Canada the Cool

We’re cool with gay marriage and adoption, legalized marijuana, spirituality and interracial relationships. We’re not so cool with pornography, and in some cases, abortion.

Popular Canadian attitudes have changed drastically since 1975, thanks in part to the boomer generation, according to a prominent researcher.

“More than anything, Canadians today identify personal freedom as our No. 1 goal — above family life, friendship, a comfortable life, or a rewarding career,” says Reginald Bibby, professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and author of the Project Canada Survey series that measured boomer attitudes over a period of three decades.

“And because we demand the freedom to make our own choices, the thinking goes, we’d best be willing to grant the same privilege to others — to live and let live,” says Bibby. “Which, it turns out, is what we’ve done.”

Over a very short period of time, according to Bibby, Canadians have taken “a multi-everything outlook.”

As reported in Maclean’s, Bibby’s findings illustrate a stark change in popular attitudes across the country since 195. For instance, back then more than a third of Canadians believed that a woman shouldn’t work outside the home if her husband was able to support her financially.

And about half believed that black people and white people should not marry. Similarly, seventy five percent of Canadians surveyed indicated they believed homosexuality unacceptable and in some cases, even “abhorrent.”

“The fact of the matter is the data back then really shows that bigotry was alive and well,” Bibby was quoted in Maclean’s. “We were pretty down on a lot of groups.”

But the more socially progressive baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — clearly held markedly different views from their parents and grandparents. In fact, this generation would come to reshape Canadian society from a relatively homogenous group into one of the largest pluralistic societies in the world.

In areas such as acceptance of homosexuality, for example, there was a dramatic jump in approval. Gay marriage, while remaining a contentious issue, has the approval of nearly half of all Canadians. And while an additional 22 per cent say they disapprove on a personal level, they accept gay marriage as a matter of civil rights.

In terms of gay adoption, 61 per cent of Canadians say that same-sex couples should be able to adopt, including the 21 per cent who personally disapprove of the idea.

And while just over half of Canadians approved of interracial marriage thirty years ago, this compares with 95 per cent today. According to Statistics Canada, 452,000 people were in mixed marriages and common-law unions in 2001, up 35 per cent from 1991.

Additionally, Canadians are more open to non-traditional family configurations, such as single-parent and combined family scenarios. Bibby says that many of these changes have come about as a result of Canada’s official policies of multiculturalism, as well as from personal experiences.

And the growing prominence of professional women in public life has also played a role. According to Bibby’s findings, women are quantifiably more compassionate than men – and with their increasing influence in areas of public policy, women have helped to shape views on such issues as same-sex marriage, child abuse, pornography, poverty, and racial and gender discrimination.

“Whether it was in 1975, or in any survey since,” says Bibby, “the proportion of women who saw these issues as very serious would invariably exceed that of males.”

These more tolerant attitudes appear to have been absorbed by the younger generation. “Teens in general simply are so much more accepting of diversity,” says Bibby. “They’re more compassionate in areas relating to things like capital punishment and euthanasia, and open to religion and spirituality. But they’re led by young women.”

Today, a full 83 per cent of women aged 18 to 34 accept gay marriage, the highest acceptance rate of any group surveyed.

Other findings:

• Abortion – while there has been little movement on the issue of abortion (today 43 per cent of Canadians agree women should have an option for abortion compared to 37 per cent in 1985), the support climbs depending on a woman’s reason for opting for an abortion. If a woman comes from a low income family, for example, 58 per cent of people approve of the abortion option. If a woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy, support jumps to 92 per cent.

• Pornography – more than 40 per cent of the population believe that pornography should be prohibited altogether.

• Marijuana – Canadians are more in favour of legalization now than ever. Sixty-three per cent say they accept recreational pot use in general, and the acceptance rate jumps to 93 per cent for the legal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. (By contrast, only about a third of Americans say they would support legalization.)

• Religion – while only eight per cent of Canadians identify themselves as members of evangelical or conservative Protestant groups (compared to roughly a third of Americans), spirituality is considered important to most Canadians with 84 per cent identifying with a religion or religious group. And sixty-two percent of us believe in the existence of angels.

Results from Bibby’s research is to be published later this year in a book called The Boomer Factor: What Canada’s Most Famous Generation is Leaving Behind.