Careful, cautious Canucks no more
OTTAWA - ONCE MOCKED for taking moderation to an extreme, Canadians are demonstrating a new aptitude for risk as they explore the outer fringes of the new social and economic order.
Along with the times, Canadians are changing. More remarkable still, after facing some of the most profound and rapid mutations in history, they expect and want more.
``We have moved from future shock to becoming fluxophiles,'' says Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research. ``Over the past decade, Canadians have not only dealt with change, they have come to the conclusion it is in their interest.''
Support for that analysis is found in the startling results of a survey conducted this summer as part of a continuing Ekos project on rethinking government. In that broad sampling of 1,505 people across the country, only 4 per cent said change is a bad thing, compared to the 66 per cent who embraced it as mostly positive.
Not surprisingly, those attitudes were reflected in a quiet confidence in the future. A majority of those surveyed believe society will become richer over the next 10 years and that Canada will enjoy an even stronger position on the world stage.
The absence of directly comparable data makes it impossible to accurately measure the attitudinal shift that has taken place since Canadians first faced globalization, the information age and the relentless assault on traditional social values. Still, Graves is certain it is real and loaded with implications for everything from politics to social consensus.
``I do think there is a qualitative difference in the way we look at change and the way our parents, and their parents, looked at it,'' he says.
Graves says he believes that while most Canadians still have a healthy regard for the risks associated with change, on balance, they see them as an acceptable and inevitable part of the fast-moving kaleidoscope of modern life.
That acceptance morphs into aggression when Canadians are asked to consider the future of their national political institutions and the country itself. Asked in July to assess how much the country needs to change, 71 per cent said a high level is required and another 24 per cent felt a moderate need for reform. Remarkably, only 5 per cent rated change as a low priority.
For politicians, particularly those facing a federal election no later than next spring, those results present intriguing challenges. While voters clearly have a soft spot for change, it means quite different things to different demographic groups.
As Graves has identified and tracked in his continuing studies, Canadians are separated by yawning value gaps. In addition to the profound and worrisome differences in ability to take advantage of the new economy, a majority of Canadians don't believe they share values and attitudes with decision-makers in government and business. Most Canadians think that those splits are widening and are a major problem for the country.
Adding another layer of complexity, Graves' surveys find equally wide divides between government and business leaders. Top government officials tilt toward the traditional liberal approach of building society through social investment, including more support for health and education. Their private-sector counterparts, who overwhelmingly identify themselves as conservatives, favour smaller government, tax cuts and more emphasis on laissez-faire individualism.
Somewhere between those poles is the great Canadian public. Unlike the country's elites, most people place themselves in the neutral centre of the political and philosophical spectrum even though they share with Ottawa's mandarins an appetite for strong public institutions, equality of opportunity and a safety net strong enough to catch the falling.
Project all of this on the wide screen of the coming federal election and a multi-level, if still slightly out of focus, picture emerges.
On one level, Canadians demanding change are being asked to choose between a shop-worn leader of a party often accused of having no vision and a pumped-up newcomer promising to do things differently. But look deeper and the images change.
After successfully steering through the turbulent '90s, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien enjoys high public trust while his party is currently constructing a policy platform near where most voters stand. In contrast, Canadian Alliance and soon-to-be Official Opposition Leader Stockwell Day is selling change but promising social policies that would take Canadians back to the past.
If Graves' polls and analysis accurately map the national landscape, Canadians are ready for something more bold, challenging and rewarding than a nostalgic return to a utopian white-picket-fence world that never really existed.
Instead, they are ready to take a chance on real change; change that would bring more responsive democracy along with more accountable and innovative government.
Seen through that prism, change is more appealing and less frightening than the past or the status quo.