What a remarkable career Don Mills has had as Atlantic Canada's guru of public opinion. For 40 years, as co-founder and CEO of Corporate Research Associates Inc. (CRA), he has taken the pulse on issues that matter to Nova Scotians through market intelligence and countless public opinion polls.
He announced recently that the company, with more than 30 employees, will be sold, effective December 31, to three members of his senior management team.
Since he founded the firm, Don Mills has never stopped gathering information on how Nova Scotians feel about issues as diverse as immigration, economic growth, health care, education, consumer confidence, and of course, party politics.
In fact, if he chose to enter politics at this stage in his life, he would make a formidable leadership candidate armed with all there was to know about Nova Scotians’ opinions and preferences. But over the years he has probably been to too close to the sausage-making machine of provincial politics to aspire to that position.
Mills does say that he's seen huge shifts in public attitudes on some hot topics. In a recent CBC interview with Jon Tattrie, he said "We have a very conservative region overall, but the fact that we've moved so far on the issues of legalizing same-sex marriage and marijuana use for recreational purpose — it all indicates that we're keeping up with the rest of the country on these issues.”
He also reflected on one of CRA's big moments that came in the 2000s when Nova Scotians were consumed by the Sunday shopping debate.
"We decided we would find out what the public thought about the issue, so we went out and did a poll. Really, to our surprise, we found out the majority were actually in favour," Mills said.
"The people who were in the silent majority; when they found out they were in the majority, they were actually more willing to talk about their support for Sunday shopping. The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia — and eventually the provincial government — agreed, and stores stayed open seven days a week. “
This is a revealing insight on the silent majorities in our province that may be going unheard on other key topics. It would be helpful to know how our own community’s silent majorities feel about key issues such as economic growth, immigration, natural resource development, etc. I believe we are flying blind without that kind of data.
As for Mills, he is passionate about economic growth in the region and he welcomes the growing trend of immigration being seen as a key ingredient of sustainable growth.
He noted that one in five Canadians was born in another country, but just one in 20 Atlantic Canadians was born outside of Canada.
"When we started to ask people about their views of immigrants, it wasn't very positive," he said. "People thought we should have the same small number of immigrants or fewer."
He cited our neighbouring province’s success in increasing its population mostly from migration. "Little P.E.I., with 153,00 people, have had steady increases in their population over the last decade. They've created a net of 4,000 new full-time jobs on the island in the last 10 years. That's more than the other three provinces put together."
"We need to find a way to be welcoming, and not just friendly. There is a difference," he said. "Be willing to accept people coming from different parts of the world, different cultures, different religions, because that's where prosperity will come from."
Mills is also not shy to espouse some controversial ideas. He hopes to see a rethink of the notion that Atlantic Canadians can live anywhere they want in the region — and expect the same services provided in urban centres.
"It's really led to a culture of entitlement that says, 'This is the way it is, the way it's always going to be and we're just not going to change”. he said.
He also thinks East Coasters need to rethink attitudes toward natural-resource extractions if they truly want to become a “have” province.
"We're perfectly happy, apparently, to take equalization payments from western provinces who are exploiting their natural resources, but we are not prepared to develop our own natural resources."
Mills leaves CRA encouraged by one last statistic: Nova Scotia's population growth nearly keeping pace with the national average. "It makes me so optimistic now for what's going on in our province. If we can continue that trend, we're going to be fine." Let’s see if our county can ride that same wave.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at email@example.com.