Canada’s place in the world? There’s very little we agree on

A new poll funded by the Donner Foundation finds Canadians have increasingly polarized views on world affairs
A nation divided
Baz Ratner/Reuters

America’s best days are behind it; the future belongs to China and India. On that Canadians can agree, but not much else. An assessment of Canadians’ world view finds a country riven by fault lines of politics, ideology, education and age. We can’t agree whether our foreign and environmental policies leave us embarrassed or proud, or whether the country is headed for salvation or perdition. We’ve put fears of terrorism behind us, but we can’t agree which threat takes its place. “On issues of international relations, foreign policy and our place in the world, we really have two different Canadas here now,” says Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, which surveyed 2001 Canadians between March 6 and 11. “We don’t seem to have the same level of unanimity or consensus that would have existed a decade ago, when Canadians were relatively common-minded, thinking, ‘Okay, we’re good guys, everyone likes us out there.’ ”

The poll, Rethinking Canada’s Place in the World, was financed by the Donner Foundation. The full results will be released March 20 at the Walter Gordon symposium on public policy, organized by graduate students at Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Government at the University of Toronto. The symposium’s theme is multilateralism and global governance, and in these areas the poll discovered a profound loss of faith. Just 14 per cent had confidence in the International Monetary Fund, and only one in four were confident in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Most telling are hardening views on the United Nations, where blue-helmeted peacekeepers were long a source of national pride. While 49 per cent of Canadians called the UN “the best current option available for ensuring world peace and security,” 39 per cent agreed it was a “toothless” institution with little relevance to global security. Yet in a 2003 poll, three-quarters held the UN in high regard. “Canadians have always been big fans of the UN and of multilateralism in general,” said Graves.“Very little of that seems to have survived the last decade.”

Division and change were constant themes Graves saw in the results. “It’s hard to come up with one common prayer book that’s going to work for all Canadians right now.” Among the examples:

The sum of all fears

As recently as 2006, almost 70 per cent of Canadians considered the world a more dangerous place than five years earlier. That’s fallen in this survey to 44 per cent. The perceived global threats we face have also changed. Economic collapse holds the greatest fear for 35 per cent, followed by climate change for 24 per cent, and overpopulation and hunger for 20 per cent. Remarkably, the threat of terrorism that dominated economic and security policy in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is considered the greatest threat by just nine per cent today. Drill deeper, though, and divisions emerge. Economic collapse ranks as the greatest threat to 47 per cent of those intending to vote Conservative. Terrorism ranks a distant second for them at 19 per cent. Climate change is the greatest threat to New Democrats and people under 25. Terrorism ranks dead last for both. The Liberals, in a battle between heart and wallet, put the economic threat slightly above climate change.

With the fading terrorist threat comes renewed respect for civil liberties and privacy. Immediate post-9/11 support for increasing police and intelligence agency powers, “even if it means Canadians have to give up some personal privacy safeguards,” was backed by three people to every one opposed. Today, in a mirror-image reversal, increasing policing powers is opposed by roughly three people to every one in support. “It’s clear now we may finally be moving out of the shadow of Sept. 11,” said Graves.

The shame game

There’s nothing like a Conservative majority to put a spring in Tory steps and raise the ire of the rest. Some 54 per cent of Conservative-leaning voters are more proud of Canada’s global reputation today compared to 10 years ago under the Liberals. Meantime, 60 per cent or more of Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc call themselves “more embarrassed” about Canada’s place in the world. The shame is also felt by the university educated, while those who graduated from college tend to share the Tory sense of pride. It goes without saying that 91 per cent of Conservative-leaning voters say the government is moving in the “right direction”—though that is the minority view of the university educated, women, visible minorities and supporters of every other political party. Nationally, 39 per cent back the Conservative sense of direction; 48 per cent said the government is headed the wrong way.

Canada’s environmental record is another source of pain for many. Fewer than 17 per cent of respondents felt it has a positive effect on Canada’s international reputation. Half felt it hurt Canada’s reputation abroad. Large majorities of all opposition parties lamented Canada’s environmental record. Even among Tories, just 22 per cent claim the country’s environmental record was a positive in world opinion while 44 per cent said it had no effect.

Canada’s new military swagger also sits well with Conservatives. Some 75 per cent of them are “proud of Canada’s new military might.” Conversely, 61 per cent of Liberals, 68 per cent of New Democrats and 69 per cent of the Bloc are “worried by all this focus on the military.”

“Canadians who support the government are bursting with pride. They feel that we’ve rectified a lot of flaws in foreign policy,” said Graves. A larger group of Canadians feel unease. “There is sort of this nostalgia for when Canada was seen as kind of the world’s Boy Scout—we’re really clean, we’re big on foreign aid and diplomacy. That’s not seen as the dominant view anymore.”

A farewell to arms

Canadians have been seared by Canada’s intervention in Afghanistan. Some 41 per cent rate Canada’s long, bloody military role in that country as unsuccessful. Just 13 per cent call it an unqualified success. Canadians appreciate the heroism and efforts of the soldiers, said Graves. “But they think if you’re going to evaluate this by most of the yardsticks we would have used going in [such things as open trade, personal freedoms and flowering democracy] then, sorry, it’s been a crushing failure.” Perhaps for that reason, more Canadians, 39 per cent, said our foreign policy “is focusing too much on defence to the exclusion of diplomacy.” A solid 46 per cent of Conservatives refute that view.

The U.S., eh?

A stunning 72 per cent of respondents agree that “American dominance peaked in the last century.” On the rise are China and Southeast Asia, in the opinion of the 64 per cent who picked them as the next decade’s economic winners. Though Canada and the U.S. are the world’s largest trading partners, Canadians favour tying trade to China, followed by the European Union and India. The U.S. is the fourth choice. Declining faith in North America’s future seems to have eroded enthusiasm for continental free trade. Support plunged from near 80 per cent a decade ago to 54 per cent today. “It’s sort of bye-bye Yankees, hello China.” said Graves. “It’s almost shocking, this kind of promiscuous break, a whiplash-like defection from our pals down south.”

The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/-2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The University of Toronto’s annual Walter Gordon Symposium on public policy will take place at 10 a.m. in the Upper Library of Massey College, 4 Devonshire Place, in Toronto on Tuesday March 20, 2012. Please RSVP to [email protected]. (Space is limited).