Survey suggests Canadians ignorant of government system

A new survey for the Dominion Institute taken in the aftermath of this month's political crisis suggests Canadians are woefully ignorant when it comes to their system of government.

A new survey for the Dominion Institute taken in the aftermath of this month's political crisis suggests Canadians are woefully ignorant when it comes to their system of government.

About 75 per cent of Canadians believe incorrectly the prime minister or the Governor General is head of state, according to the Ipsos Reid survey that the Dominion Institute commissioned.

Only 24 per cent managed to answer correctly that it's the Queen, according to the poll provided to the Canadian Press. The Dec. 9-12 survey of 1,070 Canadians is said to be accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

Marc Chalifoux, executive director of the Dominion Institute, said he decided to commission the survey in light of the furor caused when a coalition of opposition parties threatened to topple Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government. 

Harper's defensive strategy was to ask Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament until late in January to avoid what likely would have been a vote of non-confidence.

With such unfamiliar words such as "treason" and "coup d'état " entering the Canadian political lexicon, Chalifoux said he wanted to gauge the understanding people had of what had transpired.

"Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa, but lacked in many cases the basic knowledge to form informed opinions," Chalifoux said. "We found a lot of ignorance."

The institute drew up four basic questions:

  • Who is the head of state?
  • How can Canada's system of government best be described?
  • Do Canadians elect the prime minister directly?
  • Can the Governor General nix a prime minister's request for a new election?

"These questions we're asking aren't just trivia," Chalifoux said.

"These are part of the basic tool kit of knowledge that citizens need to function in a democracy."

Given a choice how best to describe the system of government, 25 per cent of those surveyed decided on a "co-operative assembly" while 17 per cent opted for a "representative republic."

Canada is neither. Only 59 per cent picked correctly — constitutional monarchy.

In a similar vein, 51 per cent wrongly agreed that Canadians elect the prime minister directly.

In fact, Canadians elect local members of Parliament and the leader of the party with the most members by tradition becomes prime minister at the request of the Governor General.

"Our school system needs to be doing a better job of training young people to be citizens," Chalifoux said.

One question that did elicit close to unanimous agreement was about the Governor General's power to refuse to call an election at the request of a prime minister who no longer enjoys majority support in the House of Commons.

A full 90 per cent responded correctly that the Governor General does have the power, which Jean may yet be called on to wield if the opposition coalition does defeat the government with a vote in the Commons.

Overall, the survey found the lowest levels of knowledge in Quebec — 70 per cent of Quebecers, for example, wrongly believe Canadians directly elect the prime minister. Only 35 per cent of Atlantic Canadians made that mistake.