Does Canada Need More Canada?

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In the summer of 2016, in his address to Parliament, then President Barack Obama lamented the current state of world affairs and famously said “The world needs more Canada.” He talked of a decline in social cohesion and the need to resist anger and fear, to fight injustice and inequality, to be more inclusive and to promote diversity. In the context of his speech he did note that Canada needed to pay its fair share toward international security efforts but he concluded with an approving nod to Canada’s social history, practices, and values, noting that the world would benefit if Canada was more involved.

As Canadians, we always feel better about ourselves when looked upon with admiration. Yet there are troubling signs that the Canadian social consensus Obama was praising is fraying. There is a growing ideological divide in Canadian society on complex policy issues, resulting in increasingly polarized political debate. We face an erosion of trust in, and support for, government and its institutions, conventions and practices. This growing decline in Canadian social cohesion is putting the ability of our governments to find consensus-based, shared and workable solutions at risk.

Thus, as we move into an election campaign, it is timely to ask: “Does Canada need more Canada?”

Since Obama’s lament, internationally the state of social cohesion continues to head in the wrong direction. Populism and its offshoots have led to political gridlock south of the border and the Brexit debacle in Britain. These provide clear manifestations of declining social cohesion, policy polarization and an inability of governments to solve problems. However, these social divisions are not confined to the U.S. or Britain.

According to a 2018 Ipsos study of 27 countries, 59% of citizens feel that their country is more divided today than a decade ago. In Britain, a whopping 85% believe their country is divided, followed closely by the United States at 84%. Even in Sweden, the poster child for all things progressive and calm, 73% feel their country is more divided than a decade ago, the third highest rate of the 27 countries studied.

Although Canada fares better, 62% think the country is divided and 51% believe that things have gotten worse over the past decade. Though relatively muted, there are worrisome signs of a decline in trust in government, its institutions and indeed in fellow Canadians. Ipsos found that 60% of Canadians have no, or not very much confidence, in government. Political parties fared worse at 74%. Not only are Canadians losing faith in government and politicians, we are losing faith in ourselves — 60% believe that other Canadians don’t care about facts on politics or society anymore, they just believe what they want.

Our natural tendency is to reduce complex problems into digestible bits and explanations. Thus, some argue that the decline in trust is caused by governments’ poor performance. Others say that social and economic factors such as increasing the speed of change, income disparity, generational differences and the rise of tribalism are driving the lack of confidence. However, it is more complicated. Even if we could identify any individual factor that has led to the social cohesion big bang, would it matter? We live in a complex world where both causes and effects have become co-dependent and re-enforcing.

One thing is clear: declining social cohesion is making it more difficult for all governments to discuss and find consensus for the big and important challenges they face. Historically, citizens looked to government and political parties to provide the platform to debate large issues and to put forward solutions based on a generally accepted consensus or at least reasoned argument. That is not to say there was not heated debate, however, we seemed as Canadians to be able to find resolution in a civil manner.

Dividing the electorate is not a new political tactic. Wedge issues such as taxes, immigration, gun control, crime, and the role of government have at various times been used to draw a contrast with competing political parties and ideologies. What is a relatively new phenomenon is the emergence of “wedge solutions.” Wedge solutions occur when everyone generally agrees there is a problem, but battle lines are drawn around a quick, easy and ideological solution. Instead of engaging and building consensus on complex problems, we are divided, fired up, and asked to choose between black and white choices.

While we may never achieve perfect peace in the political valley, we must find a way to talk about the big issues, to explore options and to find common and credible solutions that avoid division and ideological posturing. It is critical in our geographically, linguistically and multi-culturally diverse country that we focus on finding cross-cutting solutions to the large challenges we face, such as climate change, the future of health care, the changing nature of work and the innovation economy, unaffordable housing, Canada’s role in the world and reconciliation.

While trust in government is declining, the private sector is moving to capitalize on Canadians desire to have an impact on social change and tackle some of the bigger issues facing society. Companies are more than happy to push forward products with a social purpose or to choose a side on a contentious social issue if it will lead to more sales. While this may seem innocuous and just good business, it will also make government’s perceived role in our society even murkier than it is today. We may well see an increasing influence of private sector solutions resulting from the perceived ineffectiveness of governments to get things done.

The Institute on Governance is joining forces with Ipsos to produce a series called Governing Past the Next Election. The series will include thought pieces examining important challenges facing Canada and how we can overcome them in the wake of declining social cohesion. It will combine Ipsos survey-based opinion data with the expertise and insights of the Institute on Governance as well as other expert commentators. It will put the big issues squarely on the table to spur debate and offer objective and practical approaches for key decision-makers and Canadians with the aim of strengthening social cohesion and the value of government.

Which brings us back to our original question: Does Canada need more Canada? We think the answer is “Yes.” Whatever the cause of declining social cohesion, the antidote might well be Canadians ourselves and the values we hold. While there is no official list of Canadian values, it most certainly would include: fairness, diversity, inclusion, tolerance, and equity.

Our values are at odds with the current state of political affairs and debate. The good news is that widely-held values will trump political rhetoric and social media hysteria anytime. The answer may well lie in remembering who we are and what we stand for as Canadians. If we can do that, the tone will change, and the politicians will follow.

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This article is the first in the Governing Past the Next Election series with Ipsos Canada. You can visit the series webpage here.

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About the author

Brad Graham

Brad Graham

Vice President, Toronto

Brad Graham is Vice President of the Institute on Governance (IOG), Toronto. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. An economist, Brad spent 25 years in the Ontario Public Service including as Assistant Deputy Minister in the Ministries of Public Infrastructure, Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Research and Innovation. He held other senior positions in the Ministries of Health and Finance. Brad Graham was awarded Ontario’s Amethyst Award for excellence in public service.