BUSINESS WATCH

Reinventing a country with sour expectations

Surveys confirm that English-Canadians now believe that if these constitutional proposals fail, Quebec will separate

Peter C. Newman October 14 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Reinventing a country with sour expectations

Surveys confirm that English-Canadians now believe that if these constitutional proposals fail, Quebec will separate

Peter C. Newman October 14 1991

Reinventing a country with sour expectations

Surveys confirm that English-Canadians now believe that if these constitutional proposals fail, Quebec will separate

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

With the country turning bitchy again and the Mulroney government’s constitutional initiative going sour, it seems a good time to call on Allan Gregg, the Toronto-based pollster who reads the national mood not from tea leaves or tarot cards, but according to the many seasons he has spent analysing public opinion swings.

“What Canada needs right now,” he told me last week, “is a marriage counsellor. Underneath all the turmoil, you’ve got this strong foundation of commitment to the nation as it stands—from sea to sea, bilingual in heritage, multicultural in character and all that stuff. Also, you have a population that understands any breakup of the country would have disastrous effects. It’s like a husband or wife saying, ‘I can’t imagine not living together, but you kicked the dog, and unless you say you’re sorry and that you’ll never do it again, I’m going to hold my breath till I turn blue. And if that means the end of our relationship, so be it.’ ” Gregg believes the main problem is that while there’s lots of evidence of common cause in both French and English Canada, there’s little goodwill in either community for the other side—and a strong feeling that a constitutional agreement, even if it should materialize, isn’t going to particularly improve things. “English Canada especially needs a demonstration of affection,” he says, “someone like Guy Lafleur getting on TV and saying, T’m a francophone, but I tell you, as I travel around the world I find that being a Canadian is the greatest thing.’ In the absence of such a demonstration of commitment, Quebec and English Canada are beginning to believe no one is really advancing the public interest or the national good, so that it seems more appropriate to pursue private interests and personal goals.” That feeling of disillusionment dates back to the Meech Lake debacle, which convinced most Canadians that 11 men in suits meeting behind closed doors should never again determine the country’s future. The traditional pro-

cess having been rejected, nothing has taken its place. When people are consulted, individually or collectively—as the Spicer commission tried to do—few practical suggestions emerge. What most people seem to want is the process of consultation but the results of leadership— so that listening and consulting is a means to an end, rather than an end itself.

“Between the spring of 1987, when Meech was first signed, and the summer of 1990, when it failed,” Gregg notes, “the issue became more and more narrowly defined, with support for the agreement declining in tandem with growth in opposition to Quebec’s claims for distinct-society status. That was partly the result of the pollution of public opinion by Bill 178, the sign law. It left English-Canadians convinced that they were linguistically more tolerant than the francophones—that Quebec not only receives more federal handouts than other provinces, but also that its people have a bad attitude. One of the many problems with Meech Lake was that it never spelled out what ‘distinct society’ really meant, allowing each participant to provide a definition, which they did, according to their diverse purposes.” The pollster believes that Quebec has failed to make its case for a distinct society, so that the

request has been regarded about as seriously by much of English Canada as the request by some St. Lawrence River community wanting a new wharf. “Too many people in the rest of Canada,” Gregg postulates, “believe that Quebec’s independence threats are a big bluff, that they’re not going anywhere, and that if they did, they’d fall flat on their face and come crawling back.”

Objections to recognizing Quebec as a distinct society stem from what Gregg terms an insatiable demand for equality, with Canadians determined that no one is entitled to get more rights than anyone else under any circumstances whatsoever. That even applies to aboriginal demands for constitutional reforms, which most Canadians support—just as long as they don’t grant native citizens any extra privileges.

“With the election of the Conservatives,” Gregg believes, “that kind of equality has been institutionalized, not because of Brian Mulroney or the way the federal government operates, but because it’s run by politicians who do what’s expedient. Besides, most people believe that we should be dealing with the economy and not, after 125 years, whether we should have a country or not.”

The one aspect of current public opinion that gives Gregg a small dose of optimism is that English Canada is much more prepared than during the Meech Lake debates to believe that the country might break up if the current constitutional initiative fails. Even those Anglos who have no sympathy for Robert Bourassa’s brave attempt to control events have finally realized that he isn’t fooling around or issuing phoney threats.

Gregg’s surveys this month show for the first time that a majority of English-Canadians believe that if these constitutional proposals fail, Quebec will separate.

At the root of all the changes, Gregg believes, is a fundamental shift of the Canadian character, from deference to empowerment. “We’ve become much more like the Americans,” he says, “with our disregard for traditional authority and institutions. It’s turned into a wholesale loss of faith based on the fact that most people now recognize their traditional values have been contradicted by their everyday experiences. The trouble is that there’s no replacement ethos. People have lost faith in their former beliefs, but nothing has taken their place.”

That’s how he explains the burgeoning popularity of Preston Manning’s Reformers, who Gregg calls “the Why-Not Party”—as in, “If you ask people ‘Would you support Reform?’ and, if they say yes, ask them ‘Why?’ they usually answer, ‘Why not?’ ”

What troubles Gregg most is that tests for political leadership are being set that are unattainable. The message of books like John Sawatsky’s recent diatribe against Mulroney is that no politician, even long before he attains office, should be allowed to tell a bad joke, smoke or drink, or commit a single indiscretion.

That’s the kind of dumb criteria that could cost us a country.