Marijuana, ISIS and assisted dying: What Canadians think of big issues for 2016

The federal Liberals should find the public behind them on some of the thorniest issues facing them in 2016, including the legalization of marijuana and physician-assisted dying, but how they handle the ISIS mission could throw up some hurdles.

The Liberals find themselves onside with public opinion on two complicated issues, but not on ISIS


With a long list of election promises to fulfil, the federal Liberals have a lot of work ahead of them in 2016.

Here's what Canadians think of three issues that could be particularly thorny ones for Justin Trudeau in the coming year.

Physician-assisted dying

With the Liberal government requesting a six-month extension from the Supreme Court on a February deadline to come up with new laws to deal with physician-assisted dying, the issue will come to a head at some point in the year. 

Polling on this issue suggests a large majority of Canadians are in favour of making physician-assisted death legal. It also suggests that it has been a long time coming.

The most recent poll on physician-assisted dying comes from Insights West. In its poll conducted at the end of November, it found that 79 per cent of Canadians strongly or moderately support allowing "physician-assisted suicide", as long as the patient is able to make such a request and if the person is suffering from a "grievous and irremediable medical condition...that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable." Fully 49 per cent strongly supported this.

A poll conducted in August by Forum Research showed similar results, with 77 per cent saying they were in favour of making "physician-assisted suicide" legal in Canada for the terminally ill.

This is not a new opinion, however. A poll conducted by Gallup in 1974 found a majority of Canadians supporting physician-assisted death (termed as "mercy-killing" in the poll) in the case of an incurable disease causing great suffering. By the late 1970s, support for allowing physician-assisted death had reached two-thirds of Canadians, and it has hardly budged since then.

Support for legalizing physician-assisted dying from various pollsters since 1968.

After more than four decades of strong support, why hasn't physician-assisted dying been made legal in Canada?

Among other things, it is a complicated and personal issue for physicians. A survey conducted for the Canadian Medical Association earlier this year found that while 59 per cent of physicians surveyed agreed with the Supreme Court's decision, 63 per cent said they would not "consider providing medical aid in dying if it was requested by a patient."

With a little more probing, the survey found that a majority of physicians were willing to "help a competent, consenting dying patient" end their lives "if appropriate and rigorous checks and balances are in place."

The government will have to determine what those checks and balances will be in 2016.


Another issue on the table for the Liberal government next year will be the legalization and regulation of marijuana. And like the issue of physician-assisted dying, the challenge lies in how it will be implemented, rather than whether Canadians support it or not.

They do — the most recent poll by Forum Research (conducted in early November) showed that 59 per cent of Canadians agreed with the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana. Just 33 per cent of respondents disagreed.

These numbers have held steady for some time, with Forum finding only a slight increase in support for legalization compared to the polling done by the firm before the election campaign came to a successful end for the Liberals.

Support for legalization was very strong among Liberal and NDP voters. But Conservative voters, by a margin of more than two-to-one, were opposed.

That marijuana should be legalized has been a majority opinion for some time, with polling by Angus Reid showing most Canadians supporting it since at least 2007. Opposition to marijuana legalization, however, was a majority view as recently as 1997, according to polling done by Environics.

As to how marijuana should be sold once it is legalized, a large number of Canadians appear to be on side with Kathleen Wynne's way of thinking. The premier of Ontario suggested that selling marijuana through the province's Liquor Control Board (LCBO) "makes a lot of sense." 

A poll conducted by Forum Research in early December showed that 40 per cent of Canadians also thought it would be best sold through a government agency, while 15 per cent preferred it be left to individual growers. Another 17 per cent preferred a combination of the two. 

A more recent poll of Ontarians, however, found respondents split on whether they wanted to see marijuana sold at the LCBO, whereas the idea of selling it through 'specialized marijuana dispensaries' was met with majority support.

Islamic State

With coalition allies ramping up their air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and Canada opting to end its bombing mission and replace it with more military trainers on the ground, the Middle East will be a big issue for the federal government in 2016.

Unlike the two issues above, the Liberals' position on the bombing mission against ISIS is not entirely aligned with public opinion.

Two polls conducted in mid-November by Mainstreet Research and Forum Research demonstrated this. The Forum poll found only 33 per cent of Canadians agreed that the bombing mission should end, while 51 per cent disagreed (and four-in-five Conservatives). The poll by Mainstreet showed that 60 per cent of Canadians approved of the bombing mission, with just 30 per cent disapproving.

However, more Canadians approved of a training mission: 70 per cent, compared to to 21 per cent disapproving. But given the choice, more Canadians (38 per cent) opted for continuing the bombing mission over moving towards a training mission (28 per cent). Just eight per cent wanted to do nothing at all.

If the Liberals are going to be sending more troops on the ground to train the Kurds, Canadians prefer that they keep their role to a training mission. Given the choice between training and actually getting involved in combat, in a poll by Abacus Data 57 per cent of Canadians chose the former.

The success of whatever form the Canadian mission takes, as well as the broader conflict against ISIS, will have a big impact on how Canadians view the country's role.

This is one of the issues that may see the greatest fluctuations in public support in 2016.

The poll by Insights West was conducted between November 21 and 25, 2015, interviewing 1,035 Canadians via the Internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.

The poll by Forum Research on physician-assisted dying was conducted between August 23 and 24, 2015, interviewing 1,400 Canadians via interactive voice response. The poll on marijuana legalization was conducted between November 4 and 7, 2015, interviewing 1,256 Canadians via interactive voice response. The national poll on where to sell marijuana was conducted between December 6 and 8, 2015, interviewing 1,369 Canadians via interactive voice response. The Ontario poll on where to sell marijuana was conducted on December 20, 2015, interviewing 1,003 Ontarians via interactive voice response. The poll on the bombing mission was conducted on November 17, 2015, interviewing 909 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margins of error associated with these surveys is +/- 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Mainstreet Research was conducted on November 16, 2015, interviewing 2,718 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the survey is +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Abacus Data was conducted between November 23 and 25, 2015, interviewing 1,500 Canadians via the Internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?