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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to students at St. Ignatius of Loyola School in Guelph Ontario, Friday, March 11, 2011 where he announced funding for science education programs. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press/Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to students at St. Ignatius of Loyola School in Guelph Ontario, Friday, March 11, 2011 where he announced funding for science education programs. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press/Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Canadians surprisingly divided over education, religion, in-depth poll reveals Add to ...

The Conservative Party has a lock on traditionalists who value morality and decency over science, but will need to reach out to those who value scientific knowledge and even expert civil service advice if they want to assure themselves of forming a majority government.

These are some of the political insights in a new survey that examines divisions within Canadian society that have rarely surfaced or been measured before - for example, class differences that have fallen off the radar in contemporary Canadian polling, and a seeming muscular impact of the religious, a more visible impact from new Canadians, and the electoral weight of the aged.

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Not all Conservatives fall into the traditionalist group, but all Canadians who are in the group - one in four voters - support the governing Conservative Party, according to the Ekos Research survey done for University of Toronto's Walter Gordon public policy symposium "Democracy, Expertise and Politics."

To some extent, the governing Conservatives are already reaching out beyond the party's core traditional base.

Although it does poorly with university educated Canadians, the Conservative Party is not shut out of the demographic, and few voters will go into the ballot booths with their thoughts fixed exclusively on knowledge and expertise, said Ekos president Frank Graves.

Moreover, to get into majority government territory, the Conservatives need only another 15 percentage points, which potentially they can harvest by showing more respect for science and the public service, or by overcoming the aversion to anti-intellectualism among poll respondents by offering sweeteners on economic security.

But the findings do point to deep social fractures.

Whereas conservatives, both small-c and party supporters, by a very large margin were more likely than others to believe in religious creationism and be skeptical of scientific claims, and dramatically discount the role of knowledge and expertise, most Canadians lean decisively to the view that knowledge, expertise and evidence are crucial to societal decision making.

And whereas conservatives are more likely to embrace a world view that seeks certainty and abhors ambiguity, and hold the belief that morality is more important than knowledge, most poll respondents believe that science and expertise are undervalued in the country and see Canada moving toward a more knowledge-based society.

These two worldviews present clear differences that are profound and relatively impervious to opposition persuasion.

The conflict of class interests has similarities to the Tea Party Movement in the United States. Those respondents with less marketable experience and skills were more opposed to scientific knowledge and other forms of expertise, with the biggest tension being between the college-educated, who have suffered wage stagnation, and the university-educated elites, who have become much wealthier.

"Much of the stagnation of average income and wages has occurred on the 'watch' of the knowledge class of professionals and experts [in governments and the public service]" Mr. Graves said in an interview. "The old white-collar middle-management jobs are gone, and many of the well-paying union jobs are also gone - shipped offshore through deindustrialization."

Thus, the poll indicates that anti-expertise and skepticism of science rise with socioeconomic vulnerability and age. New Canadians are less committed to knowledge and expertise in government decision-making than the native born. Religiosity - regular attendance at worship services - appears to dampen enthusiasm for knowledge-based rationalism. And women are more moralistic than men.

As a snapshot of the electoral mood, these findings could explain better than anything else so far the phenomenon of right-of-centre populist Rob Ford being elected mayor of Toronto after a card-carrying member of the knowledge class, his no-longer loved predecessor, David Miller.

It could also explain why rumours are rife among the political class that the Conservatives are doing focus groups in the party's previously barren lands of downtown Toronto.

Interestingly enough, the Ekos poll finds a broad conviction among respondents that populist, anti-intellectualism is the norm in contemporary Canadian politics. But it also finds an equally broad conviction that rational intellectualism should be the norm. The great majority of Canadians believe that both scientific knowledge and democratic rule are underrated.

As the baby boomers age and begin dying, they will be replaced by the much more expert- and knowledge-friendly Generation X and Y cohorts. At the same time, there's likely to be more conflict over what knowledge means, with social media and Web 2.0 promoting a more informal and less credential-based definition.

The Walter Gordon symposium opens with a public session on Tuesday night. The poll can be found online at waltergordonsymposium.com

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