In December 2018, the long process to abolish the crime of “blasphemous libel” in Canada came to an end when Bill C-51 was granted Royal Assent by the Governor General.
Before this bill became law, a person who made derogatory religious comments could be imprisoned, unless the remarks were made “in good faith” and in “decent” language.
Long-time students of this topic usually point to complexities in the definition of “decent.” Canada is still a country where “adult language” is not allowed on public airwaves from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. However, Canadians have enjoyed decades of shows and movies – on video, cable and streaming services – where swearing is common. What could have been considered indecent language by older adults might be seen as normal by younger ones.
Every two years, Research Co. and Glacier Media ask Canadians about the language they listen to, and use, in specific situations. Our latest survey shows a noticeable increase in the swear words that Canadians are hearing and saying.
This year, more than seven in 10 Canadians (72 per cent, up eight points since 2021) say they “frequently” or “occasionally” hear their friends swear. More than half also report hearing their relatives (55 per cent, up six points), co-workers (52 per cent, up four points) and strangers (52 per cent, up two points) swear.
Almost four in five residents of Atlantic Canada (78 per cent) and Ontario (also 78 per cent) recall hearing their friends swear during a regular conversation. The proportions are lower in Alberta (75 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (73 per cent), British Columbia (66 per cent) and Quebec (65 per cent).
The use of swear words at the workplace outlines a generational gap. While only 36 per cent of Canadians aged 55 and over recall a co-worker swearing, the numbers climb to 58 per cent among those aged 18 to 34 and to 60 per cent among those aged 35 to 54.
The first question focuses on what we hear, but this year’s survey also shows a more carefree public in specific situations. Almost three in five Canadians (58 per cent) say they swear “frequently” or “occasionally” when talking to friends, up nine points since 2021. There are also sizeable increases in the proportions of Canadians who swear when talking to relatives (43 per cent, up seven points), co-workers (39 per cent, up eight points) and strangers (26 per cent, up nine points).
The regional disparities are evident. More than seven in 10 Albertans (72 per cent) acknowledge swearing when they are in conversation with their friends. The proportions fall in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (64 per cent), Atlantic Canada (also 64 per cent), Ontario (62 per cent), British Columbia (54 per cent) and Quebec (52 per cent).
To be perfectly clear, we are not witnessing a barrage of “bombs” in workplace chats, but the incidence is higher than two years ago, and age plays a role. Only 19 per cent of Canadians aged 55 and over acknowledge swearing when talking to co-workers, compared to 46 per cent among their counterparts aged 18 to 34 and aged 35 to 54.
Even as we see a jump in the proportion of Canadians who swear in conversation, the country as a whole is becoming more cautious about when to rely on this kind of language. Only 12 per cent of Canadians (down three points) never alter the way they speak, and do not worry about a swear word coming out – a proportion that reaches 14 per cent among men and 15 per cent among British Columbians.
This year, we have equal proportions of Canadians who either always alter the way they speak to make sure that they do not swear in public (44 per cent) or who sometimes alter the way they speak so as not to swear in front of certain people (also 44 per cent). This represents a five-point drop in the number of adults who are sometimes cautious and an eight-point increase in the group that is always careful not to swear in public.
At a time when the country’s youngest and oldest adults seem to be at odds on several topics – including housing and the environment – the two generations find common ground on language. Similar proportions of Canadians aged 18 to 34 (46 per cent) and aged 55 and over (48 per cent) claim to always alter the way they speak to avoid swearing. For their counterparts aged 35 to 54, the proportion falls to 38 per cent.
For the first time, we asked Canadians what swear word they say the most. Almost one in five (17 per cent) claim to not use any – a finding that is consistent with the 16 per cent who told us they never swear when talking with friends.
The two swear words used the most by Canadians each possess four letters and are part of American comedian George Carlin’s famous monologue from the 1970s. The surprise is that five of the next six swear words are religious in nature (two of them only relevant in French). With “blasphemous libel” now behind us, Canadians can carry on without reprisals – but mostly in conversations with friends.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from September 18 to September 20, 2023, 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.