Maclean's 2003 Year-End Poll: Canadian Pride

IT'S NOT LIKE we suddenly got all kissy-kissy or anything. As 2003 wound down, you could still belly up to pretty much any bar in the country and get a decent argument going about dope, or same-sex marriage, or whether we should have joined the war in Iraq. These were our homegrown hot buttons, right? Issues that pitted young against old, right versus left, religious versus non in ways that should scare any sane politician out of his wits. Only a prime minister lurching to the end of a long, uninterrupted reign - consumed by thoughts of legacy and happy to plant land mines in his successor's path - would tackle them head-on.

How, then, did they become wellsprings of national pride? Far from depicting a country riven by matters of deep moral import, the 20th annual Maclean's year-end poll suggests the nation's most divisive issues are somehow bringing us together. Fully 58 per cent of respondents express pride in Canada's decisions to allow same-sex marriage and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, while three-quarters applaud Ottawa's decision not to join the invasion of Iraq. This after a year of hand-wringing in which, on all three fronts, we weighed the potential cost of alienating Uncle Sam. In the case of gay marriage, numerous polls have found Canadians to be evenly split, a sign of the constituency pressures that have led several government backbenchers to break ranks. But have we been pulling out our hair for nothing? "Everybody may have different opinions in these situations," shrugs poll participant Mario Hogan, a 59-year-old safety training officer from New Waterford, N.S. "But I'm thankful we have a government that says we're not just going to follow the leader" - meaning our powerful southern neighbour.

On one level, this sounds like classic Canadian contrarianism. Robert Wolfe, an expert in Canada-U.S. relations at Queen's University, calls this "the narcissism of small differences" - a Freudian phrase that would ascribe less-than-lofty motives to our chest-thumping. "Anything we can find that proves the point that we're not American, we exaggerate and become proud of," Wolfe says. "In the case of marijuana and same-sex marriage, these things make us look cool and trendy, and the Americans look religious and stodgy."

But the poll suggests our current sentiment goes beyond mere petulance. Yes, respondents are proud to have a few distinctly Canadian policies. But their enthusiasm is tempered by sensitivity to American security concerns - and a surprising willingness to accommodate those fears. Sixty-one per cent find a North American perimeter, with the two countries sharing immigration and border-crossing laws, an acceptable means of placating Washington. Even more think it is a good idea for Prime Minister Paul Martin to invite George W. Bush to Ottawa to mend the countries' fractured relationship. "The two governments have to get together," says Ronald Triffo, 64, an Edmonton accountant. "There's no sense trying to do things separately."

Moreover, the results cut across regional boundaries, which suggests a form of national consensus not common in Canadian public opinion. That three-quarters of Atlantic Canadians say they support the decision to sit out the war in Iraq probably won't surprise you. That 60 per cent of Albertans feel the same way just might. And the most curious responses came from Quebec, where people are most likely of all to - get ready - commend Ottawa for setting its own course. Fully 90 per cent endorse the government's decision not to join the war, while nearly seven out of 10 side with the statement that Canada's decision to tinker with pot and marriage laws "makes them proud" because it shows how socially progressive and diverse Canadian society can be. Somewhere out there, Pierre Trudeau is smiling.

So did Jean Chrétien stumble upon the solution to Canadian disunity in the waning days of his final mandate? Not so fast, says Louis Bélanger, a political scientist at Laval University in Montreal. While Ottawa's position on drugs and same-sex marriage might delight many Quebecers, that hardly equals a shift in basic political philosophy, he notes. "This response is much more indicative of Quebecers' stance on the issues themselves," Bélanger says. "It may have a short-term effect [on national unity], but I don't see it as an important factor - yet." Recall, too, that Quebec nationalism emerged as a political force during the late 1960s and early '70s - just as Trudeau was shooing the state from the bedrooms of the nation. If a few progressive policies were all it took to win over French Canada, then the Parti Québécois probably wouldn't exist today.

As for the rest of Canada, well, we still have lots to argue about. Albertans show a greater desire to vote for the united right-wing party than respondents from other provinces. Ontarians seem as wedded as ever to the federal Liberals, with some 46 per cent identifying them as the party they feel closest to. The country also appears evenly split on whether the new Prime Minister should run a deficit: 62 per cent of Atlantic Canadians say they approve of the measure if necessary; 58 per cent of Albertans feel the opposite. Other regions are almost perfectly divided.

A lingering insecurity about fiscal issues speaks to a powerful undercurrent in the national mood, which policy-makers would be foolish to ignore. Subsumed within the hype about pot and Iraq are responses suggesting we're not so chuffed with ourselves that we've shed our sense of caution. To wit: more of us are pessimistic about the future than optimistic - a condition that has persisted since 2001 despite the country's generally healthy economy. That might explain why we remain preoccupied with bread-and-butter matters like social programs and the national debt, rather than the things that fill cable news programs. All that stuff you've been reading about terrorism and Canada's role in the world? Forget it. If you want to know what Canadians really care about, ask them about health care, unemployment or the economy. Plus ça change.

All of this should serve as handy guidance for Martin, who has been waxing on about reforming Parliament, fixing the First Nations governance legislation and improving relations with the United States. Those messages helped Martin contrast himself with Chrétien, who was taking criticism for his handling of all three policy areas. But when asked what they want to see at the top of Martin's to-do list, Canadians are far more interested in sound management than bold policy adventures. Improving social programs comes first in the poll (35 per cent), while reducing Canada's $510-billion debt rates a clear second (25). "We just need to look after each other," says graphic artist Mary Deak, 45, from Penticton, B.C. "These things are the backbone of our country." Giving a greater role to MPs, investing in cities, and U.S. rapprochement all rate in single digits.

This emphasis on vital programs and sound finances doesn't surprise Trevor Harrison, a political sociologist at Alberta's University of Lethbridge. "Despite newspaper columnists and politicos talking about these other issues, Canadians tend to be very focused on the here-and-now practicalities," he says. "That means we're still concerned about education and health care." That's the part of us that earns the ho-hum label, like dutiful, Aesopian ants preparing for winter. But the upside of being boring is your neighbours' shocked reaction when you try something remotely original. A couple of years back, the U.S. satirical weekly The Onion ran a headline mocking both Canadian blandness and American myopia when it comes to life north of the border. "Perky Canada," it read, "has own government, laws." The joke might not apply any more as the U.S. media alternately coo about "Canadian cool" and slap our wrist for our audacity, while American liberals look on with envy. Their admiration won't change our basic values, which have always tended toward home and hearth. But for the first time in a long while, we've got something we can feel proud of.

PERCENTAGE FINDING VARIOUS OPTIONS FOR IMPROVING RELATIONS WITH THE U.S. ACCEPTABLE

Invite President Bush to Ottawa to discuss relationship, 85%

Appoint special ambassador to explore ways of working with U.S. in dealing with terrorism, 80%

Agree to common immigration and border-crossing laws, 61%

Allow the export of fresh water to U.S., 42%

Provide additional funding for Iraq, 41%

Drop policies such as changes to the marijuana laws, 40%

Drop our trade cases before the NAFTA trade tribunal, 39%

Commit troops to Iraq, 33%

NDP supporters, even in Alberta, are most likely to say Paul Martin should spend where he has to, even if it means running a deficit

NDP, 58%

Liberals, 49%

PC, 49%

CANADA, 48%

Bloc, 48%

Alliance, 33%

TRENNA STOTT, 29, EDMONTON, CHILD-CARE PROVIDER AND NDP BACKER

"It doesn't matter who's in charge - it could be Joe Blow - they're going to run a deficit anyway. They're going to spend money no matter how much we beg them not to. And if they're going to spend, I'd like them to spend on social programs, schools, medical care, the military. That would be good. I'm a military wife with my husband in Afghanistan."

Given a list of potential candidates, Ontarians and Prairie respondents are most likely to offer no choice as to who should lead the newly merged Conservative Party

Sask./Man., 35%

Ont., 35%

B.C., 32%

CANADA, 31%

Alta., 28%

Que., 29%

Atlantic, 26%

SOPHIA MALARCZYK, 73, ANGUS, ONT., HOUSEWIFE

"As far as I'm concerned, all politicians lie. You can't believe what any of them are saying. Once they get into power, they change everything around. They're all the same. No one is any worse than the others. I'm a Liberal, but next time I'm going to vote for the Conservatives so that all the power doesn't end up with one party. There's got to be competition."

SOMETHING IN THE RUM

Our year-end poll has compiled two decades of evidence that the windswept, fogbound province off the East Coast is ... hot.

1985: "As in the 1984 poll, respondents from Newfoundland reported themselves to be both more sexually active and satisfied than those from any other province."

1988: "For the fifth straight year, more Newfoundland respondents described themselves as sexually active (77 per cent) than did residents of any other province."

1997: "Prodded for an explanation, Rick Mercer of CBC TV's This Hour Has 22 Minutes is at a loss for words. Could it be that there is simply little else to do on the Rock? Mainlander claptrap, responds Mercer. 'They're just jealous.' "

2002: Slipping to second place behind Quebec, Newfoundlanders are up to the challenge. "We'll embrace the project and regain our rightful crown," vows St. John's native Seamus O'Regan, host of CTV's Canada AM. "I, for one, am ready to go back and do my part."

THE RISE AND FALL: SOME YEARS ARE JUST SEXIER THAN OTHERS

Percentages reporting an active sex life

Nfld. Canada

'84 76 74

'85 78 73

'86 75 69

'87 88 59

'93 73 62

'94 75 62

'95 64 59

'96 78 65

'97 77 64

'98 78 70

'99 69 59

'00 74 56

'02 66 62

Source: Strategic Counsel analysis

How the Poll Was Done

The results in this report are based on a national telephone survey of 1,200 adult Canadians, aged 18 or older, conducted by Toronto-based The Strategic Counsel. Interviews took place between Nov. 3 and Nov. 13. The margin of error for the national sample is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Accuracy ranges are wider within regional, provincial or other subgroups (e.g., men and women). In some cases "don't know" and "no answer" results are not shown.

Maclean's December 29, 2003