Understanding the New Public Outlook on the Economy and Middle-Class Decline: How FDI Attitudes are caught in a Tentative Closing of the Canadian Mind

  • Frank Graves EKOS Research Associates Inc


While a single survey is a snapshot of a given moment in time, a series of surveys on the same topics over the years is akin to time-lapse photography, tracing the unfurling trends of public opinion. In examining the results of surveys conducted in recent decades by EKOS Research Associates on Canadians’ views of the economy, the prospects of the middle class, immigration and foreign trade, the time-lapse images show a dispiriting pessimism, especially among younger Canadians. For example, in 2002, nearly 70 per cent of Canadians surveyed described themselves as middle class. That figure dropped precipitously to just 47 per cent in 2015. Nearly half (46 per cent) of those aged 25-44 said they were earning less in inflation-adjusted dollars last year than their fathers earned at the same age. Fewer than one in five Canadians believed their personal economic lot improved last year. Thirty-seven per cent of respondents said they had fallen behind economically in the last year and the last five years. When a society sees shared progress as an imperative, it is truly dismal that fewer than one in five Canadians thought things had improved for them last year. Just over a month and a half before the October 2015 federal election, a survey showed that restoring middle-class prosperity was the top issue for all demographic groups, standing at 35 per cent of respondents between the ages of 35 and 49 and 55 per cent among those aged 49 to 64. Accompanying this incipient uneasiness about the future of the middle class in Canada is a concomitant drawing inwards, a tendency towards parochialism about aspects of foreign trade and immigration, which may be perceived as threatening an economic future already considered to be tenuous. For example, support dropped dramatically (from 47 per cent the year before the 2008 recession to 25 per cent last year) for the notion that Canadians, Americans and Mexicans should be free to work anywhere in North America. While enthusiasm for immigration traditionally declines during times of economic angst, current trends bear watching. Ten years ago, 25 per cent of Canadians surveyed said this country had too many immigrants; by 2015, the numbers of respondents who felt this way had practically doubled. Caution is urged, however, against reading too much into this, as these latter responses were given to a machine, not a live interviewer. People may have thus felt less inhibited about their answers. Meanwhile, a majority of Canadians surveyed think that foreign investment or foreign ownership of Canadian companies threatens national sovereignty. The 2015 results show a 10-point increase in the perception of a threat to sovereignty, compared to seven and 10 years ago. While deploring the state of the economy, the Canadian public remains at least somewhat unreceptive to the potentially ameliorative force of foreign direct investment, and this attitude appears to be worsening. Anxiety over Canada’s economic future helped the Liberals attain power in the 2015 federal election. Their win has infused the heretofore gloomy economic mood with a shot of hope. There can be no quick fix. Dispelling the gloom and replacing it with optimism will depend on the integrated success of efforts to liberalize trade, redefine attitudes towards immigration and change perspectives on foreign direct investment under the new federal leadership.
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