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Renewing the Public Trust

The results are in! Reader’s Digest’s 2010 survey about the people we trust shows enduring confidence in key public figures-and holds a few surprises. Which professions do we trust the most? What role do friends play in our lives? How is trust-a shared social value-maintained? One thing is clear: For Canadians, trust is earned. In the midst of financial and social woes, can our most precious commodity be renewed?

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It’s official: David Suzuki is the most widely trusted person in Canada in 2010. Presented with a list of 50 prominent public figures, a full 16 percent of our 1,179 survey respondents singled out the legendary environmentalist, for the second year in a row, as the man they “trust most.”

“He knows how to reach out and explain things so the common man understands,” says 59-year-old respondent Jacqueline Fitzpatrick of Thunder Bay, summarizing the general take on her No. 1 pick.  

Suzuki also knows how to reach across generations: “David inspired me to apply what I learned as a peace activist to become an environmental advocate,” says Désirée McGraw, co-founder of Al Gore’s Climate Project Canada. “Suzuki is a man who has combined his scientific training with an innate gift for communicating. His message is clear, consistent, compelling and credible.”

Suzuki himself has a refreshingly modest take on this: “I personally have no idea why a funny-looking old man would become such a face of trust,” he told Reader’s Digest, “but if I have been able to show people what Canada has, and how precious it is, perhaps that’s why they responded.

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1. Active Trust

1. Active Trust

As in last year’s poll, activists who raise awareness of public causes were rated highly trustworthy by Cana­dians: Suzuki, Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s disease fundraiser) and Stephen Lewis (AIDS advocate) claimed three of the top seven spots. Also high on the trust scale were nonpartisan public figures such as the Queen (No. 4) and Auditor General Sheila Fraser (No. 6), as well as high-profile television-news anchors Lloyd Robertson (No. 5) and Peter Mansbridge (No. 9).

The choices reflect the focus our survey respondents put on the perceived motives of their most-trusted figures. “When Michael J. Fox got sick, he was upfront about what happens to people with Parkinson’s,” says 53-year-old Linda Murray about her pick. The Mount Pearl, N.L., resident added: “I also trust him because he tries to help other people with the same illness.”

“I would like to believe Canadians also know that I haven’t sold out-so there is credibility in that.”

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2. Our Protectors

2. Our Protectors

The most unexpected entry came in at the No. 2 spot: Mike Holmes, famous for his work tackling home renovations gone awry, on his HGTV Canada television show Holmes on Homes.

“I find him to be very forthright and honest,” says 28-year-old Torontonian Jessica Thomas. “He brings a sense of security with him, and I would totally trust him to check my home and tell me what I need to do to fix it.”

A clue about what might be called the “Holmes effect” comes from another part of our survey, where respondents picked which professions they trusted most.

Interestingly, the top slots (firefighters, ambulance drivers/paramedics, nurses and doctors) all comprise professionals who protect us in situations in which we feel sick or vulnerable. Home building contractors appear at the bottom of the list (along with lawyers, mechanics, investment brokers, real estate agents, telemarketers and, ahem, print journalists).

But of course, Holmes is not an ordinary contractor: He protects people from bad contractors. And he does so at a time when homeowners are most vulnerable: flat broke and victims of a botched renovation.

“It’s a common scenario,” Holmes tells Reader’s Digest. “These people are financially screwed. They’ve sunk all their money into their renovations. A bad job can ruin their entire lives. I can’t tell you how many times people in this situation have burst into tears in front of me.”

Home repair is in Holmes’s blood. Before he turned 20, he had his own contracting firm. It sickens him to see so many unscrupulous tradesmen out there giving his business a bad name.

“I didn’t get into this to be on television,” he says. “I did it to change the way people fix homes. I’ll know I’m done when everyone is building the way I build.”

Trusting Politicians

For the second year in a row, politicians did poorly in our Trust Poll: The whole field came in third to last-only car salespeople and telemarketers did worse. But looking past this dismal ranking, we see interesting surprises in the way the politicians performed relative to one another.

The top performer was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, distantly followed by the Green Party’s Elizabeth May and the NDP’s Jack Layton. About Harper, 71-year-old Sherbrooke, N.S., resident Clara Wulf says, “He’s a politician, and usually you can’t trust them farther than you can throw them. But from what I can see, he’s a very knowledgeable man. My sister knows him personally, and I trust her judgement.”

“It’s been a tough year and I am humbled by the trust Canadians have afforded me,” Harper told Reader’s Digest. “I’d like to think that over the past few years in government, we have managed to earn the trust of Canadians by setting out a clear and strong agenda.”

Michael Ignatieff, Harper’s chief opponent in Parliament, was not as lucky. He brought up the rear among politicians on our list, in 42nd place. However, the timing of our poll may explain this low ranking, in comparison with last year’s poll, when he was at position No. 19: Survey respondents were contacted in October 2009, when Ignatieff was taking a beating in the press.