Canadian public opinion and the environment

When the federal election was called last December, many thought that the environment would be high on the issue agenda: high energy costs, global warming and unhealthy water supplies in First Nations communities were all hitting the news. Conditions were ripe for a well-funded and energized Green Party to make inroads into voters’ consciousness.1 Yet things fizzled early. On election day, the Greens tallied a mere 4.5 per cent of the national vote with no candidates elected to the House of Commons. Worse still, the environment had been converted into a low-profile issue compared to health care, crime, daycare and taxes. Indeed, it appears that something more significant than our electoral system is now holding the Greens back2 – something that is affecting environmentalism as a whole.

In 2006 one might ask: are Canadians returning to an era of materialism? After all, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives campaigned on accountability, reducing the GST, tax breaks, anti-crime measures and an anti-Kyoto platform, and they won the election, albeit with a minority government. This article takes a quick peek at national polling data and some discernible changes that have occurred over the past 20 years which show that the 2006 federal election is symptomatic of a longer trend in Canadian public opinion.

Environmentalism’s rise

During the 1970s and 1980s, citizens throughout the Western industrialized world became increasingly alarmed about the environment. Air pollution, acid rain, urban sprawl, cancer rates and accidents at nuclear power plants together contributed to increasing levels of public concern. In part, this increase can also be linked to the changing social composition of European and North American society: the rise of the “new middle class” made up of a younger and better educated generation of citizens whose concerns went beyond the “materialist issues” of social security, jobs and income. This growing new middle class served as the green movement’s incubator. “Post-materialist” issues relating to gender politics, international peace and environmentalism were the outgrowth of this better educated, knowledge-oriented, urban, more globally conscious citizenry.3

Specific environmental issues combined with changing social patterns had a direct impact on Canadian public opinion. At the end of the 1980s, pollster Angus Reid was reporting that one quarter of Canadians were naming “the environment as the most important issue confronting the country.” Only the issue of taxes, and specifically the newly introduced GST, was rated “most important” by more Canadians. Furthermore, the concentration of concern for the environment among those under the age of 55 and among more affluent citizens appeared to indicate what some would term a “post-materialist effect.”4

3 Adams figure 1Over the past 15 years, however, concern for the environment appears to have become more broadly spread across all social sectors in many industrial nations. One review of the numerous empirical studies conducted on this topic in the mid-1990s reached the following conclusion:

Taken as a whole, empirical findings show that, in western societies, there is no longer a distinct sociodemographic group promoting the cause of environmentalism. Moreover, they stress that one has to reject the assumption that traditional, sociocultural features of group classification (occupation, age, residence, and so on) homogenize and structure environmental concern and behaviour.5

Environmental “mainstreaming” in Canada has reached beyond public opinion data and has directly affected public policy. This is apparent in the widespread implementation of urban recycling programs at the local level, along with such national initiatives as the 1990 launching of the Progressive Conservative government’s Green Plan for a Healthy Environment and the Liberal Party’s 1993 “Red Book” proclamation that a “Liberal government will establish a framework in which environmental and economic signals point the same way.”6 While this promise was not immediately implemented, in part as a result of fiscal restraints, by 2000 the federal government was committing $700 million for environmental policies and programs.7

Furthermore, there has been much debate about concerns over global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases, largely focused in recent years on the Kyoto Protocol. The Quebec National Assembly passed a resolution calling on the federal government to ratify the protocol in 2001, and in September 2002 Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg that his government would indeed ratify Kyoto. This was done three months later.8

Other environmental issues have been on the public agenda as well, including continuing questions about the nation’s household water supplies.9 In part, such concerns arose from the deaths and illnesses in May 2000 among those who consumed local tap water in Walkerton, Ontario,10 followed by high-profile coverage of problems with water supplies in First Nations communities in 2005 and 2006. Concerns about water are also part of a broader North American trend made evident by a March 2004 Gallup poll showing that 53 per cent of Americans report being worried “a great deal” about water pollution.11

In contrast to the Angus Reid data from 15 years ago, more recent results show that catastrophic events and growing environmental awareness have led to a narrowing of generational and socioeconomic gaps when looking at top-of-mind concerns about the environment. National polling done by this writer’s firm, Probe Research, shows that in the current decade there is only one percentage point separating the 55+ age group from younger adult Canadians, while only a two-percentage-point gap separates higher-income households from lower-income ones.

Awareness is high, priorities are low

While it is clear that citizens are increasingly aware that the environment is in trouble, and numerous actions have been taken by policymakers in the 1990s and 2000s, could it be that many Canadians feel that the issue has been resolved? Could this be a reason for the environment’s low profile in the 2006 election? A few years ago there were early signs of this. For example, a national survey done in 2002 by Probe Research revealed that health care, income and job security and crime superseded the environment as top-of-mind concerns among Canadians when they were asked about issues facing their local community.

More signs of complacency were found in another survey of 2,000 Canadians done by Probe Research in 2004, in which 26 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement that “the government is doing a good job of preserving and protecting the environment” (an increase from 2002 when 21 per cent reported the same view), while only a minority (35 per cent) in the 2004 study disagreed with the statement.12

Public opinion data therefore tell us that two forces are at work with regard to Canadian public opinion and the environment. The first is that environment-related concerns are no longer concentrated within specific portions of the population, and the second is that in the current decade these concerns appear to be increasingly sidelined by a new rise in social materialism. Many Canadians may think that enough has been done and may be less willing to make the sacrifices that are required for cleaning the environment. This is not good news for the Greens, but it bodes well for Stephen Harper and his new Conservative government.


1 For a discussion of how new party finance regulations have directly benefited the Green Party, see Susan Harada, “The ‘Others’: A Quest for Credibility,” in Jon Pammett and Christopher Dornan, eds., The Canadian General Election of 2004 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2004), pp. 178–79.

2 For a discussion of how the electoral system holds back non–regionally based third parties, see Alan Cairns, “The Electoral System and the Party System in Canada, 1921–1965,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 1968, pp. 55–80. See also Donley Studlar, “Consequences of the Unreformed Canadian Electoral System,” American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 2003 and Henry Milner, ed., Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canada’s Electoral System (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1999).

3 See Ronald Inglehart, The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 12.

4 “Issue Watch,” Angus Reid Report, January, 1990. Multiple responses were allowed. For an overview of national polls taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s see Herman Bakvis and Neil Nevitte, “The Greening of the Canadian Electorate,” in Robert Boardman, ed., Canadian Environmental Policy: Ecosystems, Policy and Process (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

5 Karl-Werner Brand, “Environmental Consciousness and Behaviour: The Greening of Lifestyles,” in Michael Redclift and Graham Woodgate, eds., The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology, (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1997), p. 208.

6 Glen Toner and Carey Frey, “Governance for Sustainable Development: Next Stage Institutional and Policy Innovations,” in How Ottawa Spends: 2004–2005 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), pp. 198–99.

7 Ibid., p. 217.

8 Douglas MacDonald, Debora Vannjinnaten and Andrew Bjorn, “Implementing Kyoto: When Spending is not Enough,” in How Ottawa Spends: 2004–2005 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), p. 184; Toner and Frey, “Governance for Sustainable Development,” p. 209.

9 “Improving the Water,” Toronto Globe and Mail, May 24, 2002.

10 Ibid.

11 As reported in the Gallup Poll, press release, March 2004.

12 “Walkerton Victims Paid $22-Milllion to Date,” Toronto Globe and Mail, June 1, 2002.

13 Probe Research, A Clear Perspective: 2004, p. 29. In part this probably reflects views held by some that the Chrétien government was on the right track in signing the Kyoto Protocol.