As Canada struggles through its worst fire season in recorded history, a new survey suggests protecting forests remains one issue that unites most Canadians no matter who they are or where they live.
However, other parts of the survey done for Nature Canada and the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests the climate change debate is spilling over into the woods — especially in a season of unprecedented wildfires.
"That is deeply concerning and it does reflect widespread disinformation on climate issues," said Michael Polanyi of Nature Canada.
The two environmental groups commissioned Ekos Research to conduct the survey of more than 1,000 Canadians between July 28 and Aug. 9 on a wide range of forestry and policy issues. The margin of error was three percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Margins of error increase as results are broken down into regional samples.
It found 81 per cent of respondents agreed the federal government should be doing more to protect Canada’s forests and wildlife.
That figure changed little across the country. The lowest support for protection came from Alberta — but even there, 76 per cent were in favour.
Support also held up despite political belief. A majority — 53 per cent — of People's Party of Canada supporters, the most right-wing of Canada's mainstream parties, agreed more protection is needed.
High levels of support continued despite varying household income or education. It also corresponds with similar Ekos polling done last year.
"It is a strong indication of how much Canadians value forests," Polanyi said.
The poll suggests 80 per cent of Canadians want more protection even if it puts limits on the forestry industry. That support held even in British Columbia and Quebec, which both have major logging industries, and across education and income levels.
The survey also asked people what they felt was responsible for Canada's record wildfire surge.
Overall, almost a third of Canadians attributed the increased burning to arson. Almost half of Conservatives and nearly two-thirds of those who support the People's Party said arsonists are the main reason so much forest burned this year.
That cause is widely dismissed by scientists. Yan Boulanger of the Canadian Forest Service said Tuesday that the source of ignition has little to do with the size of the resulting fire.
"It is because of weather conditions that those fires spread and it's not a case of ignition sources," he said.
Right-of-centre political leaders have downplayed connections between wildfires and climate change.
One of Alberta Premier Danielle Smith's responses to that province's fires this summer was to say she'd hire arson investigators. Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused a New Democrat MPP of "politicizing" wildfires when she asked if he accepted a link between them and climate change.
"It does reflect a polarization of views when it comes to climate issues," said Polanyi. "I don't think it helps when leaders are not grounded in or communicating effectively the scientific consensus."
The poll also asked about a wide range of possible conservation policies. It found support for phasing out clear-cutting, ensuring forestry companies report their emissions accurately and following sustainability rules set by countries that import Canadian wood.
Jennifer Skene of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the poll — especially when it comes during a summer that has put such strain on Canadian forests — shows that the federal government needs to step up its protection efforts.
"This is the moment when Canada needs to look inward and adopt the kind of transformative change that will align with a safe, sustainable and viable future. This poll illustrates that is not a theoretical thing, but something that Canadians understand and feel."
Polanyi said the across-the-board support the poll suggests Canadians feel for forest protection could provide common ground for movement on environmental issues.
"Maybe nature offers a way forward in terms of environmental issues, as a way to bring all Canadians together."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2023.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press