SFU Centre for Dialogue reveals fissures in Canadians' appreciation for democracy

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      A growing number of Canadians favour democracy as their preferred system of government, according to a new poll.

      But a large number is not enamoured with how it’s working in this country and they don't feel that politicians care what they think.

      These are some of the key findings in State of Democracy + Appeal of Populism, a 61-page report released today by SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

      SFU public policy professor Daniel Savas designed the survey of 3,524 Canadians with help from SFU political scientists and staff at the centre as part of its Strengthening Democracy initiative.

      “There has been a 12-point jump in the proportion of Canadians who feel that democracy is preferable to any other form of government,” Savas told the Straight by phone. “That’s just in the past two years.”

      Many might dismiss that there’s any crisis, given that 77 percent of the population favours democracy. Only 10 percent might prefer an authoritarian government.

      But Savas, a specialist in market research, noted that there are some underlying issues in the poll that should concern Canadians.

      While 57 percent believe Canada is governed democratically, only 10 percent strongly feel this way.

      “The foundation is solid but ultimately there are cracks that could be opened wide if we don’t pay attention,” he said. “So, for example, you have Canadians not completely convinced about the role they can play in our democracy—either through voting or whether or not they think they have an influence on what government does.”

      To cite one example, 68 percent of respondents didn’t believe that elected officials really care what people like them think.

      SFU's Daniel Savas (left) joined Jenny Rustenwerg, Ben Rowswill, and Sanjay Ruparelia on a panel in January to discuss the state of democracy in Canada.
      Shauna Sylvester

      Opinion is divided on whether voting gives them a say about how the government is run and whether they can influence its actions.

      And 61 percent strongly or somewhat agree that the interests of ordinary Canadians are being ignored in favour of the establishment.

      “Since 2010, there’s been a drop of 10 to 15 points in a number of measures in Canadians’ satisfaction with democracy in Canada, and it hasn’t recovered,” Savas said.

      The SFU Centre for Dialogue is trying to encourage greater public interest and involvement in democracy by partnering with local organizations, such as CityHive and the Vancouver Foundation, and l’Institut du Nouveau Monde in Montreal.

      “CityHive has developed a program called Cities 101, where they’re going to be inviting a cohort of individuals to participate in a number of civic education activities at the city level,” Savas said. “We’re going to be testing that model as a possible intervention that could be scaled up in terms of seeing its impact on the cohort’s commitment to democracy.”

      The Vancouver Foundation has a neighbourhood small grants program to encourage people to put on activities.

      Savas said that the SFU Centre for Dialogue plans to conduct research to determine if this program promotes a greater passion for democracy in neighbourhoods.

      “We saw in our poll last year that there is a strong relationship between a sense of belonging and activity in a community, and their commitment to democracy, on a whole bunch of different measures,” he noted.

      While many Canadians enjoy the annual Vaisakhi celebrations, which showcase the birth of the Khalsa, 28 percent of poll respondents said there is too much freedom of religion.
      Charlie Smith

      Populism has considerable appeal

      The polling results also revealed undercurrents of nativism and a heavy dose of anti-elitism.

      For instance, more than half of the respondents would be likely to vote for a candidate who tapped into their national pride with Canada-first appeals, even if that affected relations with allies.

      Nearly a quarter believed Canada has too much protection for the rights of minorities and 28 percent believe Canada has too much freedom of religion. In Quebec, 48 percent felt there was too much freedom of religion.

      A third of respondents believe that citizens born in other countries should have less say in government than those born in Canada.

      That rose to 48 percent among those with a high school education or less, 43 percent among Indigenous respondents, and 42 percent among those with disabilities.

      Nearly four in five respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who stood for the common people versus the elite.

      Yet 69 percent stated that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who relied on experts in drafting policy.

      The poll revealed that 58 percent would be less likely to cast a ballot for a candidate who attacked the media for being biased and generating fake news.

      And 71 percent would be less likely to vote for candidates who espoused strongly antigovernment views.

      “The sense is if you stand up for the common people, if you appeal to my nativist Canadian nationalist sense, that might work,” Savas said, referring to the poll results. “But don’t try to attack the media and don’t take the drain-the-swamp approach that Trump has taken.”

      The next federal election is scheduled on October 21.