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Is this the end of the age of our social cohesion? Add to ...

For eight months, opinion surveys have told Canadians their enthusiasm for their two main national political parties has all the liveliness of a dead cod. Then a few days ago, without anything having happened, a poll placed Stephen Harper and his Conservatives 11 points in the lead.

The Conservatives themselves doubt its accuracy. The pollster, Darrell Bricker of Ipsos-Reid, defends the findings, saying they show the Liberals have no momentum and their Leader, Michael Ignatieff, is a "cipher" whom Canadians do not know.

That presupposes sufficient numbers of Canadians are accessing media where Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff might be expected to appear. It pre-supposes that enough Canadians have sufficient knowledge of national affairs to pass meaningful judgment on what the two parties are doing.

It assumes that out of the fractures - the eroding social cohesion - of Canadian society, the poll bears a message that would actually serve to guide the two parties on how they should serve Canadians' democratic interests.

In True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada - Mr. Ignatieff's new book that, like all his books, reads significantly better than his speeches - the Liberal Leader touches eloquently on the need for social cohesion.

"We need a public life in common," he writes, "some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves."

And reaching for a codicil from his intellectual hero, he adds: "Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean."

A glorious objective.

Since his book was published in late spring, Mr. Ignatieff has been indicted by media commentators for offering a dearth of glue to bind his fellow citizens together. That should not tarnish the importance of his thesis.

Canadians have a conundrum of a country whose inhabitants, particularly anglophones, demonstrate a higher attachment to their nation than the inhabitants of any other advanced Western nation - says the Ottawa-based Ekos Research - but whose sense of common purpose and belonging together is disintegrating.

According to social scientists who study the issue, Canada is developing a social-cohesion deficit. Too little holds us together, and the potential threat to the democratic conduct of our affairs is cause for concern.

Canadians collectively have not thought seriously about nation-building since the Trudeau just-society era of the 1970s. The politics of consensus once so strongly imprinted on Canadian society have vanished.

At a time when historians are re-interesting themselves in the nation as a cultural notion, as a frame for identity - after a long hiatus when they sought to escape the dead-white-man narratives of political and economic nation-building - Canadian culture shows up with cleavages deep enough to be indecent.

The demographic bloat of baby boomers, more pronounced in Canada than anywhere except Australia, has dragged the country from Yuppiedom to Grumpydom - from young urban professionals to grown-up mature professionals - shifting the public-policy agenda along the way from social equality, human rights and statism to crime worries, security and fiscal retrenchment.

The Canadian median age in 1967 was 26, when Pierre Trudeau was getting ready to lead the country. It is now 43. Thus, not surprisingly, for the first time since Ekos began asking Canadians 15 years ago how they self-identify, a slightly larger number label themselves small-c conservative rather than small-l liberal, reinforcing policy indicators such as declining support for pacifism and a single-payer public health-care system.

The boomers eventually will totter off stage, but the people behind them are cleaved into two significant age-related groups, what Ekos president Frank Graves calls "open cosmopolitans" and "continental conservatives."

The open cosmopolitans, with an over-representation of Generation X, are extremely receptive to diversity, immigration and the outside world and hold generally progressive views on issues such as foreign policy. The continental conservatives, with an overrepresentation from Generation Y (the under-30s), are comfortable with current government directions and see Canada being more closely drawn into a North American partnership.

There is no identifiable successor group on the radar screen to the vanishing supporters of Pearson-Trudeau progressive statism, in case anyone was hoping.

A DEEP SPLIT

But there is a deep split between megalopolitan Canada and everywhere else. (Think of a Conservative government with no elected members in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal.)

There is a deep split between those with postsecondary education and those without. Canada has the world's highest proportion of people with postsecondary education.

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