(and How Our Social Values Compare With Those of Other Countries)

 talk given by Ewen Coxworth,  Saskatoon Unitarians, July 29th, 2018.


Social values

Are there such things as values most Canadians hold in common, or are we just a collection of people with different social values, who happen to occupy the same part of the world?

The literature is full of comments, books and reports stating that there are social value differences, on average, between Canadians, Americans, British and Australians, even though most of us speak the same language (Canada is unusual in having two major official languages). At the same time,  Canadians vary considerably in social values, e.g., the difference between liberals and conservatives, and the difference between the values of people in eastern Canada, the prairies and the west coast. Furthermore, social values may change over time, in part due to new economic forces or new technology (think of the social changes being brought about by electronic communication technologies such as smart phones).

One way to try identify and deal with these effects is to have opinion polls at fairly frequent intervals. The polls will take account of the range of opinions on the topic being investigated, but will also show where the majority of people stand on the issue being investigated.

(Wikipedia has a long review article which is a useful starting point in the whole discussion of Canadian social values.) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_values).


Living in turbulent times

Many parts of the world seem to be going through politically and socially challenging times at present. Here is what Canadian pollster Michael Adams had to say about this in his new book called Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

“Our international scene is convulsed with terrorism, thousands of refugees are making perilous flights from war and oppression, and populist political uprisings are shocking experts and unnerving moderates of all persuasions.”

“the populism of the mid-2010s is marked by fear, economic uncertainty and shopping lists of resentments directed at others (immigrants, refugees, visible minorities, Muslims, Roma, LGBTQ+ people, etc.). Social values research also shows that this wave is driven by a desire for authoritarian leaders in a world that has become too fast paced and jumbled for many people, especially those who see diversity and a global outlook as a personal threat.” (Could It Happen Here?. Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. M. Adams. 2017. Simon & Schuster, Toronto, Canada.)


What about Canada?

Michael Adams believes that countries that have managed – by intention or good luck – to foster social resilience, reduce inequality, and provide collective tax-supported government insurance against ill health or unemployment are the most likely to minimize the negative effects of populism. He believes that Canada is one of these countries.

While we have been relatively calm, we have had experiences of racial and religious intolerance and violence, such as the massacre at a Quebec City mosque recently. Toronto’s former major, Rob Ford,  exemplified the populist tradition, with his image of a little guy fighting the “smug liberal elites”.  At present, there are conflicts between the Alberta and British Columbia governments over pipelines to bring Alberta crude oil to ports in British Columbia. The government of Saskatchewan is opposed to the federal governments plan for a carbon tax. The American federal government has applied significant tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel, and the Canadian government is applying counter tariffs to various goods manufactured in the U.S.A. and sold in Canada (The Economist, June 16th-22nd, 2018, pp. 28-29). These may be examples of conflicts arising from different social and economic values between regions of Canada or between Canada and the present federal government in the United States.

William Macdonald, in a recent series of articles in the Globe and Mail newspaper, believes that Canada is unusual amongst countries in its frequent use of mutual accommodation to resolve major social and political problems. Mutual accommodation has been defined as the relationship between different individuals or different groups of people where they must change or modify their opinions, their social values, and their behavior to continue to interact with each other harmoniously. Examples in Canada’s history include using mutual accommodation to resolve differences between the French and the English, between Quebec and the rest of Canada, between Protestants and Catholics, and between the provinces and the federal government.

(Macdonald’s articles are available at www.canadiandifference.ca).

Our country moved relatively peacefully from being a colony of Great Britain to becoming an independent country, still with strong ties with Britain via the Commonwealth. Macdonald contrasts this with the history of the United States, where the country was founded in a war against a foreign government and its taxes, followed by a civil war between the states.

Back in 2002, the majority of Canadians believed we were becoming more like Americans. But by the spring of 2017, only 27% of us believed that, while 26% of us said we were  becoming less like Americans.

So let’s look at our Canadian values and how they have been changing over the years.


Compromise and mutual accommodation.

In a 2011 survey, Americans and Canadians were asked for their views on compromise:

– Some 58% of  Canadians said they preferred elected officials who made compromises with their opponents; only 40% of Americans took this position.

– 54% of Americans liked officials who stuck to their position; only 38% of Canadians felt this way.

(Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. M. Adams. 2003. Quoted in Could It Happen Here?)

These differences may be related to the concept of mutual accommodation being more dominant in Canada. William Macdonald believes that Canadians tend to lean towards an underlying unity and order; this is in contrast with an American tendency to prefer a struggle between good and evil until a final moment of victory or judgment. Canada is more of a ‘both-and’ country, whereas the U.S. is more of an ‘either-or’ country.


Trends in Canadian social values.

In a book published in 1997, Michael Adams reported that polls over a number of years showed that Canadian social values were trending as follows:

– from deference to authority to questioning authority,

– from patriarchy to gender equality,

– from fear and judgment of others to openness to others,

– from deferred gratification to immediate gratification,

– from the consumption of material symbols of status and success to a post-material orientation towards learning and experience seeking,

– from a reliance on religious authority for meaning to a more philosophical and personal spiritual quest.

(Sex in the Snow. M. Adams. 1997. Quoted in Could It Happen Here?)


Patriarchy or gender equality

A comparison of social values over eight years in Canada and the U.S. found that the two countries were diverging on some important social issues. An example was the orientation to patriarchy: “the father of the house must be master in his own house”.

– Between 1992 and 2000 the percent of Americans agreeing with that statement rose from 42% to 48%.

– In Canada, the proportion of Canadians agreeing with that statement dropped from 26% to 18%.

According to Adams, patriarchy tends to be highly correlated with religiosity, parochialism, xenophobia (fear of strangers), patriotism, gun ownership, and support for the death penalty.



Americans tend to be more religious than Canadians and citizens of most other industrialized countries. In a World Gallup poll in 2009, people in different countries were asked for their response to the question: “How important is religion in your daily life?”

In Denmark, 19% of people surveyed said religion was important;

– in the U.K. 27%;

– in Australia 32%;

– in Canada 42%;

– in the U.S. 69%.

(Wikipedia data source)


Personality types and social values

People’s social values depend to some extent on their personalities. Studies around the world by Jonathan Haidt at New York University and his colleagues have found that there are two basic personality types. Open individuals (liberals) tended to be more responsive to new ideas and new ways of doing things. In contrast, closed individuals (conservatives) tended to fear too many changes, and too rapid rates of change, and feared that these would lead to chaos and the breakdown of society. (https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind)

Most people are on a spectrum somewhere between these two extremes.


Six basic sources of morality

The other big factor affecting people’s social values is the relative importance each individual places on six basic sources of morality. These were found in studies by Jonathan Haidt of New York University and his colleagues, looking at many countries and regions of the world, including Canada, the U.S. and western Europe. These sources of morality were:

  1. Care. This underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness and nurturance.
  2. Fairness. Generates ideas of justice, rights and autonomy.
  3. Loyalty. The source of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.
  4. Authority. Underlies leadership and follower-ship, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  5. Sanctity. Shaped by the psychology of disgust and feelings of contamination.
  6. Liberty, Can be in conflict with the concept of authority.


Across all the regions studied, liberals in 2008 ranked care and fairness as the most important of the first five (the sixth, liberty, was added later), and ranked group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity (sanctity) as much less important. In contrast, conservatives ranked all sources of morality as being of about equal importance. Liberals had difficulty accepting that loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity, were significant sources of morality. Conservatives, and those in the middle of the belief spectrum, could recognize the importance of care and fairness as sources of morality, but believed that loyalty, respect for authority and purity were also important.

(https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind)(The moral stereotypes of liberals and conservatives; exaggeration of differences across the political spectrum. J. Graham, B.A. Nosek, J. Haidt. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0050092). .

Haidt has come to believe that a successful, stable society depends on balancing all these six sources of morality. Societies vary over time and between each other in how they balance these different sources of morality.

An example is the common traffic light. Our freedom to drive through a street intersection has been limited by traffic lights and by law to avoid accidents and traffic chaos. The threat of punishment seems to be important in ensuring cooperation. Garret Hardin called this an example of mutual coercion mutually agreed upon. (from the essay called the Tragedy of the Commons). This may be an example of the use of mutual accommodation.


Canadian core social values and trends

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing at the University of Waterloo lists the following social values as important to Canadians:

– Fairness

– Inclusion

– Democracy

– Economic security

– Safety

– Sustainability

– Diversity

– Equity


As the group at the University of Waterloo says:

Values are critical. They provide guideposts for how Canada can move forward as a society, how we can orient ourselves during challenging times, how we can inspire our citizens, and how we can be confident that the policies and programs we recommend and the paths we choose will reflect the vision of our citizens.

The trends in our social values have been towards greater gender equality, respect for a variety of religions (provided that they abided by the law), and a strong social safety net for financial problems, poverty, and other misfortunes.



The World Happiness Report for 2017 ranks Canada as #7 in happiness, after Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands, but higher than Sweden (#10), Austria, Germany (#16) and the U.S. (#14).

(http://worldhappiness.report/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/03/HR17-ESv2_updated.pdf). The report employs measurement of six key variables to arrive at a happiness rating: income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom, and trust (measured by lack of corruption in business and government).


Summary, and where do we go from here?

Canada seems to be doing reasonable well on a number of social value measurements, probably partly due to chance and geography, and partly due to government actions and individual choices. But there is lots to do to make this a better place to live. Here are a few examples where more action is needed.

  1. Canada has the highest household debt levels of 35 developed and developing countries studied in a recent OECD report. Much of this debt was related to the very high housing costs in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.


  1. Poor job security and stability (temporary work or contract work) for many younger people (ages 17-36).

(Anxious, educated, ambitious. The millennials are rising. E. Renzetti. Globe and Mail, Dec. 16th, 2017, p. O2)(A practical agenda for populist times. Ngaire Woods. Globe and Mail, April 22nd, 2017, p. B4).

  1. Problems facing Indigenous people. Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation project are the issues of employment, education, and the poor quality of life on many First Nations homelands. Non-indigenous Canadians are deeply divided on what to do to help (New solitudes: A comprehensive survey exposes a chasm between Canadians and their government on Indigenous issues. Maclean’s Magazine, July, 2018, pp. 28-31). Therefore it is important to tell of Indigenous success stories. An example is the Osoyoos First Nation at the south end of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.


  1. Climate change.


  1. Our country has a poor economic competitiveness compared to the United States and a number of countries in Western Europe. Canada ranks #14 on a global competitiveness ranking (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/royal-bank-canada-economic-competitiveness).


  1. A changing United States and its relationship with other countries. A recent review article suggests that the United States is changing its role in the world to be more self-serving (Canada must recognize that the game is changing. F. Buckley, B.L. Crowley and S. Speer. The Globe and Mail, June 30, 2018, O3). The article argues that Canada must change a number of its policies and trade arrangements to meet the challenge of a different relationship with the United States.


These and other problems may need action at many different levels: local, municipal, provincial or federal. It will be important that we use reason, and strive to find wisdom, as we collectively work on finding solutions to these big issues in our society. They all may have effects on, and be affected by,our social values.


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Sign up for our e-news to get the news blogs first, along with current info on all Unitarian events and happenings.

Be a part of what’s happening and join in.

You have Successfully Subscribed!