Pollster John Wright on Quebecers as lovers, Manitoba’s dropping military support and our needless panic over the economy

A conversation with Kate Fillion

Maclean's Interview: John WrightJohn Wright is a senior vice-president of Ipsos Reid, the largest market research company in Canada, and co-author (with Darrell Bricker) of We Know What You’re Thinking, to be published later this month, which reveals Canadians’ views on topics ranging from foreign ownership to sleeping in the nude.

Q: How do you know you can trust the people you poll, especially when you’re asking them about, say, their sex lives, where there’s an incentive to lie?

A: It’s a matter of consistency. For instance, one in 10 Canadians who are married say they would cheat on their partner. Over 20 years we’ve asked that same question and got the same result again and again, so I like to think people are telling the truth.

Q: I guess there are some things people are actually more likely to admit in an anonymous poll. For instance, you found that even among Canadians with post-secondary degrees, 20 per cent agree that “Canada should let in more white immigrants but fewer visible minorities.” Did that surprise you?

A: The only people who seem to be surprised about anything nowadays are economists, and I think it undermines their credibility. If you could take all the times economists have said over the past year that they’re surprised about the way the public has reacted on housing or spending or whatever, and stack all those quotes on top of each other, you’d get to the moon and back. Pollsters don’t pretend to foresee the future but to measure the current and provide context. I’m never surprised by anything I’ve done work on—I’m not supposed to be, I’m supposed to consider the question analytically. And the fact is that we don’t live in a homogenous society where everybody agrees on everything. You’re often going to find about one-quarter of the population harbouring very strong views against something, another quarter who are supporting something, and 50 per cent in the middle saying, “It depends.” They move back and forth depending on the situation, which is quite different than Americans, who often define their views only in terms of Republican or Democrat and have tended toward 50-50 splits since the Civil War. Here we have a plethora of parties and a plethora of views.

Q: So shouldn’t Canadians be more tolerant and accepting of immigrants and their differences?

A: Certainly we’re more welcoming than we were 20 years ago, partly because we’ve had a booming economy for years. But although we’ve always professed to be a tolerant nation, a mosaic, we’ve never really been tested. We’ve had a pretty free ride.

Q: You mean we haven’t faced tests like whether you can wear a hijab when competing in a soccer game?

A: Right. And the reality is that visible minorities will be the majority in the three major centres of the country by 2015. There are going to be more and more tests of the level of tolerance.

Q: One of your main points in We Know What You’re Thinking is that we’re already a highly diverse country in terms of attitudes and habits, because there’s tremendous regional variation.

A: In the United States, everyone expects that a Texan has different views than a Californian. But in Canada, there’s this idea that we’re more homogenous, partly because there’s a really narrow media concentration. We don’t have a lot of newspapers or television stations; there are only three or four chains that most people get their information from, so you can start to believe that Canadians think pretty much the same way about all sorts of things. But after 20 years of polling, I don’t think there are many common Canadian views. We’re very distinct in terms of regions and other factors.

Q: For instance, in one of your polls, 35 per cent of Quebecers between 35 and 54 say their partners are very good lovers, compared to 63 per cent in the Atlantic provinces. Is it just that Quebecers have higher standards?

A: [laughs] You think I’m answering that? One issue might be that women in Quebec, particularly young women, said they weren’t treated as well as they thought they should be by their male partners. Maybe men there should try to be more romantic. And maybe it’s related to the weather: it’s colder in the Maritimes and you’re inside more. They’re also more religious, by the way. Forty-one per cent of Maritimers [but only 10 per cent of Quebecers] believe the world will end in a battle of Armageddon between Jesus and the anti-Christ.

Q: Around which issues do you see the greatest regional differences?

A: Moving from the West to the East, people become less likely to embrace certain forms of private health care. And the people who are most against taxes are in Quebec, but on the other hand, they have the largest number of social programs and they don’t want to give anything up. On the military, you find much higher support in Alberta than in most other parts of the country—even the Maritimes, where we have a lot of personnel from the navy. What I find interesting is that there’s been a significant change even in the past year, and it’s not related to body bags coming home. In fact, the percentage of support in Quebec for the mission [in Afghanistan] and the military has risen an astonishing 20 points in the last year.

Q: Why?

A: Because they’re engaged, they have pride, they can separate out the difference between the mission and the people dealing with it. But there’s been a very significant drop in support, close to 20 points, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, because they’re dealing with the reality of soldiers who’ve been discharged and come home with everything from post-trauma to injuries. There, the question is, are we looking after them when they get home?

Q: You say that Canadians shouldn’t fret about becoming more like Americans, that in fact, Americans are becoming more like us. In what ways?

A: If we look back over 20 years of polling, the American view—whether on same-sex marriage, health care, or the role of a country—is getting closer to the Canadian perspective, not the other way around. I think as Americans have had access to huge amounts of information from media around the world, regardless of how parochial their local news is, they’ve become more sophisticated and pragmatic.

Q: What are Canadians thinking about the economy?

A: I’m a little counterculture on this point. I don’t believe the mindset of people in this country was recessionary. The fundamentals were in place, we didn’t see the collapse of the housing market as they did in the U.S., and people did not feel their situation was dire. In fact, we didn’t have much reaction to the economy until the second to last week of December in 2008, when concern about the economy rose from about 30 per cent to over 60 per cent.

Q: So what happened in late December?

A: A series of events: a federal election campaign which talked about tough times coming, and actual tough times in some sectors like manufacturing, which had been bleeding for years, but mainly the car sector. We then had institutionalized pessimism: almost every ad on the radio and every headline in the narrow band of newspapers in this country portrayed a calamity. There was a big media focus on what was going on south of the border, with this view that it would all spill over into Canada and we’d all go down the drain. The stock market was being portrayed as the reality of the economy, when in fact it’s not. It’s a group of funds around the world trying to put money where they can make money, and it’s more of a crap shoot than a systemic view of the economy. Concern about the economy rose from 30 per cent to over 60 per cent at the end of December, stayed fairly high in January and February, but then dropped significantly in March. What interrupted it was talk about swine flu.

Q: In other words, we only worry when we’re told to worry?

A: Not to blame the media, but let’s put it this way: if you’re at a newspaper, writing about the economy in a way that causes advertisers to pull in their horns, and then you have to lay people off, well yes, from where you sit it looks like you should be very concerned about the economy. But it wasn’t what they felt in Saskatchewan, where the economy was booming, or in parts of the service economy in Ontario. I’m not putting aside the fact that some people and some sectors took a hit, but to put it into perspective, in 1993 and 1994, 35 per cent of people genuinely thought they would lose their jobs. If you look at the past six or seven months, only about 13 per cent genuinely thought they’d lose their jobs. As a result, the anxiety level was broad but it wasn’t deep. And we now have the highest levels of optimism about the future of the economy, in terms of what’s going to happen in the next year or so, that we’ve seen in 18 years. Roughly 76 per cent of people are saying, “We’re in pretty good shape, and we’re bargain hunting.”

Q: How did we find renewed faith in the economy?

A: There was another interruption: Michael Jackson’s death. I don’t want to sound cavalier, but when there was a lack of media focus on the stock market and the fallout from financial institutions, confidence rose significantly.

Q: According to your polling, Canadians are pretty ignorant. Two-thirds don’t even know how many provinces and territories there are, and three-quarters aren’t aware that the Queen is our head of state. Is the problem just that history is being taught poorly?

A: I think civics and history should be combined, and they should be compulsory, not optional. Our polling shows that immigrants to this country sometimes know more about it than people who have lived here for generations. It’s a very serious issue. Our understanding of our own history has diminished, and as a result, the very nature of our citizenship has been diminished. With the kinds of tests we’re going to have of tolerance in this country, we’re going to pay a price for a lack of understanding about why we have the freedoms and institutions we have.

Q: As you point out, most Canadians still don’t trust pollsters. Why not?

A: Well, 40 per cent do trust pollsters, and when you look at other professions—car salesmen, politicians, CEOs and union leaders are all under 20 per cent—we’re not doing too badly. Polling is actually a great civic contribution. If I want to go back and find out what Quebecers thought during the course of the referendum debate, I can look at the polls, they’re completely transparent. I don’t have to rely on newspaper editorials, which in any event don’t reflect what Canadians think but what editorial writers think.

Q: This sounds like a practised argument. Do you have to defend your profession frequently at cocktail parties?

A: No, I just don’t tell people what I do. I’m proud of what we’ve done here, but it’s actually a conversation stopper to say [you’re a pollster]. People either clam up or think you have all the answers.

Q: So what do you say you do for a living?

A: Work in a bar.

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