We often hear people say that polls are “a snapshot in time.”
While the comment is offered by political organizers who are dissatisfied with the popularity of their policy or candidate, the dictum is accurate – the moment in which people are asked a question can play a pivotal role in the way they feel about an issue.
I was asked to conduct a poll on September 19 and September 20, 2008, to look at the way Canadians felt about economic matters. The moment was significant for various reasons. In the previous week, the scope of the global financial crisis had become clear to anyone who was paying attention: the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen by more than 500 points, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, stated that the United States “may not have an economy on Monday” unless drastic action was taken to deal with “toxic mortgages.”
At the time, Canadians would be forgiven for reacting with unbridled panic at the situation that was unfolding in the United States. Still, the data I collected over those two days in September 2008 exuded calmness: 61% of Canadians rated the economic conditions in the country as “very good” or “good,” 60% felt the same way about their personal finances and 60% expected the national economy to improve.
Thirteen years ago, the numbers outlined a Canadian public that was confident in withstanding any challenge. This past weekend, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about the current state of affairs. The crisis this time is not caused by “toxic mortgages” but by COVID-19 infections and growing inflation.
In early 2022, the mood of the country is decidedly more sombre than it was at the height of the global financial crisis of 2008. Only 41% of Canadians rate the economic conditions in Canada as “very good” or “good,” while a more than half (54%) consider them “bad” or “very bad.”
Quebecers are more likely to say that the national economy is doing well (48%), followed by residents of Atlantic Canada (43%), Ontario (also 43%) and British Columbia (40%). The numbers drop dramatically in the Prairies: 33% in Alberta and 26% in Saskatchewan and Manitob
Our perceptions about the future are not particularly buoyant either. Three in 10 Canadians (30%) expect the national economy to decline, while 41% foresee no change and 20% believe things will improve.
Personal finances do not see a severe fluctuation since September 2008, with 58% of Canadians rating their situation as “very good” or “good.” Canadians aged 55 and over are happier with their current state of affairs (63%) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (56%) and aged 18 to 34 (55%).
Our concerns about possible setbacks are lower now than they were in the early stages of the pandemic. This month, 44% of Canadians say they have worried “frequently” or “occasionally” about the safety of their savings in the past month, down eight points since a survey conducted in April 2020.
Fewer Canadians are concerned about the value of their investments (41%, down nine points), unemployment affecting their household (31%, down 15 points), being able to pay their mortgage or rent (31%, down 10 points) or their employer running into serious financial trouble (26%, down 11 points). The skittishness that many Canadians experienced as we became acquainted with COVID-19 is not as prevalent in early 2022.
Even with these seemingly positive indicators – good finances in the household and reduced concerns about financial setbacks – inflation is evident across the country. Significant majorities of Canadians foresee higher prices for a new television set (62%), a new car (71%), real estate (72%), gasoline (82%) and groceries (83%). These perceptions of inflation are extremely high. In years past, only fuel would reach a level where more than seven in 10 Canadians predicted higher prices. Food, vehicles and electronics have joined that list.
On politics, the country is evenly split when assessing the prime minister. While 47% of Canadians trust Justin Trudeau to do the right thing to help the economy, 48% do not. Official opposition leader Erin O’Toole does not fare better, with 55% of Canadians saying they do not have confidence in him on this file. The governor of the Bank of Canada, Tiff Macklem, is divisive in a different way: 37% of Canadians trust him, 32% do not and 31% are not sure.
The federal government has consistently received a high rating on its management of the COVID-19 pandemic. On economic matters, as we go from east to west, faith in Trudeau’s capabilities slips. The challenge for O’Toole, especially in a minority scenario, will be to maximize the opportunity to urge Canadians to imagine a national economy run by the Conservatives.
Less than a month after the September 2008 survey, Canadians voted in a federal election that returned the Conservative Party to power with another minority government. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion never challenged incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper on the economic front. Canadians may be concerned about inflation and the nation’s finances right now, but they are not convinced that the party in opposition will be more capable than the government.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from January 21 to January 23, 2022, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.