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opinion

Voters enter a polling station at St. Luigi Catholic School, in Toronto, on Oct. 21, 2019.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

In politics and in culture, Canada often imitates the United States, though less dramatically. But lately the opposite has been true.

Newly released polling data show that as Americans become ever-more polarized, Canadian attitudes are converging toward the centre.

A bit of good news in a year that has had precious little of it.

The Environics Institute for Survey Research (for Canada) and the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University (for the United States) asked people in each country a range of questions about their political identification and trust in institutions. The results were compared with surveys conducted in previous years.

(The Canadian survey was conducted online with a representative sample of 2,201 adult Canadians from July 2 to 7. The U.S. survey was conducted online with a representative sample of 1,500 adult Americans from July 19 to 25. There is no equivalent to a margin of error for these online polls.)

The data revealed that, on a left-to-right scale of one to 10, a third (32 per cent) of Canadians put themselves at five, in the middle, while only a fifth (18 per cent) of Americans did likewise. Twelve per cent of Americans said they were as far to the left as you can get (at one), while 17 per cent identified at the far end of right (at 10). The Canadian equivalents were four and four.

Even more significant, Canadians have been gravitating away from extremes and toward the centre in recent years, while the opposite has been happening in the United States. Between 2014 and this year, the number of Canadians identifying as generally centrist (as opposed to generally on the left or right) increased to 67 per cent from 61 per cent.

In the U.S., in contrast, centrist support plummeted to 37 per cent this year from 49 per cent in 2017, with most of the formerly centrist support drifting to the left. That period roughly corresponds with the presidency of Donald Trump.

“It is reasonable to assume that there was a backlash against Trump in Canada,” says Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute. “Not only did Canadians not go down that path, the whole experience might have pushed us in the opposite direction.”

Canadians consistently expressed higher levels of contentment than Americans with their political system and its institutions. They also had greater trust in the fairness of elections and were more likely to believe that their rights were being protected.

But not all the indications are positive. Pride in country has been declining in Canada in recent years: 72 per cent of Canadians had “a lot” of pride in 2010, versus 59 per cent in 2021. (The American equivalent had fallen to 57 per cent from 70 per cent.) The continuing revelations of injustice toward Indigenous and racialized Canadians may have contributed to that decline.

It’s interesting that, while there is not a great deal of divergence between left, centre and right in pride in Canada in 2021, American conservatives are far more patriotic than liberals, with centrists splitting the difference.

The good news, for this desk, is that four years of Donald Trump failed to galvanize a nativist populist movement in Canada. If anything, it drew many Canadians toward the centre in stout resistance of ideological extremism of any kind.

Yes, there were rambunctious demonstrations against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during the election campaign. But the real message of that election was “the centre decides.” The Conservatives and Liberals, with platforms close to the centre, each took about a third of the vote. The NDP, on the left, earned the support of fewer than one voter in five, while the populist right-wing People’s Party earned the support of only one voter in 20.

The decline of pride in Canada reinforces the need to improve the quality of life for Indigenous and racial minorities.

But we should also remind ourselves that, whatever our flaws, we are a pragmatic, centrist people, a country with its head on its shoulders. It’s something to hold on to as we brace for the new year.

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