Year-end Review

Among social commentators, it has become fashionable to declare that “everything changed after Sept. 11.” But looking back over the two decades of our year-end Maclean’s surveys, it is apparent that the Canadian outlook and mindset were undergoing profound changes long before that memorable and terrible day. When we began our annual investigation of public opinion across the nation in 1984, Canadians were coming out of a recession with a renewed sense of confidence. They had weathered the storm of rising unemployment and inflation, and felt they learned some valuable lessons from that experience. Among them was an emerging belief that we could not continue to rely so much on government; doing so would lay ourselves open to the very vulnerabilities we were trying to avoid.

We recognized that the country was facing ongoing problems — economic, social, constitutional — but saw these largely as aberrations that could be resolved with effort. Our optimism was also grounded in realism. We believed that “simply doing the same things, better,” was not the way to go. With the Mulroney Conservatives freshly in power, new ideas, new approaches and new leadership were the order of the day. It was time for a change.

The accepted wisdom following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was that Canadians would forge a much closer bond with Americans. Out of the twin impulses of empathy and threat, we would see our common interests aligned and our destiny linked within the boundaries of our shared continent.

What a difference a year can make. Our 2002 year-end poll indicates that, far from drawing closer together, Canadians are expressing a growing desire to chart a distinct path, independent of our neighbours to the south. Over the past year, we have seen the number of Canadians who describe the United States as “family” or “best friends” shrink by a third — to only one in five — as the vast majority have come to characterize our relationship as either “friends, but not especially close” or “cordial but distant.”

Similarly, since we last asked this question in 1999, the percentage who believe we are “mainly” or “essentially” different from Americans has grown to a significant majority of 57 per cent.

We also see a solid sentiment that the United States is acting like a bully and a majority who fear that “we are losing our independence to the United States.” In policy terms, these underlying beliefs have created a population that is unconvinced that Iraq warrants attack; that has serious misgivings about supporting our allies in any assault on Saddam Hussein done outside the sanction of the United Nations; and that is unprepared to follow the U.S. lead in rejecting the Kyoto accord.

In the three months plus since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, much has been written about how the events of Sept. 11 forever altered us and the world we live in. There is no question the terrorist attacks traumatized Canadians. They brought us closer to our families; made us recognize that Canada cannot shirk its military responsibilities; forced us to look beyond the comforts of our borders; and drove home the fact that the world is, and for some time will continue to be, a dangerous place.

For some, this trauma also has lent new importance to religious beliefs. Others are questioning the wisdom of pursuing the holy grail of more material possessions. Cynical for decades about government’s ability to forge a common good, we now fully support Canadian and U.S. initiatives in the war on terrorism and, while we worry that the hostilities could escalate, we’re prepared to back a long military effort and, if necessary, see it expand into other regions of the globe.