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Eric Kaufmann: Canadians aren’t actually ‘woke’

Commentary

Canadians have nearly identical views on culture war issues to Americans and Britons. Across some fifty questions concerning free speech, national heritage, and transgender issues, Canadians, like Britons and Americans, lean around two-to-one against the “woke” cultural socialist option and in favour of cultural liberalism or conservatism. This is the story that emerges from my new report for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, “The Politics of the Culture Wars in Canada.”

Woke refers to the sacralization of historically marginalized race, gender, and sexual identity groups. This belief system elevates equal outcomes and emotional harm protection for such groups as its highest value. As a result, woke activists seek to cancel speakers or historical figures deemed to be offending the sensibilities of the most hypothetically sensitive member of a minority group. In this clash of values, cultural socialism trumps expressive freedom and symbolic attachment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has distinguished himself on the world stage as the paragon of this belief system, and many outside Canada assume he reflects an equally woke Canadian public. But is this truly the case? To better understand Canadian views, The Macdonald-Laurier Institute asked Maru Public Opinion Polls to conduct a nationally representative survey of 1,500 adults, in which I fielded numerous questions previously put to American and British samples. 

What did I find? Surprisingly, despite their reputation, Canadians largely reject the woke ideology. For instance, they oppose the idea of separating pupils in class by race—assigning whites as privileged and minorities as oppressed—by a whopping 92 to 8. By 85-15, they reject the idea of teaching children that “There is no such thing as biological sex, only gender preference.” Excluding those with no opinion, 80 percent of respondents were against the idea of J.K. Rowling being dropped by her publisher. By a similar slant, Canadians say “political correctness has gone too far.”

In most cases, respondents came out strongly against established practices found in Canadian institutions. For example, when Toronto teacher Richard Bilkszto pushed back against diversity trainer Kike Ojo-Thompson’s characterization of Canada as more racist than the United States, none of his colleagues defended him and his travails eventually drove him to suicide. Yet, by a stunning 95-5 margin, Canadians overwhelmingly reject the idea that their country is more racist than other countries. Among those with an opinion, just 30 percent say that Canada is a racist country while 70 percent disagree. A similar share says they do not want schoolchildren taught that the country is racist.

Or consider the fact that almost all statues of Sir John A. Macdonald have been removed from major Canadian cities. Yet, Canadians oppose removing statues of Canada’s Father of Confederation by a two-to-one ratio. Among those with an opinion, a mere 8 percent say activists should be allowed to remove statues without government approval, with 92 percent against. Almost 45 percent of Tory and PPC voters strongly disagree with removing Macdonald. In addition, only 5 percent of Liberal, NDP, and Green voters strongly agree that his statues should be removed. The majority of left-wing voters oppose rather than support Macdonald’s removal.

Canada has been one of the most trans-affirming societies on earth. Only in the past year have conservative premiers in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta begun to curb trans activism in education by requiring schools to inform parents of their children’s change of pronouns. And only recently has Pierre Poillievre been willing to oppose puberty blockers for minors. In Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario, not to mention in provinces run by the NDP or Liberals, the writ of trans activism runs through government and the schools. 

But when we look at public opinion on the trans question, an entirely different picture emerges. By a four-to-one ratio, Canadians oppose gender reassignment surgery for those under 16. By two-to-one, they want parents informed of pronoun changes at school and don’t want transgender women (i.e. biological males) to enter women’s sports competitions. Three in four Canadians say we talk too much about transgenderism. Even when it comes to people displaying their pronouns in work emails or social media profiles, more Canadians disapprove of this practice than support it, placing them even to the right of the British public.

It is striking how similar Canadian public opinion is to that of supposedly more conservative America or Britain. Across 30 questions I asked in Britain in 2022 and Canada in 2023, the average difference in opinion between the two countries is just 0.3 of a percentage point. Furthermore, of the 13 questions asked in the U.S. in 2021, the average gap with this Canadian survey was just one point! There is essentially no appreciable difference—especially if we take variation in date and sample (as well as random error) into account. Canadians are somewhat more likely than Britons or Americans to say biological males who identify as women should be allowed in women’s sports, and somewhat more supportive of Black Lives Matter. But they are considerably less likely than Britons or Americans to say their country is racist. Canadians under 35, in particular, stand out as being far less likely than their American or British youth counterparts to call their respective country racist.

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is shown torn down following a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

French-English differences are also much smaller than the stereotype of woke English Canada versus plain-speaking traditional French Canada would lead us to expect. Francophones are somewhat less woke than Anglos on many transgender questions and more inclined to colourblindness rather than race and gender-conscious Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. However, Anglophones are more critical of Black Lives Matter than Francophones, more likely to say political correctness has gone too far, and more opposed to removing statues and renaming buildings—though the examples tested involve Anglophone figures such as Macdonald or Ryerson, to whom Francophones have weaker historical attachments.

English Canada’s culturally-left political and media elite contrasts with that of red-state America, and, to a lesser degree, with Britain and Quebec. If English-Canadian public opinion is largely aligned with the others, why have its policies and politicians diverged from their British, American, and Quebecois equivalents? 

One possible answer is Canadians’ relatively high trust in elites and institutions. More than half of Canadians trust journalists while fewer than 20 percent of Britons and barely a third of Americans do. Even 30 percent of conservative Canadians trust journalists compared to 11-15 percent of conservative Americans and Britons. A somewhat similar pattern holds with respect to academics and teachers. Canadians’ elevated trust in their largely progressive-dominated institutions gives the Canadian elite more leeway to deviate from public opinion.

The key takeaway is that culture war issues are far less settled than a lot of mainstream commentary would have Canadians believe. Polling irrefutably shows that Canadians are as inclined as Americans or Britons to disagree with a lot of the woke shibboleths that are present in the media, universities, and other major institutions. As for the political implications, these findings may represent a glaring opportunity for conservatives and a glaring risk for progressives. 

Kristopher Kinsinger: You don’t have to be a conservative to care about upholding the Constitution

Commentary

Constitutionalism remains among the most unexplored of Canada’s core constitutional principles. Though identified as such in the 1998 Secession Reference, the Supreme Court of Canada has said relatively little about the actual substance of this principle, apart from noting that constitutionalism “requires that all government action comply with the Constitution.”

Thankfully, a movement is stirring among Canadian jurists to rigorously understand and faithfully apply the principle of constitutionalism. For instance, Justice Malcolm Rowe of the Supreme Court delivered a timely defence of the role that constitutionalism plays in a free and democratic society in a keynote address at the close of the Runnymede Society’s recent Law & Freedom conference, an excerpt from which was exclusively republished by The Hub.

Not everyone, however, seems to appreciate the importance or content of this principle. Columnist Andrew Coyne, responding to Justice Rowe’s lecture, conflates concern “that ‘unelected judges’ are undoing the work of elected parliamentarians” with conservative ideology.  But his reply misapprehends the essence of constitutionalism. Coyne describes the Runnymede Society as “a conservative legal group” because its members are ecumenically committed to this principle. It’s an imperfect label, at best. 

There are certainly similarities between constitutionalism and conservatism. Indeed, many conservatives are naturally inclined to adopt a constitutionalist outlook. Both conservatism and constitutionalism tend to be defined by a non-utopian realism. For conservatives, this means adopting laws and policies that respond to the world as it is. For constitutionalists, this means faithfully upholding our constitutional settlement as we find it, rather than as we might wish it had been framed. 

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that because a lawyer or law student identifies as a constitutionalist that they must also necessarily identify as a conservative—even while it’s conversely difficult to see how conservatives could reject the tenets of constitutionalism. It is no secret that conservatives are an important and sizable constituency within the Runnymede Society, which seeks to create a forum where important issues relating to constitutionalism and the rule of law can be openly discussed. But conservatives do not exclusively make up our society’s membership, which also consists of classical liberals, libertarians, and heterodox leftists dissatisfied with the general lack of intellectual diversity within the Canadian legal academy and profession. 

An argument can thus be made that constitutionalism is not an ideology, per se, but rather a general outlook and disposition that can be oriented toward different ideological ends, depending on the context. Constitutionalism is governed by two core dispositional commitments. First, to broadly supporting the tenets of one’s respective constitutional settlement. And second, to ensuring that this settlement is faithfully upheld, specifically by ensuring that the legal instruments which attest to this constitutional reality are rigorously and objectively interpreted. 

In Canada, two corresponding objections to constitutionalism have arisen in recent years. The first is perhaps the most obvious, which is to simply reject the Canadian Constitution outright as an “instrument of repression,” as Justice Rowe put it in his lecture. If nothing else, this objection has the benefit of being more intellectually transparent, since it seeks to discredit Canada’s constitutional settlement on a foundational level: to put it bluntly, if you declare at the outset that the Canadian Constitution is itself a bad thing, you’re far less likely to be concerned with whether it’s faithfully interpreted and applied. 

The second objection to constitutionalism is stealthier since it’s rarely framed as an objection. While purporting to uphold Canada’s constitutional settlement, it sees the Constitution as a screen onto which policy preferences are subjectively projected, rather than a legal instrument from which objective meaning is derived. Proponents of this view are largely disinterested in the constitutionalist’s regard for faithful legal interpretation. While quick to describe the Constitution as a “living tree capable of growth and expansion,” they often neglect to include the latter half of this now-famous quote from the Privy Council’s 1929 ruling in Edwards v Canada, that such growth and expansion occurs “within its natural limits.”

Justice Malcolm Rowe, right, stands before his colleagues of the Supreme Court as he is welcomed during a ceremony at the Supreme Court, in Ottawa, Friday, December 2, 2016. Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press.

Such was the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in Toronto v Ontario, which suggested that courts may invalidate laws for violating the Constitution’s “basic constitutional structure”, even when they’re not actually offside “any express constitutional provision.” A majority of the justices in that decision (including Justice Rowe) instead ruled that, “[I]t is inconceivable that legislation which is repugnant to our ‘basic constitutional structure’ would not infringe the Constitution itself,” precisely because “[t]he structure of our Constitution is identified by way of its actual provisions, recorded in its text.”

To be sure, none of this means (as Coyne implies) that constitutionalists are inherently opposed to the idea of judicial authority—so long as this authority is exercised within the boundaries set by the Constitution itself. On this point, Coyne is correct insofar as he notes that judicial review of legislation is not an innovation that arose with the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Since Confederation, Canadian courts have possessed a sovereign authority to invalidate laws that contravene the provisions of the Constitution. 

Likewise, this is not to suggest that constitutionalists never diverge in their understanding of the Constitution’s content, nor that they might not change aspects of their constitutional settlement if given the chance. What unites all constitutionalists is their commitment to reform within the boundaries set by the Constitution itself, rather than by looking to courts to assume an authority they do not rightly possess, when their preferred legislative reforms fail. In other words, ours is ultimately a settlement not of legislative or judicial supremacy, but of constitutional supremacy. Falsely conflating constitutionalism with conservatism undermines this reality.