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Can Justin Trudeau save the Liberal Party? (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Can Justin Trudeau save the Liberal Party? (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

What exactly defines a liberal nowadays? Add to ...

But then there’s Justin Trudeau, and the polls and the crowds. Can he finally revive the flagging Liberal spirits? Will he be able to articulate a new liberalism for our time, a vision that will once again unite the French in Quebec, the immigrant and native-born in the burgeoning Ontario suburbs, the Maritimers desperate for a solution to their economic problems?

Certainly, charisma alone isn’t enough: “Personal popularity doesn’t cut it in the polling booth,” Mr. Nanos warns.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau must, finally, provide a robust definition of what it means to be a liberal and a Liberal in a way that penetrates the fog of voter indifference. He must develop “a consistent message,” Prof. Cochrane believes.

Or just wait. Mr. Bliss says he’s “not sure there is a future for the Liberal Party,” but learning from the past suggests sometimes all that leaders need to succeed is patience.

“You bide your time, you learn in office, you continue to pay your dues,” the historian says.

Most important, you wait for the government to defeat itself. It’s how the Conservatives staggered through the past century.


Social values

Over time, Canada has become more socially liberal, particularly on issues related to abortion, gay rights and drugs. The Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau was in step with that evolution, and his son promises to continue the trend by standing for more permissive marijuana laws.

Abortion rights

In 1977, 52 per cent of Canadians told Environics that they were against abortion on demand.

By 1985, a majority (53 per cent) polled by Environics agreed that a woman who wants an abortion should be able to have one.

That increased to 55 per cent in 1990 and 67 per cent in 2000, when a majority of Canadians told EKOS they were pro-choice.

In a 2010 Nanos poll, 75 per cent said that women should have the right to an abortion. Only 16 per cent disagreed.

Gay rights

In 1968, the country was split down the middle in a Gallup poll on whether “homosexual behaviour” should be a criminal act.

In 1977, 76 per cent of Canadians told Gallup that homosexual relations were always or almost always wrong.

In 1990, a majority of Canadians (56 per cent) said they disapproved of homosexuals in an Environics poll. But, by 1996, that had dropped to 48 per cent.

In 1999, 53 per cent of Canadians (and 58 per cent of Liberal voters) told Angus-Reid that they supported recognizing gay marriage, with 44 per cent opposed.

In a 2010 Angus-Reid poll, 61 per cent said they supported same-sex marriage, 23 per cent said they supported civil unions, and only 16 per cent said they opposed both. Support for same-sex marriage among the youngest generation polled (those born after 1980) was 81 per cent, with only 3 per cent opposed.


In a 1977 Environics poll, 77 per cent of Canadians were against legalizing marijuana.

In 1980, 63 per cent thought that punishment for marijuana use was strict enough or could be stricter.

Opposition to legalizing marijuana dropped to 69 per cent by 1995, while in 2000 a plurality (45 per cent to 37 per cent) agreed that possession of small amounts should not be a crime. By 2010, the number who disagreed fell to only 30 per cent.

Last year, 66 per cent of Canadians polled by Ipsos-Reid supported decriminalization, while 57 per cent polled by Angus-Reid supported full legalization.

Money matters

The Liberals have been on the right side of public opinion on some key issues – be it health care, national unity or the environment – but if you look at polls asking about the most important problem facing Canadians and the Canadian government, there’s a consistent pattern: In surveys conducted by Environics and Nanos Research over the past few decades, voters come back again and again to concerns over jobs, money and the economy.


Unemployment: 24%

Inflation: 18%

Government administration: 11%

National unity: 11%

Economy: 7%


Unemployment: 47%

Economy: 13%

Public administration: 6%

Inflation: 5%

Social problems: 4%


Unemployment: 44%

Economy: 12%

Poor leadership: 6%

Deficit/debt: 5%

National unity: 4%


Health care: 22%

Environment: 22%

Economy: 5%

Unemployment: 4%

Taxes: 4%


Economy: 22%

Health care: 12%

Environment: 9%

Debt/deficit: 8%

Education: 3%


According to polling by EKOS Research that asked Canadians whether they self-identify as “small-l liberal,” “small-c conservative” or “neither,” Canadians are increasingly calling themselves “liberal.” So why has the Liberal Party’s support at the ballot box steadily declined since the 2000 election? More and more Canadians with small-l liberal values are voting for other parties.


Small-l liberal: 37%

Small-c conservative: 27%

Neither: 35%


Small-l liberal: 27%

Small-c conservative: 28%

Neither: 41%


Small-l liberal: 45%

Small-c conservative: 27%

Neither: 23%

Eric Grenier

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