Maclean's Poll 2007: How the World Sees Canada

They came from China and England, from India and Mexico - 94 people of every age and race, from 13 countries in all. They arrived this crisp autumn morning at an imposing new office complex in Surrey, B.C.

Maclean's Poll 2007: How the World Sees Canada

They came from China and England, from India and Mexico - 94 people of every age and race, from 13 countries in all. They arrived this crisp autumn morning at an imposing new office complex in Surrey, B.C., filling neat rows of folding chairs in a second-floor courtroom, Citizenship Judge Shinder Purewal presiding. The judge is a cheerful man in a happy job. He told them about some of his own experiences: the murder of his father when he was an infant, and how he arrived in Canada from India as a 17-year-old because his mother wanted to raise her family in a land of peace and security. Purewal, also a political science professor, told them how difficult it is to move to a country where you don't speak the language or understand the culture. Give it time, he urged them, and Canada will exceed your expectations. He told them how he built a new life in Canada and earned a Ph.D., and how this country - ranked best in the world, he said - has much to offer them as well. "What makes this country great," he said, "is your presence."

They stood and raised their right hands - a little girl with bouncing pigtails and a pink coat, a dignified older man with a flowing white beard and a saffron turban, and all the rest - and they recited the oath of citizenship in halting French. "Now you are 50 per cent Canadian," joked the judge. Then they recited the pledge again in English. Now you are 100 per cent Canadian, he said. They applauded. Friends took photos. And just before 10 a.m. on Nov. 13, the country gained 94 new citizens, with 94 sets of hopes and dreams and plans.

It was a beautiful thing to see. A visitor to the ceremony couldn't help thinking this roomful of concentrated optimism and potential is a tonic that would benefit his fellow citizens, for a malaise seems to have settled upon the nation. Maclean's, for the second year in a row, has asked Angus Reid Strategies to ask the world what it thinks of Canada. The pollster also asked 1,000 Canadians for a self-assessment. The results contain more than a few surprises. The world likes Canada, a lot: not the reality of Canada, perhaps, but the ideal of Canada, the idea of Canada. Canadians, however, have a host of misgivings about their country: its lack of independence from America's influence, the compromised integrity of its government systems, its limited impact on world affairs. Simply put, the world is in love with a country that doubts its own worth. "To me, that's one of those observations that come off the psychiatrist's couch," says Reid of the dichotomy. "I suppose we could spend a lot of time thinking what that means."

Reid and his global partners surveyed a sample of eight countries - China, England, India, Israel, Italy, Turkey, Russia and the United States - quizzing them in late October about their knowledge of Canadian issues, asking their opinions about Canada at home and its impact on foreign affairs, and taking their assessment of Stephen HARPER and other national leaders. Canadians were asked some of the same questions, generally, with less charitable results.

WHAT'S NOT TO LOVE

Fans of Canada fall into two camps when asked to name the "most appealing" aspect of the country. The nature lovers, who cite the "natural environment" as the highest single factor, include 40 per cent of Chinese respondents, 55 per cent of those from Britain and almost seven out of 10 (68 per cent) Italians. Those who list "quality of life" as the single largest factor include 47 per cent of Israelis who answered the survey, 48 per cent of Americans and 51 per cent of Turks. What quality of life entails was left to the imagination of each individual answering the survey. Notably, some of the factors that Canadians routinely list as points of pride - "social services" and a "multi-ethnic, diverse" society - were relatively minor considerations for those from other countries, though they may contribute to their favourable view of Canadian life. The highest approval for Canada's multi-ethnic nature came from the Turks and the Chinese, and only about one in 10 of them cited it.

Ask new citizens at the Surrey ceremony what drew them to Canada, and you get a complex mix of responses. Brig Grewal, a 40-year-old trucker, came from India's Punjab region in 1997, sponsored by his brother. The attraction was largely economic, he says, still struggling with his English. "Good working. Good living. Good future." Simon and Lee Andrews and their two children moved to Canada from the Torquay region of England 10 years ago, in part because of the crying need here for Simon's skills in computer software. "We weren't necessarily expecting a better quality of life. I think for us it was more of the adventure," he says. "Coming to the West Coast was almost like the new frontier."

Rubi Borja Albarran, a hairstylist and the mother of a four-year-old, remembers to the day - June 13, 2001 - when she arrived from Michoacan, a state on Mexico's Pacific Coast. She's less certain when she began to feel Canadian. "It just happened," she says, still holding her plastic-sheathed citizenship certificate. "It became my home before I knew it." For her, Canada's appeal is a lack of corruption, a sense of democratic freedom. "In Mexico, there is a very marked difference between the rich and the poor people," she says. "Here, the social life is different. You can have a CEO swimming in the same YMCA pool as a bus driver, which I've never seen before."

The survey found the "least appealing" aspect of Canada is a mixed bag of impressions. Warm-weather countries such as Israel, Turkey and Italy are prone to cite climate and weather as the most chilling thing about Canada. Almost half of Americans (45 per cent) are turned off by "high taxes." Another perceived failing, for 13 per cent of Americans, is that Canada is too "U.S.-oriented." This perceived American domination was considered Canada's largest failing by Russians, and was the second or third-ranked Canadian flaw named by the British, Indians, Turks and Chinese. Another criticism of note: "One in seven Turks think we're boring - that's a fair number," says Reid.

WHO DO THEY THINK WE ARE?

The Maclean's poll discovered an epic lack of global knowledge of Canadian affairs. Andrew Grenville, chief research officer for Angus Reid Strategies, converted the poll's seven Canadian-knowledge questions to a zero-to-100 scale. Only the Americans passed, with a score of 57. An impressive 91 of Americans knew the Canadian dollar was worth more than the U.S. greenback at the time of the survey, and 86 per cent knew that same-sex marriage was legal in Canada - by far the highest international scores. Last in Canadian knowledge among the countries, with a score of just 17 per cent, is the United Kingdom. Considering that until 60 years ago Canadians were considered British subjects (until the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947), that's a dismal display. "My mother country completely turned its back on its colony," says Grenville, who is of British origin. "Canada, to the U.K., is, like, 'Who knows, and who cares?' I feel abandoned, somehow."

Curiously, there is a huge upside to this blissful ignorance: to not know Canada, apparently, is to love it. "There is a lot of ignorance about Canada but there are also these positive perceptions, kind of like this halo of positive expectation," says Grenville. "We get the benefit of the doubt. They don't really know us but they're pretty sure we're nice," he says. "So we get away with a few things."

On the issue of the ENVIRONMENT, for example, a majority of respondents in every country but the U.S. pegged Canada as a leader in fighting CLIMATE CHANGE, and in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we are one of the worst per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Fewer than 10 per cent of those from other countries, with the exception of the U.S., realized this. Canada coasts on a green image that is mostly illusion and delusion, says environmentalist David Suzuki. He points to a recent assessment by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development. It found that for 25 key environmental indicators, Canada ranked 28th out of 29 OECD countries. "Most Canadians are shocked to hear that," he says.

Canadians also get credit (or the blame, depending on your point of view) for their military operations overseas - and for a few in which the country is not actually involved. A remarkable 93 per cent of Americans know Canada has troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (Only the British, 80 per cent, and Russians, 95 per cent, say either they don't know or don't think Canadian troops are deployed there.) Fewer than a third of respondents around the world know that Canada doesn't have a presence in Darfur. And only in one country - Turkey, with a substantial Muslim population - did a majority of respondents know Canada isn't in Iraq. In what may be the cheapest war Canada never fought, half of Americans think Canadian soldiers are shooting it out in Iraq. Reid finds that astonishing considering the abuse Canada took four years ago for not enlisting in U.S. President George W. Bush's so-called coalition of the willing.

The result is less surprising to two scholars with a considerable grasp of the complex Canada-U.S. transborder relationship. "I think Americans see a little bit of news coverage of Canadian Forces at war supporting the United States and about half of them don't remember where," says American-born Paul Quirk, who moved from Illinois 3½ years ago to take the Phil Lind Chair in U.S. Politics and Representation at the University of British Columbia. The awareness of Canada's decision not to join the coalition in Iraq has diminished, along with American support of the war, he says. "It's probably been several years since the media has carried any criticism of the Canadians' decision not to join the war."

Charles Doran, director of the Centre of Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, agrees Americans have moved on, or forgotten Canada's refusal to join the U.S.-led coalition. "They know [Afghanistan] is a trouble spot and Canada is there for them; surely they must be in Iraq, too? Basically, that's called goodwill." Says Reid: "What a difference four years makes. The Americans are looking for friends, and I guess they're looking next door first."

American goodwill also extends into the Arctic. A majority of American respondents (55 per cent) consider the Northwest Passage to be Canadian waters - making the U.S. the only country besides Canada (at 66 per cent) to believe this. By contrast, seven out of every 10 Russians consider the passage an international waterway, while the rest of the nations surveyed, not to put too fine a point on it, couldn't care less. Quirk calls American support for a Canadian passage "amazing." He doubts, though, that it is based on an in-depth analysis of the implications. "I think, in general, it's more a matter of having spent their lives looking at maps where Canada went all the way to the top." Nor does he expect that the public view holds any sway with an American administration staunchly opposed to the idea.

STRONG AND FREE? MEH.

Last year's Reid survey for Maclean's found a degree of Canadian optimism, borne by a buoyant Canadian economy. This year's poll takes a harder look at Canadians' view of their institutions and their place in the world. It reveals a creeping cynicism in the national psyche. Nowhere is this greater than in our dim view of the justice system. An astonishing three-quarters of Canadians disagreed with this statement: "Everyone, no matter who they are, is treated in the same way by the justice system in my country." There could be many reasons for this: numerous examples of wrongful convictions, dating back to Steven Truscott; Canada's role in facilitating the torture in Syria of Maher Arar; the inability of police and the courts to stem the rising tide of gang violence; the failure of the Air India bombing investigation to yield a single murder conviction. Only Russians (90 per cent) and Turks (80 per cent) have a harsher view of their justice systems.

The opinion Canadians hold of the honesty of their institutions isn't much better. Half (48 per cent) call "corruption a big problem in my country." This bleak view may be coloured by recent memories of the sponsorship scandal that helped topple the federal Liberals. Or by the lingering questions around a $300,000 payment to ex-prime minister Brian MULRONEY, which, subsequent to the poll being conducted, resulted in plans for a public inquiry. If it's any consolation, respondents from every other country in the survey - with the exception of Britain and the U.S. - say corruption is even worse in their countries.

As for the assessment by Canadians of their impact on global affairs: it's marginal at best. True, six of 10 respondents consider Canada "a responsible actor" on the world stage. Compare that, though, to the 70 per cent of Americans who laud their country's global conduct, despite waging an unpopular war; or the 85 per cent of Russians and 86 per cent of Chinese who are happy with their international performance.

Other questions yield a harder Canadian self-evaluation. Almost 70 per cent of Americans see Canada "as a global leader in working for human rights and peace in the world." Just 35 per cent of Canadians define themselves that way. Britain, Italy, India, Israel, Turkey and China all rate Canada's human rights performance higher than Canadians do themselves. And while a majority of Americans and Chinese say Canada has emerged as a bigger player in world affairs, 48 per cent of Canadians say "Canada remains a small country with little influence in foreign affairs." (Majorities in Israel and Turkey agree.) Canadians are also much more likely than Americans to think that we kowtow to U.S. demands. Exactly half of Canadian respondents say "in foreign affairs, Canada does pretty much what the United States wants it to do," versus just a quarter of Americans. Only Russians, at 53 per cent, are more likely to see Canada as bowing to the U.S. will. "This is not a huge endorsement of Canada by Canadians," says Reid. "There was a time, in the Mike PEARSON era, where peacekeepers, guys with blue helmets, were out there. This is Afghanistan, Stephen Harper, and other factors playing a role, including the self-perception that we're not all that independent of the Americans."

UBC's Quirk, still adjusting to life in Canada, marvels at the self-esteem issues the poll seems to reveal. "I really wonder whether many countries' citizens are inclined to understate their own country's role in the world. That strikes me as unlikely," he says. "You would think the natural response would be to exaggerate the importance of your country."

LAND OF HOPE AND TORIES

It may well be that when the world weighs Canada, it is not issues of power, influence, military might or political personality that tip the balance. Conservative Prime Minster Stephen Harper, all but invisible in last year's Maclean's poll, has elevated himself in world opinion. His greatest level of admiration, 30 per cent, comes from Americans, better than the 27 per cent of Canadians who "greatly admire" him. Compare that to George W. Bush who is not admired "at all" by two-thirds of American, British and Russian respondents, by three-quarters of Canadians and 89 per cent of Turks. International dislike of Harper - save for the 36 per cent of Canadians who have zero admiration for the man - is minimal. Bland is a cozy place to be.

What the world sees in Canada are expectations. The country itself may be caught in doubt and debate over how society should accommodate the incoming tide of disparate cultures, religions and minorities, but the world has confidence in Canada's ability to do so. Asked what to expect "if you moved to Canada," respondents said across the board they expected they could practice their religions and observe "cultural traditions freely and without restriction." A majority in every country but China believe, naively in many cases, that they can work in the same profession they have in their own country.

Most telling of all was the answer to this question: "If you moved to Canada would you expect to have a better quality of life?" Yes, said 71 per cent of Italians, 82 per cent of the British, 85 per cent of Chinese, 87 per cent of Turks, 93 per cent of Israelis, 94 per cent of Indians and Russians. Yes, life in Canada would be better, said 91 per cent of Americans, living in the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth.

The world sees something good here, if only the prospect of better things. Doran, the American academic, kept returning to the power of that response, and all the hope and goodwill it contains. "Nobody," he says, "could disagree with an image like that."

This reporter arrived back at his Vancouver office after the citizenship ceremony to find his message light blinking. It was a call from Rubi Borja Albarran, the young mother and new citizen. Although she did not know of the poll results, there was something she knew instinctively about her fellow Canadians; something that troubled her. "Canadians, they take for granted what we have here, what a lot of other countries don't offer, like freedom and a great way of living," she said in her message. "Just let your readers know that the one [bad] thing you can do to your country is to take for granted what you have here. Thank you, and have a great day."

The reporter thought back to what Judge Purewal had said to Rubi and the others not two hours before: "What makes this country great is your presence." He reached across a desktop full of charts and graphs measuring the mood and worth of a country. He pressed a button to save her message.

Maclean's December 3, 2007