The good and bad news from a public opinion researcher
Do you want the good news or the bad news first?
Those of us who do public opinion research feel like we have the best seat in the house. The data we collect over the course of a year provide insights on how people are doing and what they are worried about. Some of what we learn – if the timing is right – gets picked up by the media. A lot of it doesn’t, simply because it isn’t synchronized with the news cycle. However, in a democracy, all of it is interesting. Even findings that don’t appear in the daily news headlines are valuable as pieces that help complete a larger puzzle.
In a year marked by angry occupations at home, wars abroad, an ongoing health-care crisis and a looming economic one, there was – believe it or not – no shortage of good news. Much of this has to do with Canadians’ comfort with their country’s growing diversity. In October, we noted that our record-high number of immigrants (as reported in the census) was accompanied by our record-low concern with immigration numbers. But there is so much more to it than this.
In the context of events in Afghanistan, Ukraine and elsewhere, consider our attitudes toward refugees – and how much these have changed. Historically, most Canadians have expressed skepticism about whether most refugee claims were genuine. This changed in 2016 – coinciding with the refugee crisis in Syria. The proportion of Canadians today who are skeptical about most refugee claimants is now only half as large as it was 25 years ago. Over roughly the same period of time, there has been a two-fold increase in the proportion that agrees Canada should accept more immigrants from those parts of the world experiencing major conflicts.
But perhaps the most encouraging finding is the solid support for refugees, no matter where they come from. Are those fleeing conflict in a European country favoured over those from a predominantly Muslim one? The distinction matters for some Canadians, but not many: eight in 10 Canadians agree with accepting more immigrants escaping conflicts in countries “such as Ukraine,” compared to seven in 10 who hold the same view when the question mentions countries “such as Afghanistan.” (In this survey, respondents were randomly selected to receive only one of three versions of the question, one with no country examples, one mentioning Ukraine, and one mentioning Afghanistan.)
In all cases, fewer than one in four disagree with accepting more refugees – and that’s the bigger story.
We can now match this finding with the views of refugees themselves, thanks to a new report on the experiences of Syrian refugees who came to Canada in 2015 or 2016. The study documents the difficulties faced by those arriving under such circumstances, especially in terms of language barriers, and difficulties finding both employment commensurate with their skills and suitable housing. But at the same time, 96 per cent of the Syrian refugees surveyed say they felt generally welcomed by their local community in Canada; 75 per cent feel they are seen positively by other Canadians; and only three per cent have plans to eventually leave this country.
Enough good news?
Like everyone else’s, our surveys have been tracking growing concern with the economy, particularly with inflation. They also show that younger adults in particular have grown more dissatisfied with the overall direction of the country over the past five years. They also show there is no shortage of divisions in the country over the way the federation operates and other issues such as language.
Survey research, however, is a useful tool for challenging stereotypes, including stereotypes about how we are divided. True, Quebec and Alberta remain the Venus and Mars of Canadian federalism. Nowhere is satisfaction with the current direction of the country higher than in Quebec; nowhere is it lower than in Alberta. Climate change remains one of the top concerns in Quebec but not Alberta; the poor quality of government remains a top concern in Alberta, but not Quebec.
On climate change in particular, however, the notion that the conflict in Canada is one between regions, or even between political parties, misses the mark. In the first instance, Albertans are divided among themselves: most UCP supporters cannot envision even a gradual phasing out of fossil fuels to protect the climate, whereas most NDP supporters can. The current Alberta government’s talk about protecting the province’s sovereignty against intrusions from Ottawa is an attempt to distract attention from this internal schism.
But even this reframing of the issue — as one that pits the political right against the left, rather than Albertans against the rest of us — leaves too much out. In Canada, there is a remarkable range of opinion on this issue among conservatives, especially when “conservative” is defined broadly to include the governing party in Quebec and the official opposition in British Columbia.
Among three options relating to phasing out the use of fossil fuels to address climate change – a rapid phaseout, a gradual phaseout or no phaseout – the proportion favouring third option (worrying less about phasing out fossil fuels and focusing instead on protecting jobs in the oil and gas industry) ranges widely among provincial conservatives, from a low of eight per cent among CAQ supporters in Quebec to a high of 66 per cent among UCP supporters in Alberta. Supporters of the B.C. Liberal Party (now called BC United) (23 per cent) are about 10 percentage points less likely to favour this option than Ontario Progressive Conservatives (31 per cent), who themselves are more than 30 points less likely to favour it than supporters of the Saskatchewan Party (63 per cent).
This means that there are two forces at play that accentuate regionalism in the country. The first is the need for provincial governments to paper over cracks in their own support by reframing issues in terms of a defence of provincial interests. The second is the need for the federal Conservative Party to overcome their own internal divisions on an issue such as climate change – where the party’s stance is less popular in Quebec, B.C. and to some extent in Ontario – by similarly positioning themselves as the champion of provincial rights. These dynamics are perhaps inescapable but should be kept in mind the next time someone claims the country is more divided than ever.
There is still plenty of bad news emerging from our survey research that is less open to spin.
In 2022, much of this had to do with the outlook of young adults in the country. Efforts to track the impact of the pandemic on our lives revealed a consistent pattern: younger Canadians are feeling less well than their older counterparts. Feelings of anxiety, depression or loneliness, for instance, are experienced most regularly by young adults age 18 to 20, and least often by seniors. (The Environics Institute’s current projects are based on surveys of adults aged 18 and older; we do not have information on the experience of children in Canada.)
Younger Canadians also report the lowest levels of overall life satisfaction, the highest levels of stress and the poorest mental health. They are also the most likely to experience food insecurity. (Food insecurity is defined as someone saying that at some point in the last 12 months, they ate less than they felt they should because there wasn’t enough money to buy food.)
While these patterns were highlighted in studies focused on the experience of the pandemic, they are in fact not new: even before the pandemic, a sense of well-being in Canada was lowest among younger adults, and improved as age increased. The pandemic no doubt made things worse, but in general it made things worse for everyone. What the pandemic did do is direct our attention to the challenges facing younger Canadians – challenges that were already there, but less discussed before the virus began to spread.
To conclude on this note is not to insist that we should start the new year on a pessimistic note, but to make a plea for a refocusing of our discussions about priorities. Yes, the older decision-makers in the country need to keep working on perennial problems. They need to come to agreements among themselves about the size of the Canada Health Transfer, the price on carbon, and the pace at which we can build new housing to accommodate a growing population. But they should carry on this work while finding ways to listen more to the experiences and concerns of the generations that are coming of age in a world whose striking uncertainty affects them most.
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