reserve-as opposed to legal issues like self-government and settling land claims.  We also continue to be open to immigration, and are much more likely than any other society in the world today to believe immigrants are good for the country.

Still, Canadians would like to see more evidence that immigrants are adopting "Canadian" values, which, for many, means embracing gender equality.

The tipping point

Far from being automatically anti-American, Canadians appear to be judging America according to its actions and its leadership and are quite prepared to admire and even follow America when they believe it is headed in the right direction.

Our positive opinion of the U.S. surged by 14 percentage points between June and December 2008, following President Barack Obama's election.

Another way of looking at this is that we changed our collective opinion in response to new facts. Isn't that the opposite of knee-jerk thinking?

We would vote for him. Canadian appreciation for the U.S. rose noticably in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected president. (Associated Press)

Most of the views that I have been writing about here have been stable or evolving slowly over the past three and a half decades, although Canadian confidence in our economy and the way it is regulated, and our pride in national symbols have increased notably over the past three years.

A close look at the numbers suggests a shift or maybe a tipping point occurred in the late 1990s when the views of baby boomers became mixed with growing numbers of their Gen X and Gen Y offspring, not to mention an increased proportion of immigrants, who tend to express more pride in their adoptive country than the Canadian-born.

Other factors influencing the evolution of public opinion in Canada are a generally robust economy, an increasingly educated population and a media environment in which communication and self-expression have exploded.

Perhaps what is most fascinating in this vast, socially diverse country of ours is just how much we agree on — and how proud we are of a society that, it has been said, works in practice but not in theory, and seemingly no matter who is in government.