Do you remember what you were doing back in February? Back before we used words like “quarantine,” “CERB” and “social distancing”? Chances are you weren’t spending a lot of time reflecting on our healthcare system, how government might develop new policies or the inner workings of provincial legislature. For most of us the public institutions that have taken center stage during this pandemic weren’t really top of mind back in February. But, thanks to a research project begun by the Rideau Hall Foundation before COVID-19 was part of our collective vocabulary, we now have a unique and exceptional snapshot of Canadians’ perceptions of our public institutions, and how those feelings have shifted over our weeks in isolation. Here’s the story it tells.

In February, the Rideau Hall Foundation (RHF) set out to conduct research to understand how Canadians felt about their public institutions (including government, healthcare, education, justice, news and media), how our institutions are interconnected, and whether there is an opportunity to increase engagement between Canadians and these institutions to maintain a healthy democracy.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, fundamentally changing the very ways we interact with people (let alone with institutions) our ability to travel, and causing a ripple effect through the Canadian economy from coast to coast to coast. With this in mind, the RHF saw an opportunity to conduct a second survey in May to see how Canada’s pandemic response changed public impressions of Canadian institutions.

The results leave us optimistic about the future. Despite the upheaval caused by COVID-19, Canadians have become increasingly optimistic about our country and its foundation of public institutions.

Since the pandemic started, over half of Canadians say our country is headed in the right direction, a 9% increase from February. This shift is significant, and may seem counter-intuitive to the disruption and uncertainty many of us have felt over the last few months.

For the past 14 weeks, we have witnessed the strain on our healthcare system, financial institutions and political systems at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Instead of breaking however, these institutions pivoted in countless ways to better serve Canadians in this time of need.

And for the most part, our survey respondents felt that our public institutions not only responded to the pressure, but demonstrated effectiveness and resiliency. In fact, 76% say Canada’s public institutions responded very well to the COVID-19 pandemic so far.

The pandemic has created an opportunity to interact with and reflect on our institutions in a way the public may never have done before. The pandemic has in many ways reinforced the necessity of having strong public institutions that are able to respond to crises and support Canadians when they need them most.

But there is still more work to be done. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Canadians of all ages, though research shows the impact on young Canadians seems to be particularly challenging. Younger Canadians between the ages of 18-29 are less likely to be engaged than those aged 60 or over. And while young Canadians have positive impressions of our country overall, they are also the least confident in Canada’s public institutions as a result of the pandemic.

More recent weeks have seen increasingly intense scrutiny about the systemic racism permeating our institutions. It’s clear that perceptions of Canada’s public institutions will continue to shift, but they can only be changed for the better if we are paying attention. Post-COVID, we must maintain engagement with our public institutions, to ensure they are open and accessible, reflect the make-up of our country and are serving us in the best way possible. We must challenge them, ask the hard questions, and find ways to illicit positive change on behalf of all Canadians. Only through active participation and engagement can we ensure the health of our public institutions now and for future generations.

Teresa Marques
President and CEO, Rideau Hall Foundation


Read the full study here.

Read more about shifting perceptions of Canada’s public institutions.