Why Canada’s—or the next government’s—success lies in leveraging “the Big Shift”

Published by HarperCollins Canada, 2013
Published by HarperCollins Canada, 2013, Price: 27.99 CAD

A book that surprisingly does not feature in this nifty list of Election Reads is the 2013 non-fiction bestseller The Big Shift: The seismic change in Canadian politics, business, and culture and what it means for our future. Co-authored by influential pollster and CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, Darrell Bricker, and renowned journalist and biographer John Ibbitson, The Big Shift is a pulsating read about a country that considers itself a moral superpower (or hyper-power) of this century. Its citizens are the happiest of all the Americas, and its economic health ranks high among others of equivalent resources and wealth, notably ahead of other advanced developed economies in Europe, the Pacific and Americas.

So what else distinguishes Canada from the rest of its league, and why is this distinction important for its image—of being an epicenter of tolerance, diversity, and salad-bowl globalism? Rated the best country to do business in by many and home to the highest immigration levels per capita in the world, Canada is being transformed by the “Big Shift” in the 21st century, unlike any other country. Political parties that understand the anatomy of this shift and the New Canada—based on real public opinion and market research—where immigration policy is the result of a demographic deficit, labour shortages, and power shifting to the Pacific and West coast, will be able to wrap their heads around the machinery that’s propelling this country into the future, ahead of others.

Canada’s immigration policy has been founded on a premise that aimed to recruit “the immigrants Canada needed and not the immigrants that needed Canada” (Bricker and Ibbitson, 2013). Canada is one of the world’s most urban countries with among the lowest crime rates (owed to its increasingly older demographic), all adding to its international appeal. Global mobility surveys repeatedly reveal the attractiveness of Canada as a destination for migrants. Over half of Canada feels that immigrants are positively impacting Canada, unlike most countries where native-borns generally view outsiders negatively. But nobody would know any of this without market research or public opinion studies. The authors claim, “the most disruptive force in the world today is public opinion,” and politicians, businessmen and artistes who understand this, will win. This book is a love song to the polls.

The quality of public healthcare and the governments ability to balance budgets and cope with an aging population were some issues that voters prioritized highest according to a Nanos poll in 2012.
The quality of public healthcare and the governments ability to balance budgets and cope with an aging population were some issues that voters prioritized highest according to a Nanos poll in 2012.

While the authors’ central argument remains that power has been slipping away from the “Laurentian elites” since the 1960s, their larger argument is for the need for consistent market research. Canada is home to slowing birth rates, growing infertility (1.7 babies born per woman on an average, compared to the required ideal of 2.1 to self-sustain), growing urbanization and immigration, and the rising power of the West (everything West of the Ottawa River Curtain: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia) and suburban middle class immigrant voters. The Liberals, loosely labeled, the “Laurentian elites” of Eastern-Canada are pro-immigration but emphasize “compassion” over “economic advantage” in their brand of multiculturalism. Their opposition, the Conservatives are also pro-immigrant but view immigrants as skilled labour and economic opportunities first.

Immigrants are transforming Ontario from a European Atlantic province into a Western, Asian, and Pacific one. Historically, immigrants tended to vote Liberal to counter the hostility of English Canada (there were bans on Asian immigrants until 1967). However, with the rising power of the West, seismic changes in politics, culture and business, like the rise of connection economies, diaspora, and super-technologies, new Canadians began to see value in the economic and immigration policies and programs of the West. The authors warn that labour shortages are not to be viewed as a honey trap for immigrants, but as open competition from the developing countries that “will intensify as labour shortages grow in developed countries and developing countries become increasingly able to offer their own citizens good jobs at good wages, with Mom and Dad close by” (Bricker and Ibbitson, 2013). This understanding distinguishes Canada’s multiculturalism from other experiments, and it part of the reason many would argue that multiculturalism is more “successful” (celebrated and understood) here–because it is vital to the economic engines and social fabric here.

The Big Shift chronicles Ontario’s increasing attraction to the “West” at the expense of the “East” or the Laurentian influence/consensus. Multicultural, independent, immigrant-friendly West is influencing Ontario (named “the economic engine of the country”) to make its policies more West-coast looking. Canada is probably the only modern nation where both left wing and right wing parties enjoy the support of immigrants of all cadres and Canadian politics is special, as an Irish journalist explains “every party claims that they are more pro-immigrant, in contrast with European nations like say Ireland where every party has to prove its opposition to immigrants in order to woo voters.” Though Canada has always drawn huge numbers of immigrants, the emphasis on economic class immigrants (and their increased proportions) has been a recent phenomenon since 2010, in efforts to quickly address the country’s labour shortages, sometimes at the expense of other classes of immigrants: family class and refugees. However, Liberal and Conservative governments alike have been accused of prioritizing short-term political needs, and manipulating the immigration and recruitment system.

Mining and hospitality industries are also witnessing labour gaps waiting to be filled
Mining and hospitality industries are also witnessing labour gaps waiting to be filled
Quebec constitutes under a quarter of Canada's total population and accounts for nearly a fifth of the country's annual immigrant intake. Please note, Quebec's capital is also home to one of Canada's three largest cities, Montreal.
Quebec constitutes under a quarter of Canada’s total population and accounts for nearly a fifth of the country’s annual immigrant intake. Please also note, Quebec’s capital is one of Canada’s three largest cities, Montreal.

This book clutches at the heartstrings of the New Canada post the world wars, and the digital/social/mobile age. The narrative draws you into the nation’s present dilemma about governance and demographics while explaining major trends like the baby boom and bust, aging populations, demographic deficits, global worker mobility attitudes and the potential for better research in business, culture and politics. The authors’ overall criticism of the Laurentian elites or the present political opposition is largely that they haven’t done much market research nor actively engaged in the study of public opinion polls to understand the demographics of the country or its population closely. Perhaps the Bricker and Ibbitsons’ criticisms have already been carefully considered by the opposition if this report on leader momentum score is any proof-in-the-works; whether these polls carry through in the election results is soon to be seen. (Catch all the election-on-Twitter excitement at #elxn42). The authors further recommend reading the famous and out-of-print book Boom, Bust and Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift by David Foots for a solid background on demographics, with the caveat that relying on demographics alone can be misleading; The Big Shift puts the implications in perspective.

Bricker and Ibbitson’s arguments appear nuanced and compelling as they call on all Laurentian elites (even Margaret Atwood is named among poets, professors, and politicians who address a Canada that does not exist) to observe and understand Canada as a result of The Big Shift, in order to win in politics, business and culture today.



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