Canada has officially slipped into the “distruster” category of nations, so the Edelman International Trust Barometer tells us.
Utilizing online survey and interview data from 28 countries, Edelman’s 2017 ranking had only 49% of the Canadian population trusting key institutions – government, media, business and non-governmental organizations.
To some this confirms that a populist discontent of the sort that elected President Trump in the United States is brewing north of the 49th parallel.
Parsing and predicting is a pundit’s game, but even casual observers of the public square can detect that something seems to be changing in how we navigate our shared life.
Brexit and the US Presidential campaign made 2016 the year of “post-truth politics.” Sorting through the reach of alt-news and fake facts sucked the air out of most meaningful dialogue.
The inventory of trust-destroying stories dominating the news over just the past few weeks is dizzying and discouraging.
An promise to reform Canada’s electoral system lies in tatters, while the rationale for the broken promise changes along with the weather. The federal opposition leader critiques the prime minister’s Christmas vacation with billionaire friends, while tweeting from a billionaire friend’s yacht. Neither disclosed this until they were “caught”.
The US national security advisor misleads the vice-president about his dealings with the Russians. The Canadian prime minister campaigns on $10 billion annual deficits and balanced budgets within three years, only to introduce four months later a $30 billion annual deficit and no balanced budget plan.
That the most recent Finance Department projections suggest it will be 2051 before the books are balanced again is par for the course.
Trust isn’t the only casualty of playing fast and loose with the truth. Civility seems to be eroding at the same time. One can point to the sometimes violent protests happening with increasing frequency. Placard politics and social media are both forums where cuteness and crudeness come 140 characters at a time, usually without regard for the decency or dignity of opponents.
So, is it really surprising the Calgary Herald reported this week that the threats against Alberta Premier Rachel Notley are worse than they’ve ever been?
And neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on vulgar disrespect. Someone with the Twitter handle “kind and respectful” – a self-described single mother and civil engineer – tweeted at Conservative MP Tony Clement on Tuesday, “not threatening him or wishing for his death, but if tony clement died in a highway pileup i wouldn’t even feel bad for his family.” If only this were an isolated example.
So how do we escape this downward spiral in trust, truth, and civility? My colleague at Cardus and editor of our journal Comment, James K.A. Smith, suggests, “Where cynicism and irony rule, the web of trust is torn. But trust can be rebuilt by all sorts of small-scale but cumulative efforts—in churches, schools, neighborhoods, families, unions, for example. The encouraging thing is that the rebuilding of trust doesn’t need the state to get started. Reweaving webs of trust doesn’t require government permission or programs, even if those might later contribute.”
There is no neat formula for sorting through the relationship among public trust, truth, and civility, but clearly the three interact. And while the publishing of an international barometer that is uncomplimentary to Canada may prompt the conversation, it is only a daily commitment to truth and respect starting in our everyday personal relationships that will create any momentum to broader cultural change. If change comes, it will come from the bottom up.
Ray Pennings is Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of Cardus, an independent think tank