Strong signs we’re really getting mad

D Miller 1

The warning signs are there. Governments beware.

In The Decline of Deference (Broadview Press, Peterborough, 1996, $26.95 in paperback), Neil Nevitte, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, analyzes the Canadian psyche and concludes that Canadians have changed.

They’ve become less materialistic than they were 20 years ago, more concerned with their quality of life, more sophisticated, more innovative, and — get this — « more assertive, less compliant, less confident in government institutions, more interested in politics, and more willing to pursue their goals through unconventional forms of political action.’’

He says, contrary to what I used to think, Canadians trust government less than Americans do. They’re more likely than Americans to embark on protests of all kinds, ranging from signing petitions right up to occupying buildings. And, even more than Americans, they welcome change.

Nevitte bases his analysis on the extensive World Value Surveys of 1981 and 1990. In 1990 the survey was conducted in 40 countries, accounting for 70 per cent of the world’s population.

All these changes I see as healthy. They make for a robust, energetic country and a powerful democratic tradition.

But they say to governments, « Pay attention to where people are going in their thinking. Because if you don’t, you’re in trouble. People are tougher, and more adroit, than they used to be.’’

There’s a second warning sign. It’s raised by Environics International Ltd. of Toronto. Environics has just completed its second annual survey of environmental attitudes around the world.

It found that 36 per cent of Canadians have a « great deal’’ of concern about environmental problems. That’s up 3 percentage points over last year. Almost three quarters want stricter environmental laws. On climate change, 67 per cent (up 6 percentage points from last year) think we should assume the worst and take « major action now to reduce human impacts on climate, even if there are major costs.’’

Last year, 49 per cent thought Ottawa was doing a poor job of addressing environmental problems. This year, 46 per cent think industry is not working hard enough to « make sure we have a clean environment.’’

As well, this year 61 per cent feel that their health is at risk from environmental problems. And last year, 93 per cent thought their children’s and grandchildren’s health was at risk.

Finally, in a separate domestic survey completed in 1997, Environics found that an astonishing 73 per cent of Canadians favoured « protecting the environment even at the risk of slowing down the economy.’’ That figure is up 6 percentage points since a similar survey in 1992.

Obviously, a tidal wave of Canadians is not happy with the way we are meeting environmental challenges.

What’s more, if Nevitte is to be believed, they’ll see through any attempts by spin doctors to sugar coat the reality of inaction.

As Doug Miller, president of Environics International said in an interview, governments and industry are « going to get blindsided if they don’t pay attention to this.’’

Miller, incidentally, deserves a lot of credit for coordinating polling firms in 30 countries to produce the international survey. In all, 35,000 people were interviewed, the largest — and only — survey of this kind ever undertaken.

In the interview, he talked about breach of trust, the point at which people conclude governments have let them down. He produced a graph that shows a slide toward such a breach on environmental issues.

Looking at the graph, brought me back to Nevitte. « The decline of deference, whatever its source, presents a monumental challenge,’’ he says. « How to restore faith in government? How to renew confidence in leaders and institutions, and to restore the depleted reservoir of trust? And how to reverse a deeper slide into cynicism?’’

So, I ask you, what better place is there than the environment for governments to start the process of restoring, renewing, and reversing?


NEXT WEEK: Leadership for change

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