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.

By the time of the divisive 1988 election, which the Tories won on a free-trade platform, Canadians had realized that, while they desired change in the abstract, it didn’t come without dislocation and new threats. In fact, events over the course of the Mulroney years — the GST, the failed Meech Lake and the Charlottetown constitutional accords — would see our poll respondents progressively losing faith in the architects of change. Cynicism toward politics and politicians escalated as Canadians saw their expectations of limitless progress dashed. Our polls’ focus shifted to a stalled economy, revealing a public increasingly associating diminished opportunities with government intervention and bloated deficits. That set the stage for another change in 1993 — the ChrEtien Liberals virtually wiping the incumbent Conservatives off the political landscape.

The Quebec referendum of 1995 seized our attention in that year, but the after-effects faded quickly. Today, Quebecers express almost no angst about their place in Confederation. Meanwhile, concerns about the economy and government spending receded, earning Jean ChrEtien three consecutive landslides and turning Paul Martin into an icon of fiscal stewardship. But a new phenomenon was emerging: at the same time as Canadians were acknowledging the unprecedented economic growth, our year-end polling also showed a parallel belief that this prosperity was being unequally shared and, even more alarmingly, that our social fabric was starting to unravel.

By the year 2000, social issues (and most particularly, health care) dominated the public opinion agenda. In the mid-1990s it was the better-off, middle-aged men who most vocally expressed that era’s fear of economic paralysis and government interference. But by the end of the decade, dissent was emanating from different quarters: the young, the old, the elderly, the poor and women — in short, the most likely casualties of a deteriorating social safety net.

To our surprise, the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, did not replace these concerns — they simply magnified them. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, concerns about the economy rose. But a year later, these anxieties were back to pre-9/11
levels. Worries about social questions and our health-care system retreated in 2001, but then re-emerged in the subsequent 12 months. As expected, we initially encountered increased worries about terrorism and international threats, but even with the events fresh in their minds, fewer than one in
five Canadians declared those issues the most important facing the country. Now, terrorism gets barely a mention.

Today, the Canadian public opinion landscape is more multi-layered than ever. Consequently, it is also a more difficult one to address, politically. We believe the nation, and our world, face more, and more varied, problems than they have in the past. But we have also come to accept that there is no single solution to allay all our concerns. So, far from recovering since Sept. 11, the public mood has actually deteriorated. What could be called a sense of joyless prosperity is causing us to re-evaluate our priorities. We have little appetite for old-style interventionist government. But we’re more open-minded regarding the prospect of government — in a less intrusive, more facilitating and creative way — once again serving as a vehicle to advance our collective interests. Similarly, at an individual level, we are searching for more meaning in our lives and questioning whether unbridled materialism is a worthwhile quest.

The past year, in many ways, looks like the year Canada stood still. With the political agenda placed on hold as we awaited the leadership change in Ottawa, we have seen only minute shifts in public opinion over the last year. The one glaring exception to this wait-and-see posture relates to our view of and relations with the world. It now appears that 9/11 not only shook us out of our complacent sense of security, it also opened our eyes to a complex, dangerous and needy world. Indeed, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that we have learned more about the world and international affairs in the past 27 months than we did in the previous 27 years. And that knowledge and understanding have led us to conclude that Canadians and Americans see the world through dramatically different prisms. This expanding sense of being different appears to have a side effect — a new, more outward, more confident nationalism. For example, for the past two years we’ve found a majority of Canadians wanting to upgrade our military. This seems to be not simply from a desire for greater military might, but from a realization that if we are to exert our unique sensibilities on the world, we have to participate in it more actively.

Twenty years of probing the national psyche have demonstrated repeatedly that Canadians have a strong sense of who they are. Events — even those as monumental as Sept. 11 — only serve to better define the essential character of our culture. At the same time, we have gone in stages from expecting government to be not just the arbiter but often the provider of the public good, to turning our back on public-sector solutions, to seeking a more focused role for government as a protector of the weak and a facilitator of the strong. Where we once welcomed short-term solutions, we now accept the complexity of the difficulties we confront. Twenty years ago we believed we had little impact on the rest of the world and the world had only a modest impact on us. Our eyes have been opened to a fragile, troubled and often threatening planet; one for which we have to accept more responsibility.

The harsh realities of the last two decades have forced us down a path to a better understanding of our unique identity as a nation, and a re-evaluation of what is important for us as individuals, as citizens and a country. As with most journeys, the discoveries along the way have made the trip worthwhile.