Chairman's Desk

New polling shows deep changes in who Canadians trust — most politicians are down, while scientific community and smaller businesses are up

As winter melts into spring and vaccination rates rise steadily, the end of the pandemic has, mercifully, begun. The indescribable events we have lived through this past year and a half have shaken us to our core, leading us to question our most fundamental beliefs — about the role of government, business and other institutions, and about the competency of the leaders within those institutions.

When it comes to assessing the impact of events like the COVID-19 pandemic, you need to look at the horse race numbers and you need to look underneath to what is often referred to as the “architecture” of the opinion.

And there you find one of the most common measures is trust. Trust can be a very slippery thing in polling: distinct from “approval,” and less committed than “support,” it reflects an intangible faith in an individual or institution’s moral compass — faith that they will do the right thing, even in the depths of a crisis like COVID.

Typically, trust is built up very gradually, or slowly eroded over time. Many people are familiar with tracking studies that measure incremental movements in the level of trust among different institutions. These polls told us the story of declining trust in institutions like the church or the news media, over a period of many years and many news cycles.

So, when we talk about COVID as a once-in-a-generation event, that is true of its impact on public opinion too. In a new poll conducted by Discover, the fully integrated research offering from our firm Navigator, the meteoric impact of the pandemic on trust levels is crystal clear.

Anecdotally, we all knew this would be the rare event that breaks through in a fundamental sense. It is already uncommon to have a universal event that affects every single one of us. Many commentators, myself included, have been closely following the ups and downs of daily political polling, because during such times, the fluctuations can be dramatic. But what this new poll shows us is that COVID has prompted a deeper, tectonic shift in terms of who we trust. That shift will have profound consequences.

Between April 30 and May 4, Discover polled 1,500 Canadians, asking them whether they have gained or lost trust in their political leaders and in a range of institutions over the course of the pandemic. Using these results, they calculated a pandemic trust progression score for each leader, derived by taking the percentage of Canadians who had gained trust in them, minus the percentage who had lost trust.

By this measure, most elected leaders should be concerned. The prime minister himself is underwater by 25 points, with 44 per cent of respondents saying they trust Trudeau less now compared to the start of the pandemic. More than half of Albertans say they trust Premier Jason Kenney less today, giving him a score of -41. A majority of Ontarians felt the same way about Premier Doug Ford, giving him a score of -31.

Among the fold, there is one premier who has defied the trend of collapsing trust, and that is Premier Legault in Quebec. Some 43 per cent of Quebecers now trust their premier more, which is reflected in his overall high approval ratings.

But even as most premiers lost trust, other public institutions picked up the slack: small- and medium-sized businesses gained 22 points on the trust progression score. The scientific community was one of the biggest beneficiaries, including a 17-point jump among Conservative Party supporters. It may come as no surprise that people trust big business less, but at the same time, Canadians also trust their employers more today than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

It remains to be seen how these deep changes in trust will translate into votes. Could it be that the new-found trust among Conservatives for scientists might translate, eventually, into more support for action on climate change? Does the collapse in trust for big business among Liberals push the party into traditional NDP policy territory? The long-term consequences are impossible to predict, but fascinating to contemplate. What is clear is that in the aftermath of COVID-19, our politics will never be the same again.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 16, 2021.

Read More