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Canada Keeps the Populist Forces at Bay

One of Canada’s leading thinkers on public opinion, demographics, and trends, and the president of the Environics group of research and communications consulting companies, Michael Adams delivers ground-breaking social research, customising his talks to make his findings relevant to whatever type of organization he is speaking to. Below, Michael writes (with Keith Neuman) on why Canada (so far) has not fallen victim to populism:

In his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce points to spreading anti-government sentiment and populism (most boldly typified by U.S. President Donald Trump and Brexit) as symptoms that now threaten a collapse of the world order of democracy and reason. This analysis focuses largely on the United States and Europe, but what’s happening in Canada?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen by many as the antithesis of Mr. Trump, and in Ottawa it is largely business as usual – in stark contrast to the chaos currently unfolding in Washington and London. But is there growing anti-government sentiment bubbling under the surface? Are we kidding ourselves that the craziness happening south of the border can’t happen here? Early this year, global PR firm Edelman released its latest “global trust barometer” presenting evidence for just such a trend, concluding that “Canada can no longer count itself as immune from the global trend of populism and sinking institutional trust.”

This bold conclusion merits further examination. This spring, Environics Institute conducted the latest in a series of national public opinion surveys on how Canadians view their democracy and central institutions of government. This is the latest instalment of the Canadian portion of an international AmericasBarometer research program, which is conducted every two or three years across the Western Hemisphere.

The results of this research could not be clearer.

The Canadian public’s level of confidence in its country’s democracy and system of government has remained remarkably stable since 2014, and largely consistent with results dating back to at least 2010.

Across more than three dozen measures, public trust levels have either held steady or showed modest improvement in comparison with three years ago. For instance, eight in 10 (79 per cent) Canadians now say they are very, if not somewhat, satisfied with the way democracy works in this country, continuing a small but noticeable upward trend dating back to 2010, when 70 per cent expressed this view. Four in 10 (41 per cent) now have a lot of trust in the way elections are held in this country, up 20 percentage points from 2014, when public controversy swirled around robocalls influencing the previous federal election.

Further, we find no evidence of growing anti-government feelings or populist aspirations. And polarized views between those on the left and the right of the political spectrum have actually diminished noticeably, mostly because progressive Canadians are now much more comfortable with the current federal government than they were in 2014, when Stephen Harper was in charge.

It is hardly the case that Canadians give a full vote of confidence, as few have strong trust in such institutions as Parliament (19 per cent), political parties (10 per cent) and the mass media (16 per cent). But the public has long expressed skepticism about these institutions and such opinions have shown modest improvement over the past three years. What’s more, it is among the youngest cohort of voting-age adults (of ages 18 to 29) where engagement and confidence in the country’s institutions has strengthened most noticeably since 2014, reversing or erasing a previous generation gap.

Canada may be avoiding the downward spiral affecting other Western countries because our economy and middle class are holding firm. Survey results show Canadians are feeling more confident about the national economy and their own household finances, compared with three years ago. Income inequality is a reality in this country, but has yet to produce a growing divide between income classes when it comes to opinions about the country’s democracy and institutions. We have yet to see an emerging segment of people feeling economically and politically alienated, which might fuel the kind of backlash now spreading in other countries.

Of course, public sentiments can change. A major economic downturn or a significant terrorist attack on our home soil, if combined with a charismatic populist leader, could shift the public mood toward xenophobic populism and away from our democratic and inclusive traditions. But so far, it is not happening here and we would do well to properly recognize this as we celebrate 150 years in this place (or 15,000 if you are Indigenous); and to figure out how peace, order and good government can continue to be secured.

Michael Adams and Keith Neuman/Globe and Mail/July, 2017