308: Could you tell us a bit about the Environics Institute and its mission?
KN - The Environics Institute is the only organization in Canada to focus on public opinion and social research in the public interest (as a non-profit entity). It was founded in 2006 by Michael Adams (also co-founder of the commercial company Environics Research Group in 1970), when he realized there was no entity in Canada like the respected Pew Research Center in the US doing independent public interest research.
Our initial project was the first-ever national survey of Muslims in Canada, based closely on a similar survey Pew conducted in five European countries and the USA. September 11th made Muslims the new “other” group in the western world, and this community was poorly understood and treated with suspicion. The survey results provided a more accurate and constructive picture of our country’s Muslim population, in part by demonstrating how much they share in common with other Canadians. It was well covered in the media (thanks to a partnership with the CBC) and much appreciated by the Muslim community.
The Institute’s mission is to promote relevant and original public opinion and social research on important issues of public policy and social change in Canada. The underlying premise is that through such research that organizations in all sectors, as well as individuals, can better our country today, how it has been changing, and where it may be heading. A major focus of the Institute’s mandate is to survey individuals and groups not usually heard from, asking questions not normally asked. All of our research is in the public domain (available through our website at www.environicsinstitute.org), and in most cases we publicize our studies in partnership with major media organizations such as the CBC and the Globe and Mail.
In addition to conducting its own research projects, the Institute promotes the importance and use of public opinion research as important input into public policy and decision-making. We also aim to serve as a centre of excellence for responsible public opinion research methods and application, through education, training and consulting.
308: Does the Institute do any political polling?
KN - The short answer is no. The mandate of the Institute is to conduct important research that is not being done by other organizations, to address important gaps in our knowledge and understanding. Political polling is being well covered by others in Canada, and so is not an area where we need to direct our efforts. We do have an interest in the broader topics of democracy and civic engagement, and this is reflected in some of our studies.
308: What kind of research has the Institute done in the past?
KN - Our research falls into three broad streams:
1. Our most substantial projects focus on conducting meaningful research with poorly-understood and often marginalized parts of our country’s diverse population. In addition to our survey of Muslims (which we hope to update this fall), the Institute conducted the landmark Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study (www.uaps.ca), which was the first to focus on Aboriginal communities in our cities (more than half of our Aboriginal population now lives in cities). We are currently in the early stages of launching a major study of the diverse Black community in the Greater Toronto Area. For these projects we use a community-based research model, in which we actively engage the community being studied in all phases of the project, including an initial scoping of the issues to be addressed.
2. Our second stream addresses the Canadian population as a whole, and focuses on building understanding of Canadian public opinion on public policy and social trends as they are today and how they are changing over time. Our signature project is Focus Canada, which is the longest-running public opinion research program in Canada (launched in 1976) that provides a credible, independent and sustained source of Canadian public opinion on important issues facing the country.
Focus Canada was a syndicated study conducted on a quarterly basis by Environics Research until 2009 when the federal government instituted a moratorium prohibiting its own use of any form of syndicated public opinion research. In 2010, the Environics Institute took over Focus Canada as a non-profit project and is now conducting it as an annual survey. The emphasis is on continuing the ongoing tracking at the national and regional levels to identify how Canadian public opinion is changing (or not) over time on a wide range of issues.
3. Finally, the Institute also conducts research that places Canada in an international context, to help us better understand how current and shifting public opinion and social values in this country compare with what is happening in other parts of the world. For instance, the Environics Institute was the Canadian partner in the 2012 AmericasBarometer (www.AmericasBarometer.org), a multi-country public opinion survey on democracy and governance across the Americas that is conducted every two years by a consortium of academic and think tank partners in the hemisphere.
308: What are some of the most interesting findings you’ve had in your research?
KN - There are many interesting and often counter-intuitive findings from our research, including the following:
· Most Muslims in this country want to fit in and be part of broader society, but most other Canadians think they do not. This is an example of where research can uncover a positive story that can lead to broader public acceptance (2006 Survey of Muslims in Canada).
· Canadians feel strongly connected to the world outside the country’s borders, and this is reflected in a variety of ways. This includes a substantial financial contribution to international organizations and family members (i.e. through remittances), which in 2007 was estimated to total $27 billion, dwarfing the federal government’s official development assistance total of $4 billion (Canada’s World Poll, 2008).
· Contrary to popular belief, most Aboriginal Peoples living in Canadian cities are not transient, but have made the city their home and is where they want to be. For many, the city is proving to be a venue for creative development of Aboriginal culture, rather than remaining bound to rural traditions. The overall picture of Aboriginal life in the city is very different from what one sees on most of the country’s reserves (Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, 2008-09).
· Canadians believe being a good citizen is more than having a passport and obeying the law. Just as important are having an active commitment to ones community, and being accepting of others who are different. Moreover, Canadian-born and foreign-born citizens share a remarkably similar vision of what it means to be a good citizen (Canadians on Citizenship, 2012).
308: My readers might be more familiar with the Environics Research Group, which does political polling. Can you explain how the two organizations are different?
The Environics Research Group is one of Canada’s leading public opinion and market research companies, and as such is a commercial, for-profit business that conducts research on behalf of its clients. The Environics Institute is a non-profit entity that conducts its own research or collaborates with partners in launching joint projects that would not otherwise be done. The Institute has no formal business or financial relationship with Environics Research (or with other businesses that are part of the Environics Group of Companies). The Institute maintains its own financial and administrative systems, its own website and social media presence, and has an external Board of Directors.**********
Thanks to Dr. Neuman for taking the time to answer these questions, and I hope some of you will take a look at the work the Institute is doing.