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Opinion: Survey: respondents rank Canada’s best and worst federal political leaders

On the worst recent prime minister question, perceptions of Justin Trudeau have turned decidedly negative over the past 12 months.
One in five respondents named Pierre Trudeau their favourite prime minister

Another Canada Day has come and gone, and Research Co. and Glacier Media have spent some time looking at how Canadians feel about pride in the country’s institutions and features and national unity. We turn our attention now to the people who have been “first among equals” in our country since 1968.

There is a bit of movement when Canadians ponder who the best prime minister of the past 54 years has been. We continue to see roughly one in five respondents (19 per cent, down one point since 2021) casting their virtual ballot for Pierre Trudeau, but the race is now a statistical tie, with Stephen Harper in second place (17 per cent, up one point). Current prime minister Justin Trudeau is third (12 per cent, down one point), followed by Jean Chrétien (nine per cent, up two points) and Brian Mulroney (eight per cent, up one point).

The generational fluctuations are pronounced. Canadians aged 18 to 34 put Justin Trudeau in first place (19 per cent), with Harper and Pierre Trudeau tied for second place (each at 13 per cent). The standings tighten among those aged 35 to 54, with Harper barely ahead of Pierre Trudeau (18 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively) and Justin Trudeau at 13 per cent.

Canadians aged 55 and over are the ones who give Pierre Trudeau a significant lead. More than one in four of them (27 per cent) consider him the best recent prime minister, followed by Harper at 21 per cent, Chrétien at 12 per cent and Mulroney at 10 per cent.

Eastern Canada’s Liberal Party strongholds align themselves around the elder Trudeau, who tops the list in Quebec (23 per cent), Ontario (22 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (also 22 per cent). 
Harper’s numbers are strongest in Alberta (35 per cent) and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (28 per cent). British Columbia is staunchly divided: 19 per cent for Pierre Trudeau and 17 per cent for Harper.

On the worst recent prime minister question, perceptions of Justin Trudeau have turned decidedly negative over the past 12 months. Practically three in 10 Canadians (29 per cent) think the current head of government has been the worst one since 1968, up seven points since 2021.

As views on Justin Trudeau turn more critical, perceptions on Harper have softened. This year, 17 per cent of Canadians (down four points) consider the only prime minister to govern under the Conservative Party of Canada banner to be the worst recent one. Everyone else is in single digits: Pierre Trudeau (six per cent, unchanged), Kim Campbell (also six per cent, up one point), Mulroney (five per cent, down two points) and Chrétien (also five per cent, up two points).

Animosity towards Justin Trudeau’s place in recent history increases with age, from 26 per cent among those aged 18 to 34, to 28 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 and to 31 per cent among those aged 55 and over. Only in Atlantic Canada do we see Harper ahead of Justin Trudeau as the worst recent prime minister (31 per cent to 29 per cent). In every other region, the current head of government tops the list: 19 per cent in Quebec, 26 per cent in Ontario, 30 per cent in British Columbia, 39 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and 49 per cent in Alberta.

We also reviewed how Canadians feel about the people who came close to forming governments but were never able to do so. The same proportion of the country’s residents (23 per cent) think the last two Conservative Party leaders – Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer – would have made good prime ministers. Scheer fares better in the Tory stronghold of Alberta (36 per cent) than O’Toole (28 per cent).

Rona Ambrose – who briefly led the Conservatives on an interim basis – is regarded as a good prospective head of government by 22 per cent of Canadians. Positive perceptions are lower for two former Liberal Party leaders: Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff (each at 18 per cent)
While one in five Canadians (20 per cent) think Stockwell Day would have made a good prime minister, the numbers are significantly higher for two of his centre-right predecessors: Preston Manning (29 per cent) and Robert Stanfield (30 per cent).

The only two leaders of the official Opposition to represent the New Democratic Party (NDP) post different numbers. Practically three in 10 Canadians (29 per cent) think Tom Mulcair would have made a good head of government, including 37 per cent of Quebecers. The ranking is superior for Jack Layton, with more than half of Canadians (52 per cent) saying he would have a made a good prime minister, a sentiment that rises to 58 per cent in Quebec.

While this survey does not ask who people would vote for if an election were held tomorrow, the results show that it has been a rough year for Justin Trudeau. The past 12 months included a federal election, the alleged end of the COVID-19 pandemic and higher inflation and fuel prices. Canadians are becoming more skeptical of what the current federal administration has actually managed to do. It will take major accomplishments, accompanied by clear policies, to turn these numbers around by Canada Day 2023.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from June 25 to June 27, 2022, 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.