Canada isn't hopelessly divided — but our politicians can always make it worse

Many observers of Canada's political scene have been beating the drum for months about a country deeply divided over fundamental issues. Polling shows that argument doesn't fit the facts — but there are fault lines that politicians would do well to avoid widening.

Our disagreements are narrow and manageable, as long as our leaders can avoid exploiting them

A protester taking part in an anti-vaccine mandate rally that occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks flies an upside-down Canadian flag. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

As the self-styled "freedom convoy" lay siege to Ottawa in February, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen told the House of Commons that Canada was "more divided than ever before."

It wasn't quite a new idea. After the 2019 election, then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer told the House that "deep cracks are showing in Confederation and the prime minister has divided this country like it has never been before."

Many Canadians agree with Bergen — 60 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by Abacus Data in mid-February said Canada was "more divided than usual."

Two separate polls conducted in March found similar beliefs. According to a survey by the Angus Reid Institute, 82 per cent of respondents said the pandemic had pushed people further apart instead of bringing them closer together.

WATCH: Candice Bergen accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of dividing Canadians

Interim Conservative leader says government's actions have divided Canadians

1 year ago
Duration 1:11
During question period, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen questioned the government's actions and accused it of dividing Canadians. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair responded, saying the government is doing everything it can to get the country out of the pandemic safely.

A poll conducted by the Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research at the University of Saskatchewan found 72 per cent of respondents said the pandemic had divided Canadians, 73 per cent felt the same about last fall's federal election and 75 per cent of respondents said Canada was "more polarized" than it was a year ago.

Even the prime minister acknowledged a need for healing after the convoy left Ottawa. "Look, in the heat of the moment, we can all get carried away trying to win an argument," Justin Trudeau said, perhaps acknowledging that he had pushed some of his own rhetoric too far. "But not every single conversation has to be about winning an argument."

People hold a sign protesting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and vaccinations during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Bergen's concern didn't disappear in the weeks after order was restored to the nation's capital. In her statement responding to the announcement of the Liberal-NDP accord two weeks ago, Bergen said she worried about its potential impact on "political polarization" and "national unity."

It would be a mistake to completely dismiss such concerns. The strain of the last two years shouldn't be underestimated. 

But Canadians may not be as divided as they imagine themselves to be.

It's certainly not the case that this country has never been more divided. Canada's most politically divisive episode likely remains the conscription crisis and the federal election of 1917. And the century since saw many deep conflicts: the October Crisis, the Quebec referendum in 1980, "let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark," the free trade debate, the failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the Oka crisis, the Quebec referendum in 1995.

If nothing else, that list is a reminder that Canada has faced perilous moments in the past and somehow found a way to survive.

The pandemic, more than any recent political issue, may have caused direct and personal conflicts between friends and family members through disputes over health precautions, masking and vaccination. But we risk overstating the degree of division the pandemic triggered.

Some Canadian clinics, like this one in Ottawa, used costumed performers, stickers and balloons to make the vaccination process more comfortable for children aged 5 to 11. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

According to the latest data, 82 per cent of Canadians have received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine — nine points higher than the vaccination rate in the United Kingdom and 16 points higher than the rate in the United States. When the possibility of requiring vaccination in certain settings became a political issue last summer, support for those mandates was similarly high.

Focusing on the turmoil of the pandemic also obscures a number of other things Canadians agree about — including half a dozen points of consensus that show up in polling conducted by the Environics Institute over the past two years.

Most people agree on the big things

Seventy-three per cent of Canadians, for instance, are satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada. Eighty-nine per cent strongly or somewhat agree that more should be done to promote the equality of women. Seventy-seven per cent strongly or somewhat disagree with the suggestion that discrimination against Indigenous people isn't a problem. And 68 per cent strongly or somewhat disagree with the claim that discrimination against Black Canadians isn't a problem.

Eighty per cent of Canadians strongly or somewhat agree that immigration has a positive impact on the economy and 65 per cent disagree with claims that immigration rates are too high. Seventy-three per cent say governments should act to reduce the gap between the rich and poor and 74 per cent strongly or somewhat support the federal equalization program (including 57 per cent in Alberta).

Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute, notes that agreement on many of those issues has increased over time, or has at least held steady.

Though the partisan debate might suggest otherwise, there is also some broad agreement on climate and energy issues.

In 2021, for instance, Environics found that a majority of voters in every province — including Alberta — expressed at least some support for phasing out the use of fossil fuels. Last fall, Abacus Data found that 69 per cent of Canadians believe there is "solid" or "conclusive" evidence of global warming and 75 per cent believe the primary cause of climate change is human and industrial activity that consumes fossil fuels.

Sixty-six per cent said governments in Canada should put more emphasis on policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while just 15 per cent said governments should put less emphasis on such policies.

Where the differences are

But opinion at the national level obscures some significant differences across parties and regions. Among Liberal and NDP voters, support for more government emphasis on emissions reduction was 77 per cent and 78 per cent, respectively. Only 44 per cent of Conservative voters felt the same way. In Alberta, the figure was 48 per cent.

A similar split can be found on gun control and Conservative voters are also less enthusiastic about requiring vaccination in certain settings.

Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, pointed to such splits in November when he argued that the dividing lines in last fall's federal election didn't run down the middle of the political spectrum — they ran right through the Conservative Party.

In other words, if Conservative politicians seem particularly concerned about divisions in the country, it might be because they're the ones experiencing them most directly.

A group of anti-mask protesters, one holding a QAnon sign, meet in Calgary on Sept. 27, 2020. (Helen Pike/CBC)

That doesn't mean these gaps aren't worth minding. And there are other gaps worth taking note of — like the increasing divergence between the Liberal and Conservative parties along urban and rural lines or the fact that, according to Environics, 62 per cent of Albertans feel their province isn't treated with the respect it deserves (though that's down nine points from 2019).

Academic research suggests that the major federal parties have become more ideologically distinct and that Canadian partisans are more consistent and have self-sorted along left-right lines. Partisans on the left and right also seem to view each other more negatively than they used to — what's known as "affective polarization."

But Eric Merkley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies polarization, points out that Canadians don't seem to be getting more extreme in their views and their political beliefs don't seem to be tied to social identifiers like race, religion and class, as is the case in the United States.

A person dressed as "Lady Liberty" wears a shirt with the letter Q — referring to QAnon — as she takes part in a Jan. 6, 2021 protest at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., against the counting of electoral votes affirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

When the Environics Institute asked Canadians to place themselves on the political spectrum according to a scale from one to ten — with one representing the political left and ten representing the right — the results looked something like the letter V, with 32 per cent right in the middle and four per cent at each end. A survey of Americans produced something more like a flattened W, with 18 per cent in the middle and 12 per cent and 18 per cent at each end.

Being less polarized than the United States isn't much of an achievement; the American situation is a reminder to not take democracy for granted. But the example of a truly divided nation also puts Canada's differences in perspective.

Politicians have a responsibility

Ultimately, questions about political divisions lead back to politicians themselves. 

"Politicians play a very important role in all of this. When they polarize and they send ideological signals, the mass public follows either by switching their partisanship or changing their beliefs," said Merkley, who has written about the freedom convoy's potential to polarize Canadian politics. "If they increasingly adopt identity signals … that will show up eventually in how the mass public views politics."

Some amount of disagreement is inevitable and it's not always necessary or smart to capitulate to dissenters. Promoting national harmony can't mean curtailing action to combat climate change, for instance — along with the very real consequences, that would also anger the large majority of Canadians who want action.

It might mean trying to account for the real concerns people have about what those climate actions might mean for them, their communities or their jobs.

But politicians can decide whether they want to needlessly exacerbate or exaggerate differences. The question they should be asking themselves is whether their words and actions are aimed at minimizing those divisions — or exploiting them.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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