What Canadians Think . . .
About Almost Everything
By Darrell Bricker and John Wright
Doubleday Canada, 273 pp.

Please God let this be a good book. Because if it isn’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

If a deep map of the psychological makeup of the Canadian population turns out to be . . . well, dull, then the worst stereotypes will have been confirmed by our own admission at the hands of two of the country’s most reputable pollsters.

It pains me to report that this book is something of a slog. Only half of Canadians (52 per cent) feel that being close to public transit would be important in looking for a new home. Fifty-three per cent report washing their car in a commercial car wash rather than by hand. Guys from Atlantic Canada are twice as likely as guys from Manitoba or Saskatchewan to wear a Speedo while on vacation in St. Tropez.

Well okay, but so what? What does it all amount to? Why are we supposed to remember any of this stuff?

Beats me. This is not a portrait of a people. This is an almanac of spectacularly useless information about a people. Of the top two after-school activities for kids, piano lessons and swimming are tied at 16 per cent each. Soccer edged out hockey 15 to 13 per cent. Thirty-six per cent of Canadians have white-collar jobs; 19 per cent of those “seem perpetually dissatisfied with work.” Gee, no kidding?

I have no reason to doubt the numbers. The authors are Darrell Bricker and John Wright, senior figures at Ipsos-Reid, one of the nation’s most prominent polling firms. They are sitting atop a data mountain assembled by a multimillion-dollar industry based on little more – let’s face it – than pestering people over the phone just as they’re trying to get the kids to eat. The real money in public opinion surveying comes from corporate clients with specific agendas who would prefer the data they commission to remain confidential. Bricker and Wright have put together a book from the leavings, the non-proprietary results of the polling industry’s pestering.

So, on any given day, 20 per cent of Canadians are unhappy with their hair. Forty per cent believe “barbecue season never ends.” If they had their choice of celebrity travelling companion, 20 per cent would choose David Suzuki, second only to Jim Carrey at 28 per cent. Percentage of Canadians who are millionaires? Four. Percentage of those millionaires who are farmers? Four.

The authors do their best with the material they have to hand, and the copy suturing this disparate information together is jauntily written. But it’s still just a 273-page blizzard of factoids. That’s a lot of factoids.

Is this what passes for knowledge these days? The fact that Canadians trust Bounty over other paper towels and Pampers over other diapers? This is no doubt gratifying to the Pampers people, but coughing up this kind of trivia requires an elaborate, moneyed apparatus geared to nothing more than the measurement and calibration of consumer sentiment. This is the game show Family Feud played out on a grand scale. There is no right answer, there is only what the majority believes.

Possibly I’m the wrong person to ask. I work for a university. Universities remain more interested in what people know than what they feel. In the university, everyone is entitled and encouraged to mouth off, but they will also be called upon to defend their positions. Public opinion surveys are just opportunities to mouth off without the threat of being graded on whether you know what you’re talking about.

For example, Bricker and Wright report that eight in 10 Canadians (82 per cent) approve of the core recommendation of the Romanow inquiry on health-care reform. I have a sneaking suspicion that eight out of 10 Canadians couldn’t tell you the core recommendation of the Romanow inquiry if you put burning bamboo under their fingernails.

Facts first, opinions later. Maybe it’s a small thing, but the authors make light-hearted sport of Canadians’ ignorance of their own folkloric landmarks. The good news, they report, is that 8 per cent know that the giant Pysanka Easter Egg is located in Vegreville, Manitoba.

Except Vegreville is actually in Alberta. Facts first. And if you don’t believe that, poll the citizens of Vegreville.eg

Globe and Mail April 30, 2005