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Canadians’ moral compass has shifted slightly on certain issues, poll finds

Findings from Research Co. and Glacier Media on morality among Canadians

Every year, Research Co. and Glacier Media analyze the moral compass of Canadians by asking whether specific issues are acceptable or not. Many of these topics have been the law of the land for a long time, while others – such as medical assistance in dying – are still being discussed and refined.

Compared to our 2021 review, we see little movement in the moral acceptability of four issues that have not been legally problematic for more than five decades: Contraception (75 per cent, unchanged), divorce (71 per cent, down two points), sexual relations between and unmarried man and woman (69 per cent, down one point) and having a baby outside of marriage (69 per cent, unchanged).

The biggest fluctuations on these four issues are related to ethnic origin. Unwed mothers are morally acceptable to large majorities of Canadians of East Asian (79 per cent) and Indigenous origin (70 per cent), but the proportions drop markedly among those whose descent is European (57 per cent) and South Asian (40 per cent).

Almost three in five Canadians (58 per cent, down three points) think physician-assisted death is morally acceptable. We recently studied how a majority of Canadians endorse the federal government’s guidelines on this issue, as we await a final decision on whether the framework will change. 

The moral acceptability of medical assistance in dying is highest among Canadians aged 55 and over (66 per cent). There is also a political divide. Majorities of Canadians who voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberal Party in 2021 have no moral qualms (67 per cent and 62 per cent respectively), but only 40 per cent of those who supported the Conservative Party feel the same way.

Most Canadians (57 per cent, down two points) have no moral reservations about sexual relations between two people of the same sex. Women are clearly more accepting than men (65 per cent to 50 per cent). This year, Western Canadians are at the lower end of the scale on this item: 52 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 49 per cent in British Columbia and 46 per cent in Alberta.

More than half of Canadians (53 per cent, down two points) think abortion is morally acceptable. Once again, women (59 per cent) are significantly ahead of men (48 per cent). Moral acceptability is slightly higher (55 per cent, unchanged) for medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos.

Fewer than a third of Canadians believe pornography (32 per cent, up one point) and prostitution (also 32 per cent, up two points) are morally acceptable. The gender gap is exactly the same on each question: 40 per cent of men think both issues are morally acceptable – a view that is shared, in each case, by only 24 per cent of women.

Gambling, which has become ubiquitous for sports fans due to the myriad of advertisements on cable networks, is morally acceptable for 52 per cent of Canadians, down one point since 2021 and rising to 59 per cent in Ontario.

For years, we have tracked the perceptions of Canadians on the return of the death penalty, and found a public that is divided when figuring out the appropriate punishment for murder convictions. On this survey, the split remains: 39 per cent of Canadians find the death penalty morally acceptable (up one point), while 39 per cent (unchanged) consider it morally wrong. In stark contrast with the questions about abortion, same-sex relations, pornography and prostitution, men have fewer reservations about capital punishment (45 per cent) than women (34 per cent).

The three components related to animal life and well-being remain low. Only three in ten Canadians (30 per cent, down six points) think it is morally acceptable to buy and wear clothing made of animal fur, and fewer appear ready to consent to medical testing on animals (22 per cent, down three points) and cloning animals (20 per cent, up one point).

Fewer than one in four Canadians believe six other issues are morally acceptable: Polygamy (21 per cent, up two points), suicide (20 per cent, up two points), using illegal drugs (19 per cent, up one point), married men and/or women having an affair (18 per cent, up two points), cloning humans (11 per cent, down one point) and paedophilia (seven per cent, up three points).

It is not a surprise to see how undesirable some of these matters are. However, after many years of discussions about mental health, legalization and treatment, just under one in five Canadians think using illegal drugs is morally acceptable. Canadians aged 55 and over are particularly unyielding in their assessment: only 11 per cent think the practice is acceptable, while 67 per cent consider it wrong – a higher proportion than their moral sentiment on extramarital affairs, cloning animals, polygamy and prostitution.

The long-standing perceptions on drug use from Canada’s oldest adults – who consistently have higher voter turnouts than their younger counterparts – may be playing a role in how policy discussions have failed to evolve. When such a large proportion of residents holds such negative feelings, a discussion about stigma will not be enough to change minds and strategies.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from May 12-14, 2023, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.