Canadians support democracy but vulnerable to populist messaging: SFU survey

SEVENTY-SEVEN per cent of Canadians prefer democracy as a system of government according to results from a public opinion survey conducted by SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

The survey is part of the Centre’s ongoing Strengthening Canadian Democracy project and shows a 12-point increase from a survey conducted two years ago. 

While the increase is a positive sign, other survey results found that 68 per cent of Canadians feel that elected officials don’t care about what people like them think. Fifty-three per cent would support a leader who took a “Canada-first” approach, even if this negatively affected relations with Canada’s allies.

“We continue to see a rise in forms of populism around the world that challenge democratic norms and values,” says Shauna Sylvester, Executive Director of SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. “While Canadians generally support key democratic principles, they are also susceptible to nationalistic messages in a way that could be exploited for anti-democratic purposes, including the scapegoating of minorities.”

For example, 80 per cent of Canadians would be likely to support a candidate who stood up for the “common people” against “the elite.” Additionally, 34 per cent of Canadians believe that Canadian-born citizens should have a greater say in government than those born outside the country, compared to 53 per cent who disagree. Those who agree with this perspective tend to be Canadian-born, have less formal education, and are struggling financially. 

Building on two years of interviews and practical research on the state of democracy in Canada, the survey examines how Canadians currently feel about various aspects of democracy. The most fundamental findings from the study are that Canadians are committed to democracy but feel that the system is not working for them and that their frustrations with the system stem from feeling unheard and unable to effect change. Canadians are also concerned with the spread of disinformation through fake news with 77 per cent believing that the existence of fake or misleading news is a problem for democracy.

“These findings are part of a decade-old trend, where residents from Canada and abroad are increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of their democratic systems,” said Sylvester. “These results represent a call to action for all Canadians to avoid hyper-partisanship and for elected officials to create more meaningful ways for Canadians to engage in their democracy beyond the simple act of voting.” 

The survey was conducted between July 5 and 15 among a randomly selected representative sample of 3,524 Canadians.  Of these, 2,700 were completed online and 800 via phone using a random digit dialing methodology.  For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of 3,500 would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The results have been statistically weighted according to the most current age, gender, and province/territory Census data to ensure a sample representative of the entire adult population (18+) of the Canadian population.


The SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue launched its Strengthening Canadian Democracy initiative in June 2017. The key goal of the project is to work with community partners to pilot and test intervention strategies (in the form of engagement activities) that could have a measurable impact on the commitment Canadians have to democracy as shown through their participation in democratic processes and activities, the value they attribute to democratic institutions, and their embrace of the underlying principles of democracy.

The opinion survey builds upon two years’ of interviews and practical research into the state of democracy in Canada. The study examines how Canadians currently feel about various aspects of democracy such as populism and nativism. This project is funded, in part, by the Government of Canada.


State of Democracy in Canada

• Sixty-one per cent of Canadians in urban/suburban areas feel Canada is governed democratically versus 45 per cent of rural residents. 
• Those whose mother tongue is French are less likely to feel included in the political process, with 48 per cent agreeing voting gives them a say and 36 per cent feeling ordinary citizens can influence government (compared to 60 per cent and 45 per cent of respondents, respectively, who put English as their mother tongue). 
• Canadians who have completed a university education with a bachelors degree or higher are significantly more likely to hold positive views of democracy in Canada (84 per cent) than those with high school or less (68 per cent). 
• Youth aged 18-24 and Canadians aged 65+ are more convinced than other age groups (64 per cent) that they can have an impact on their democracy through voting or making an effort to influence government.
• Youth aged 18-24 are least likely to believe that government ignores the interests of ordinary Canadians in favour of the establishment.

Populism and Nativism

* Twenty-four per cent of Canadians think Canada has too much protection of minorities compared to 33 per cent who think it has too little. Twenty-eight per cent believe Canada has too many protections for freedom of religion compared to 16 per cent who think it has too little. 
* British Columbians stand out from others across the country for believing Canada has the appropriate amount of democratic freedoms, notably freedom of the press (66 per cent), as well as for believing Canada has the right amount of opportunities for political participation.
* Quebec residents are less satisfied with the status quo, and are twice as likely as Canadians living elsewhere to think Canada has “too much” freedom of religion (48 per cent).
* While 58 per cent of Canadians say they would not support a candidate who attacks the media, 29 per cent say that attacking the media would be a motivator for them to vote for a candidate. Quebec residents are twice as likely to back candidates who attack the media (49 per cent) compared to Canadians living elsewhere in the country.
* Seventy per cent of respondents supported the use of experts in making policy, with 71 per cent saying that they would be less likely to support a candidate who promotes strong anti-government views.