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Two Nations Divisible?

We talked to Michael Adams, head of the research company Environics, about the evolution of Canadian versus American social values.

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1 July, 2013
By: OpenCanada Staff

Are American and Canadian values diverging? From climate change to the Middle East to international aid, Canada of late seems to be getting a decidedly un-Canadian reputation for unilateralism. But are we really a “reckless, rogue petro-state” with priorities that are shared by fewer and fewer of our southern neighbours? OpenCanada asked Michael Adams, head of Environics, a research company that specializes in tracking Canadian values and opinions, to weigh in on the evolution of Canadian versus American social values.

What motivates you to conduct research on social values in Canada and the United States?

As a Canadian I’ve always been interested in studying the United States. I grew up in the 60s when Canada was really coming out of a very different background – militaristic, members of the British Empire. In the 60s, you saw a blossoming of Canadian nationalism. The Royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism. Then we had multiculturalism, and Pierre Trudeau. Canada had started its 50 long year trajectory to more open, progressive values. At the same time, we looked at America, the place where we had seen very progressive politics coming out of the New Deal, the Great Society in the 1960s and saw, by the 1970s, the that the United States had decided that having government lead the liberal progressive agenda was not the American way. Big government and big social programs – that was not the America way. You saw things like the tax revolt in California in 1978, and the election of Reagan in 1980. That was the same year we re-elected Pierre Trudeau. Through the ’70s and ’80s, it became evident that Canada was going in a different direction during an era of American backlash against government-led progressive social policies.

It seems like historical analysis holds the key to understanding Canadian versus American value trajectories, but you approach it with a sociological lens – why?

When I was a sociology student, I studied the work of Seymour Martin Lipset, who developed an interest in Canadian socialism. He wrote a book called Agrarian Socialism about Saskatchewan and the election of the CCF. There is an interesting divergent intellectual history when it comes to socialism, as well as other trends, in the Canadian and American experiences.

What does your book conclude about the differences and similarities in Canadian and American social values data?

We conduct market research in both countries. The recent studies we’ve done provided a basis to test some of our hypotheses about similarities and differences in values. We did concurrent surveys from 1992, every four years. I started to see patterns, which is how I came to write Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values. There’s a sense that with globalization and the universalization of capitalism and democracy, we’ve reached, as Francis Fukuyama said, the end of ideology. Many think we will blend into one people, motivated by the same set of values, and headed in the same direction. I wanted to test this hypothesis, particularly after NAFTA and the election of 1988, when the idea that economic integration would lead to cultural integration really took hold. As you can read in my book, we found that the theory comes up short. On at least two-thirds of the issues we tracked, there was significant divergence. Worldviews may be converging around some post-material values, but what’s driving exploration of those values within the United States is not the adoption of Canadian values, but changes happening within American society.

Is there one issue where divergence is particularly stark?

We measured the role of patriarchy in American and Canadian families. Patriarchy is one of the 60 basic value dimensions we track, along with religiosity, multiculturalism, xenophobia, orientation to consumption, and saving and spending habits. We asked individuals in both countries what they thought of the statement “the father of the family must be the master of his own home.” After decades of asking this question, we got a longitudinal perspective. In 1992, 1996, and 2000 we surveyed this trend – in Canada, the proportion has declined, and in the United States, it went the other way. This trend continues.

Do changes in Canadian values only matter to the future of Canada?

Cultures learn from other cultures through interaction. Through our communications with citizens of other countries, we exercise soft power. When you look at the way cultural values, economics, and trade had an impact on ending the Cold War, you see the true power of soft cultural exports. Exposure is a big factor, allowing people in remote regions to engage with different value systems. When the Arctic population is given access to information about the rest of the world, for example, it can lead to an explosion of ideas and change how their culture develops. On a global scale, migration allows values travel across borders. There are now 200 million people living in countries that they weren’t born in. All countries, including Canada, are now exposed through the major ways that values are disseminated, including economic development, communications technology, and trade. And many countries, including Canada, are feeling the backlash to this dissemination. The secularist tradition in Quebec and the tension between those values and new religious groups in the province is an example.

Are Canadian values being challenged by these global dissemination mechanisms?

Given that the current Conservative government has more conservative values than two-thirds of Canadians, they’ve been astute in not bringing to public debate issues that could be inconsistent with Canadian values. Unlike in the United States, where abortion is threatened, here, that debate is settled. Our government is the only conservative party in the world to embrace multiculturalism – their approach to immigration, compared to the nationalistic and xenophobic trends we see in European countries, is much more open, and tolerant. Policies for new Canadians are nuanced and astute. The efforts to appeal to this segment of Canadian society, and the Conservatives broader exploration of post-material values so far are continuing.

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