POLITICS
01/22/2018 16:47 EST | Updated 01/23/2018 10:25 EST

Canadians Aren't As Open-Minded As Some Think, Poll Suggests

Could Trump or Brexit happen here?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting on Jan. 18, 2018 in Quebec City.
Jacques Boissinot/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting on Jan. 18, 2018 in Quebec City.

OTTAWA — Canada's reputation as a nation with an open and optimistic world view that flies in the face of rising pessimism and nationalism elsewhere is being challenged by new research suggesting many Canadians hold views acutely in line with some of those darker forces.

Fewer than half of Canadians appear on the "open" side of a index devised by EKOS Research and The Canadian Press to gauge populist sentiment here, and the remainder either have a closed-off view of the world or are on the fence — a potentially volatile swing group.

The research aggregated polls involving 12,604 people to explore to what extent Canadians' views are in line with voters who backed two of the most surprising manifestations of 21st century populism in recent years — Donald Trump's campaign for U.S. president and the exit of Britain from the European Union.

Earlier: Trudeau talks populism

Both were understood to be the results of rising discontent among those sideswiped by technological, cultural and economic transformation and seeking to regain some measure of control by eschewing the political status quo in favour of a dramatic new approach.

Whether Canada could be facing a similar issue has been a question ever since.

The results of the study suggest 46 per cent of Canadians are open-minded towards the world and each other, with the highest numbers found in B.C. and the Atlantic provinces.

But 30 per cent report feeling economically and culturally insecure, a sentiment found in the largest numbers in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The remainder — roughly 25 per cent — have a mixed view.

To gauge where Canadians sit, EKOS Research and The Canadian Press aggregated responses to questions posed in two telephone polls between June and December about people's perceptions of their economic outlook, class mobility, ethnic fluency and tolerance. Pollsters also asked whether they believed such movements were good or not.

Old partisan markers are less relevant to debate

The results were in turn plotted on a spectrum from "open" to "ordered" — a new way of classifying people's political viewpoints that goes beyond the traditional right-versus-left.

The old partisan markers are driven by fiscal and social philosophies and are less a part of today's political debate that broader opinions about how the world should be run, said EKOS President Frank Graves.

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"The left-right has mutated under these pressures into this 'ordered-open' and it brings along some of the traditional left-right, but it brings along a lot of new divisions," Graves said.

"The questions now are: Do you want to pull up the drawbridge? What do you think about people who don't have the same skin colour as you? What do you think about the importance of tolerating dissent or having a more-ordered versus a more-chaotic or creative society?"

The telephone polls had a margin of error of 0.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

OPEN: The Atlantic region

The research reveals the complex nature of what EKOS has called "northern populism.'

For example, 50 per cent of those surveyed in the Atlantic region hold an "open" view. That means they feel positive about their economic future and class mobility and have a perception of the ethnic make-up of the country that most closely mirrors reality. They're also the least likely to view populism as a positive force.

Yet, in the Atlantic, the population is older, less diverse and somewhat less educated that other regions.

Those are all factors understood to underpin a more closed-minded view of the world: supporters of Britain's exit from the E.U. were more likely to have lower incomes than those who voted to stay, and lower levels of education as well.

Graves pointed out that the region's dependence on immigration to sustain its fiscal future likely influences the rankings there, and also a coastal culture that literally provides a more open view of the world.

ORDERED: Oshawa, Ont.

The economy of Oshawa — despite the precarious state of the auto industry — is growing, median income levels are high and so are the numbers of people with post-secondary degrees. Yet, 38 per cent of those polled in that city skewed towards having a more ordered view of the world. No city had more people on that side of the spectrum.

"Where you live is instructive, and the collective economic experiences and the demographic is also important. But they are by no means deterministic," Graves said.

"It means that communities can choose to take different routes."

Many people have held up the diversity of Canada's major centres as a reason why a populism rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment that was part of both Trump's victory and Brexit could never take hold here.

Canadian populism shares more with southern American populism than people think.EKOS president Frank Graves

The research suggests however that in the suburbs of those centres, some of which feature exceptionally high concentrations of single ethnic groups, people can be just as much in search of a more traditional order as those in the rural pockets of the country.

"Canadian populism shares more with southern American populism than people think, but there are some important and distinct differences," Graves said.

"One of the most important is that populism in Canada is not rooted in just the white population; in fact there isn't any significant difference across white and non-white portions of the population in Canada."

MIXED: a prime political target

Questions about class and inequality are top of mind this week as world leaders meet in Davos, Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum. Among them is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and an entourage of Liberal cabinet ministers.

"We must have the full and equal participation of all to have economies that work for everyone and a future that is fairer, more inclusive, and more compassionate," Trudeau said in a statement ahead of the trip.

It's a message that the 25 per cent of Canadians who fall into the "mixed" category in the study are meant to hear, suggested Graves.

"That's a swing group," Graves said.

"They are probably people who were on the 'open' side 10 years ago. You can argue that if you can't produce a sense that there is a hopeful future then this problem is going to get bigger (rather) than smaller."