Canada is not hopelessly divided, but our politicians can always make things worse

As the so-called “freedom convoy” besieges Ottawa in February, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said in the House of Commons that Canada was “more divided than ever”.

It wasn’t entirely a new idea. After the 2019 election, then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer told the House that “deep cracks are appearing in Confederation and that the Prime Minister has divided this country as it has never been before”.

Many Canadians agree with Bergen — 60% of respondents to a survey conducted by Abacus Data in mid-February said Canada was “more divided than usual”.

Two separate polls conducted in March revealed similar beliefs. According to a Angus Reid Institute survey82% of respondents said the pandemic has driven people apart instead of bringing them together.

WATCH: Candice Bergen accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of dividing Canadians

Interim Conservative leader says government actions have divided Canadians

During question period, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen questioned the government’s actions and accused it of dividing Canadians. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair responded, saying the government was doing everything it could to get the country out of the pandemic safely. 1:11

A survey conducted by the Canadian Center for Applied and Social Research at the University of Saskatchewan, 72% of respondents said the pandemic had divided Canadians, 73% felt the same way about last fall’s federal election, and 75% of respondents said Canada was ” more polarized” than it was a year ago.

Even the Prime Minister recognized a need for healing after the convoy left Ottawa. “Look, in the heat of the moment, we can all get carried away trying to win an argument,” Justin Trudeau said, perhaps acknowledging that he had taken some of his own rhetoric too far. “But not every conversation has to be about winning an argument.”

People hold a sign protesting against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and vaccinations during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, January 29, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Bergen’s concern has not gone away in the weeks since order was restored to the nation’s capital. In her statement responding to the announcement of the Liberal-NDP deal two weeks ago, Bergen said she was concerned about its potential impact on “political polarization” and “national unity.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss these concerns altogether. The tension of the past two years should not be underestimated.

But Canadians may not be as divided as they think they are.

It is certainly not the case that this country has never been more divided. The most politically controversial episode in Canada is probably the conscription crisis and federal election of 1917. And the century that followed saw many deep conflicts: the October Crisis, the Quebec referendum in 1980, “let the bastards from the east freeze in the dark», the debate on free trade, the failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown agreements, the Oka crisis, the Quebec referendum in 1995.

If nothing else, this list is a reminder that Canada faced perilous times in the past and somehow found a way to survive.

The pandemic, more than any recent political issue, may have caused direct and personal conflict between friends and family members through disputes over health precautions, mask-wearing and vaccinations. But we risk overestimating the degree of division unleashed by the pandemic.

Some Canadian clinics, like this one in Ottawa, have used costumed performers, stickers and balloons to make the vaccination process more comfortable for children ages 5 to 11. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

According to the latest data, 82% of Canadians have received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, nine points higher than the vaccination rate in the United Kingdom and 16 points higher than the rate in the United States. United. When the possibility of requiring vaccination in certain settings became a political issue last summer, support for these mandates been just as high.

Focusing on the turmoil of the pandemic also obscures a number of other things Canadians agree on, including half a dozen consensus points that emerge from surveys conducted by the Environics Institute over the past last two years.

Most people agree on the big things

Seventy-three percent of Canadians, for example, are satisfied with the how democracy works in canada. Eighty-nine percent strongly or somewhat agree that more needs to be done to promote women’s equality. Seventy-seven percent strongly or somewhat disagree with the suggestion that discrimination against indigenous peoples is not a problem. And 68% strongly or somewhat disagree with the statement that discrimination against Black Canadians is not a problem.

Eighty percent of Canadians strongly or somewhat agree that immigration has a positive impact on the economy and 65% disagree with statements that immigration rates are too high. Seventy-three percent say governments should act to reduce the gap between rich and poor and 74% strongly or somewhat support the federal equalization program (including 57% in Alberta).

Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute, notes that agreement on many of these issues has grown over time, or at least remained stable.

Although partisan debate may suggest otherwise, there is also broad consensus on climate and energy issues.

In 2021, for example, Environics found that a majority of voters in every province – including Alberta – expressed at least some support for phasing out fossil fuel use. last fall, Abacus Data found that 69% of Canadians believe there is “strong” or “conclusive” evidence of global warming and 75% believe that the primary cause of climate change is human and industrial activity that consumes fossil fuels.

Sixty-six percent said governments in Canada should put more emphasis on policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while only 15% said governments should put less emphasis on these policies.

where are the differences

But opinion at the national level masks some important differences between parties and regions. Among Liberal and New Democrat voters, support for the government’s focus on reducing emissions was 77% and 78%, respectively. Only 44% of Conservative voters felt the same way. In Alberta, the figure was 48%.

A similar divide can be found on gun control, and conservative voters are also less enthusiastic about requiring vaccinations in some settings.

Stewart Perst, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, reported such splits in November when he claimed that the dividing lines in last fall’s federal election were not in the middle of the political spectrum — they crossed the conservative party.

In other words, if Conservative politicians seem particularly concerned about the divisions in the country, it is perhaps because they are the ones who experience them most directly.

A group of anti-mask protesters, including one holding a QAnon sign, gather in Calgary on September 27, 2020. (Helen Pike/CBC)

This does not mean that these shortcomings are not worth taking into account. And there are other shortcomings worth noting – like the growing divergence between liberal and conservative parties along urban and rural boundaries or the fact that, according to Environics, 62% of Albertans believe their province is not treated with the respect it deserves (although this is down nine points from 2019).

Academic research suggests that the main federal parties have become more ideologically distinct and that Canadian fans are more consistent and have self-sorted along left-right lines. Left and right supporters too seem to view themselves more negatively than before – what is called “affective polarization.”

But Eric Merkley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies polarization, points out that Canadians don’t seem to be becoming more extreme in their opinions, and their political beliefs don’t seem to be tied to social identifiers like race, religion and class, as is the case in the United States.

A person dressed as ‘Lady Liberty’ wears a shirt with the letter Q – referencing QAnon – as they take part in a January 6, 2021 protest at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington against the election vote count claiming the president – elect the victory of Joe Biden. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

When the Environics Institute asked Canadians to to place oneself on the political spectrum on a scale of one to ten – one representing the political left and ten representing the right – the results resembled the letter V, with 32% right in the middle and 4% at each end. A survey of Americans produced something more like a flattened W, with 18% in the middle and 12% and 18% at either end.

Being less polarized than the United States is hardly an achievement; the American situation is a reminder not to take democracy for granted. But the example of a truly divided nation also puts Canada’s differences into perspective.

Politicians have a responsibility

Ultimately, questions about political divisions come back to the politicians themselves.

“Politicians play a very important role in all of this. When they polarize and send out ideological signals, the general public either follows by changing partisanship or changing their beliefs,” said Merkley, who wrote on the freedom convoy’s potential to polarize Canadian politics. “If they increasingly adopt identity signals…it will eventually show up in how the general public perceives politics.”

Some disagreements are inevitable and it is not always necessary or wise to capitulate to dissenters. Promoting national harmony cannot mean restricting action to fight climate change, for example – with very real consequences, that would also anger the vast majority of Canadians who want action.

This could mean trying to capture people’s real concerns about what these climate actions might mean for them, their communities or their jobs.

But politicians can decide whether they want to exacerbate or unnecessarily exaggerate the differences. The question they should ask themselves is whether their words and actions are intended to minimize these divisions – or to exploit them.