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A Future History of the COVID-19 Crisis


[Ottawa – May 12, 2020] As Canadians continue to work their way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we would like to take the opportunity to present an update of how the public see this crisis evolving. We begin with an update on the federal political landscape, which provides an important means for understanding how views on the pandemic are linked to partisanship and other factors. However, our main purpose is to understand how this crisis is playing out in the public’s mind and how they see the future of Canada and the world unfolding.

The political landscape has shifted in important ways. The Liberals are in commanding 14-point lead over the second-place Conservatives, which would produce a massive majority in the unlikely event of an election in the near future. Many of the key demographic and regional fractures that gripped the country in January are much smaller, although the Conservatives have held on to their leads in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the only places where they lead. The Liberals have massive leads in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic. An exception to the diminution of demographic partisan gaps is gender; the Liberals have an astonishing 50-to-21 per cent lead over the Conservatives with women, while the parties are in a dead heat with men.

National and federal direction remains remarkably high but have softened somewhat over the past few weeks. The softening is largely due to steeper declines in approval among men and residents of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Approval numbers for federal and provincial leaders remain very high. This reflects broad satisfaction with the performance of governments in general and federalism in particular during this crisis. Ford’s numbers are up and Legault’s are down somewhat. A miniscule 12 per cent of Canadians approve of Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis, but those numbers are considerably higher among Conservative and People’s Party supporters.

Before we get to the post-COVID-19 world, we have to negotiate safe passage through a treacherous, uncertain, pre-vaccine world. The poll asked Canadians a number of hypothetical questions about the future. The results help shed light on some of the challenges and opportunities that are emerging in public outlook.

The horizon for the end of this crisis is receding further into the future. As time goes on, the fragile consensus to act safely dissipates. This is a critical challenge.

Most experts are of the view that this crisis will not truly end until a vaccine is discovered and ready for delivery, though it is not clear that mandatory vaccination would be necessary as a very large voluntary fraction of population might be adequate. It is, however, important to note the significant and somewhat surprising levels of opposition given the critical importance of a vaccine to full recovery and that the public will to continue current social distance starts unravelling as time goes on. Opposition is centred in Alberta and Saskatchewan and men, the less educated and Conservative supporters. This pattern is evident much of the research we have been conducting lately.

In stark recognition of what seems to be the expert consensus, 85 per cent of Canadians expect a second wave in the fall and this splits Canadians into two equally sized groups; those who think this second wave will be milder versus those who say worse. As in many other indicators, we see a strong pattern here. Those who have higher risk perceptions are much more likely to be exhibiting safe behaviour and to accept futures measures such as vaccine. Those who discount the risk are much less compliant and accepting of future measures. They follow familiar patters noted earlier (men, the less educated, and Conservative supporters are all more likely to discount the possibility of a second wave). From related research, we see this fault line as the critical divide shaping the debate about the future.

In searching for some positives in the short-term ruins of the pandemic, we are seeing some signs that this might be a segue to a better future which may not have been attainable without this tremendous shock to societies. This is not clear yet but bears careful attention in the coming months. It may provide greater hope and it may be a debate that needs to be enjoined sooner rather than later. The fault lines noted earlier also permeate to the heart of the contest for the future, which most think will be vividly different than the pre-COVID-19 status-quo.

There is receptivity, with important divisions, to the idea that the crisis has laid bare certain features which more hidden before the crisis struck. A plurality believe it has revealed some ugly truths about the values we placed on the lives of the elderly and vulnerable. Many also believe that it has revealed some of the previously hidden injuries of social class. There are also a sizable majority who think this crisis has signalled the future importance of environment and climate change over carbon energy. In each of these cases, there is a significant minority (between 20 and 25 per cent) who dismiss these revelations. The same educational, regional, gender, and partisan divides noted earlier are strongly linked to these issues.

This sets the stage for the really big question of whether we are going to see a major transformation or a return to the status quo and, if a transformation, in what direction. Most of us think that we are on the cusp of a broad transformation. Out of all this sadness, economic grief, and death, can we imagine the possibility that this will allow us to do some of the profound changes that otherwise would have been impossible?

We end on a note about how we collectively think we will grade our national response when we look back two years from now. The modal answer is a B; good, but not excellent.


This survey was conducted using High Definition Interactive Voice Response (HD-IVR™) technology, which allows respondents to enter their preferences by punching the keypad on their phone, rather than telling them to an operator. In an effort to reduce the coverage bias of landline only RDD, we created a dual landline/cell phone RDD sampling frame for this research. As a result, we are able to reach those with a landline and cell phone, as well as cell phone only households and landline only households.

The field dates for this survey are April 30-May 7, 2020. In total, a random sample of 5,276 Canadians aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 1.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, and region to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Ontario according to Census data.

Please click here for the full report.

Please click here for the data tables.

Please click here for a copy of the questionnaire that was used for this survey.

2 comments to A Future History of the COVID-19 Crisis

  • S D Chakrabarti

    Great to see MB and SK results presented separately. These are 2 very different places (unlike Atlantic Canada) which deserve their own graphs. MB is Ontario lite, while SK increasingly resembles Southern Alberta. Keep up the good work!

  • f nord

    It would be helpful to understand how the class categories are defined, i.e., poor, working class, middle class, upper class.
    Particularly since, last I heard, a whole lot of poor people are also workers.

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