Canadians are taking the federal government's warning about possible economic storm clouds in 2013 to heart, as a new poll shows growing uncertainty over whether Canada is still on the right track.
The poll by Nanos Research, in collaboration with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, shows a worrying leap in the number of Canadians who answered "unsure" when asked whether "Canada, as a country, is moving in the right direction or the wrong direction."
"It speaks to a potential malaise," pollster Nik Nanos warned.
When people were asked the same question a year ago, 64 per cent were convinced Canada was heading in the right direction, and 28 per cent were certain it was heading in the wrong direction.
This time, while the wrong-direction number was virtually unchanged at 27 per cent, the right-direction number had plummeted to 48 per cent.
Those who were "not sure" in which direction the country was heading had correspondingly increased from 9 per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent in 2012.
"When the Minister of Finance repeatedly sends out warnings to Canadians about household debt, and when people hear the news around the world, it has an impact," Mr. Nanos said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, along with Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, have been repeatedly warning Canadians that their level of personal debt is too high.
Mr. Harper was at it again in an interview that aired just before Christmas on Global Television.
"Many households are well within a comfort level but some have been pushing the envelope and we obviously urge them to be cautious," he told interviewer Dawna Friesen.
"Because eventually, interest rates will go up. You should be asking yourself, 'If interest rates were a couple of points higher, can I really afford the debt load I'm taking on now?' "
Mr. Nanos believes that Canadians are taking these warnings to heart. But there is the danger that expectations could influence reality. If people become sufficiently worried about looming interest-rate hikes, or that Canada will be dragged into another recession, then they may save money so aggressively that they produce the very economic downturn they fear.
Mr. Nanos believes the government should consider the poll "a bit of warning. If you keep talking up caution, at some point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy."
The Conservatives appear prepared to take that risk. Better a gradual slowdown in growth as consumers de-leverage, Mr. Flaherty believes, than rafts of foreclosed mortgages and plunging property values as interest rates rise.
Most economists believe the government is generally balancing risks in its messages. As TD Economics head Craig Alexander told The Globe recently, the balance of probabilities continues to favour moderate growth, low interest rates and low inflation throughout 2013.
That may reassure the many Canadians who are increasingly unsure where this country is headed.