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News

Standing at Door of 2014: Who Shapes the 'Next' Canada?

A survey finds Canadians highly attached to their country, but pulled apart by polarized visions of the future.

By Michael Valpy 1 Jan 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year's recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at michael.valpy@utoronto.ca. Five pieces from Valpy's larger series are being published with permission by The Tyee.

[Editor's note: This is the third of five pieces The Tyee is publishing from "Me, You, Us," an investigation by journalist and author Michael Valpy into social cohesion in Canada -- what binds us together, what draws us apart. The five pieces are part of Valpy's 2013 Atkinson Series, recently published in its entirety by the Toronto Star.]

Canadians are more attached to their country than the people of any other advanced democracy on Earth, says Ottawa's EKOS Research Associates, which for decades has gauged the glue that holds the nation together.

We beat out Americans, who rank second, and are strides ahead of Mexicans, according to a North America-wide survey compiled by EKOS in November.

We're hooked on the place we call home and so, very quickly, are new arrivals. First comes belonging to family and then comes Canada. Indeed, research by EKOS, which has worked side by side with a year-long Atkinson Foundation project examining the state of social cohesion in Canada, finds that foreign-born Canadians have a marginally stronger attachment to the country than do native born -- 77 per cent versus 75 per cent.

In any event, the bond has been high across all demographic cohorts for at least the past 15 years except for a modest decline among the young, says EKOS president Frank Graves.

In a testament to how well our multiculturalism still works, EKOS finds no differences in values held by native-born and foreign-born Canadians.

Indeed, it finds that the percentage of Canadians attached to ethnic identities is dropping dramatically -- down 20 percentage points over the past 20 years despite rising barriers to integration posed by a diminishing supply of good jobs and the fact that virtually all newcomers belong to so-called visible minorities.

In fact, if Quebecers' and aboriginals' lukewarm feelings toward Canada are factored out -- less than 40 per cent of Quebecers report a strong attachment to the country -- Graves says Canadians' bond to their land would very likely lead the world.

But now for the dark side.

Bonds unraveling

What EKOS and the research project sponsored by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, in partnership with the Honderich family and the Toronto Star, conclude is that the bonds that hold Canadians together are unravelling, leaving a nation profoundly polarized along fault-lines of age, education and the workplace.

Young, highly educated and progressive "next Canada" is disconnecting itself from formal participation in Canada's democracy. The percentage that voted in the 2011 federal election was under 40 per cent and Graves predicts it may well slip into the teens by the next election or two.

"Next Canada" sees a nation shaped by public institutions, chiefly governments, that favour aging Boomers who vote en masse and heavily en bloc for Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

"The net result is a gerontocracy that reflects the exaggerated and imagined fears of older Canada precisely at a time when the country urgently needs the more optimistic and innovative outlooks of the relatively scarcer younger portion of our society," says Graves.

And the arrival of Harper's Conservative administration, the first national government to govern clearly (or at least rhetorically) from the right, has resulted in a polarized, ideological Canada -- not unique to Canada but forcefully present.

Canadians' trust in their national democracy has reached a historic 50-year low. In 1956, almost 75 per cent of Canadians said they trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By late last year, only 28 per cent did.

A mere four years ago, 45 per cent thought their democracy was healthy. A year ago — before the clusterduffy struck — only 33 per cent did.

In 2004, 42 per cent of Canadians thought the federal government was moving in the wrong direction. By mid-2013, 56 per cent did.

Despite being governed by an ideological conservative administration on the right, Canadians as a whole are significantly less connected to social conservative values than they were 20 years ago and only 25 per cent share the government's values.

An EKOS poll for the Atkinson project found that nearly 40 per cent of Canadians would break a federal law with which they don't agree. And only 15 per cent of younger Canadians, and 25 per cent of older Canadians, say they trust each other.

Polarization -- primarily along age and education fault-lines -- has taken place around the role and power of the state, around foreign policy, around civil rights versus national security, austerity versus social investment and, most profoundly, around fears of economic insecurity.

Support for the Harper administration draws together those who support small-c conservative values and minimalist government and those who are still optimistic about their economic futures.

Thus both values and economic self-interest along with a lot of grey hair unify the Conservative Party vote -- 38 per cent in the 2011 election -- in a way that doesn't unify or motivate those who don't like their economic futures or who don't connect with social-conservative values.

This second group comprises the biggest chunk of the population but it is politically shapeless: the young, the university educated and cosmopolitan, most Quebecers, the expanding swaths of the middle class and immigrants who are slipping into economic dejection and workplace precariousness and realizing that the dream of progress, of inevitable social and economic betterment, is likely at an end.

Middle class in crisis

Canada's middle class is in emotional crisis, sunk in resentment, stagnancy and insecurity, and deeply pessimistic about its economic and social future. The bleak statistics of inequality are replacing social inclusivity as the country's new norm.

A just-published, exhaustive inquiry into inequality edited by public policy scholars Keith Banting and John Myles reports that transfers and what's left of Canada's progressive tax system no longer offsets the growth of inequality generated by the market.Over the past decade and a half, says EKOS, the middle two out of three Canadians who called themselves middle class has dropped to a little more than one out of two. Think of what that means: People are deselecting themselves from the middle class. It is a phenomenon EKOS's Graves says he's never before encountered.

Finally, a small survey of Quebecers' attitudes toward the rest of Canada show the two solitudes are increasingly that: solitudes. Quebecers see their English-speaking co-citizens as dull, conservative, still in the grip of religion and, in the West, as U.S.-style cowboys. Meanwhile, they see themselves as laid-back romantics and visionaries with a better sense of humour.

In large part, Canada's fragmenting social cohesion is a systemic issue: Like all the advanced democracies, Canada is becoming a more individualistic society. We actually are falling apart, less connected to each other through our communities and families and especially our workplaces. That's not new although it's accelerating.

The erosion of basic trust today, says Graves, "is a threat to both social cohesion and even economic performance. Skepticism and wariness are useful up to a point, but it's hard to make much progress when so many people mistrust so many others so much of the time."  [Tyee]

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