New survey finds Metro Vancouverites disengaged with democratic process

AS election cycles heat up in many jurisdictions across Canada, a public opinion survey conducted by Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue examines Metro Vancouverites’ attitudes and experiences with democracy and democratic institutions. 

The survey found that, while most Metro Vancouverites value democracy in principle, some believe the current system is inadequate and does not heed their needs.

According to the survey, a majority of Metro Vancouver residents (73 percent) think it is “very important” Canada be governed democratically but 52 percent believe ordinary citizens cannot do much to influence government, even if they are willing to make the effort.

A significant portion of Metro Vancouverites—41 percent—feel voting in elections does not really give them a say in how government runs things and two-thirds (65 percent) think elected officials do not care what people think.

“This research hints at an underlying sense of unease and frustration with the way government works in Canada,” says Robin Prest, Acting Executive Director of the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. “Metro Vancouver residents believe strongly in democratic values, but feel their democratic institutions and processes are not living up to the core set of values and principles they feel are so important to a healthy and functioning civil society.”

The publication of the survey launches the SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue two-year initiative: Strengthening Canadian Democracy. The program will include a demonstration project that will pilot and test public intervention strategies (in the form of engagement activities) with the key goal of measurably increasing Canadians’ commitment to democracy.

“While Canadian democracy is not under imminent threat, the survey’s findings suggest active and immediate support would help strengthen Canadians’ commitment to democracy before cracks in our democratic foundations grow wider and bring unpredictable risks to our social and political fabric,” says Prest.

The survey was completed from August 7-13, 2018 among a randomly selected representative sample of 1,506 Metro Vancouver residents via the Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of 1,506 would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Why it matters:
In recent years, the United States and Europe have seen a rise in anti-democratic populism and authoritarian tendencies. In Canada, debates on important policy issues affecting all Canadians (e.g. TransMountain Pipeline, immigration and refugees, etc.) have become polarized and the increasing negative and partisan tone of political discourse poses significant challenges to our country’s democratic underpinnings. In this context, the public’s views on democracy can be seen as the “canary in the coal mine” of the health of the democratic system and civil society.

Survey results at a glance:

• Democratic principles: A majority of Metro Vancouver residents (73 percent) think it is “very important” Canada be governed democratically. An overwhelming number also stand firmly behind key democratic values and principles – gender equality (85 percent “very important”), multi-party elections (79 percent), and religious freedom (66 percent); slightly fewer place as much importance on freedom of speech, where people can say what they want even if it is objectionable to some (55 percent).

 Lived experience with democracy: A majority (52 percent) believe ordinary citizens like themselves cannot really do much to influence government even if they are willing to make the effort; 41 percent feel voting in elections does not really give them a say in how government runs things; and two-thirds (65 percent) think elected officials do not care what people like them think.

Involvement in democracy: Fully 40 percent said they had never taken part in many democratic activities in their lives. Of those who had, most were only involved in more passive activities, e.g., looked at a variety of news / information sources to get different points of view (68 percent), signed a petition (65 percent), or answered a government online survey (58 percent). Far fewer had ever attended a public consultation meeting (29 percent), actively tried to get others to take political actions (26 percent), participated in an organized protest (22 percent), or volunteered in an election campaign (15 percent). It is notable that the vast majority of residents (82 percent) believe citizen participation in their democracy is more than just a right — it is a responsibility, and there is a strong call for more civic education to ensure Canadians know their rights AND responsibilities of citizenship (60 percent).

Anti-elite and populist sentiment: A majority of residents, for example, are at least somewhat more likely to vote for candidates who stand up for the common people against the elite (75 percent), or who put Canada first even if it negatively affects relations with our allies (52 percent). Notably, however, there is little appetite for candidates who attack the media for bias or fake news (67 percent “less likely to vote for candidates”).

• Overall commitment to democracy: While a majority think having representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law is a good way to govern Canada, support is more moderate (58 percent) than strong (25 percent). And, though three-quarters of residents (76 percent) believe democracy is preferable to any other form of government, 24 percent think it doesn’t really matter if a government is democratic or not, or believe authoritarian rule is acceptable in some circumstances.

• Notable groups: These overall trends are broadly consistent across all socio-demographic and regional population groups in Metro Vancouver. However, some groups do stand out for their commitment to representative democracy. Those who hold more broadly more positive views of democracy in Canada are older (65 and older), have completed a professional or graduate degree, were born outside Canada in fully democratic countries (e.g., U.S., Australia, UK), and follow news about politics and issues at least several times a week. To contrast, those who hold broadly less positive views have completed high school or less, were born outside Canada in less democratically oriented countries (e.g., Argentina, Colombia, South Africa) or authoritarian countries (e.g., China, Russia), and follow news less frequently.


Fast Facts:

• 58 percent voter turnout in the 2017 BC election.
• 43 percent voter turnout in the 2014 City of Vancouver civic election.
• The proportion of Canadians who think democracy is preferable to other forms of government dropped from 76 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2017. Biggest decline occurred among young Canadians 18-29 years of age (68 percent in 2012 to 52 percent in 2017).