IN SEARCH OF UNITY
A new poll reveals a love of country and a mood of compromise
MACLEAN’ S/DECIMA POLL
Open the newspaper, turn on the television, meet the neighbors for a summer barbecue and let the conversation unfold: once the latest on O.J. Simpson is exhausted, the talk may actually turn to the fate of Canada, and the prognosis is often grim. Bombarded with tales of angry debates on Parliament Hill, public exchanges between provincial and federal leaders, and polls showing a likely victory for the Parti Québécois in a fall election, Canadians cannot be blamed for thinking that the country is sliding inexorably towards dissolution. But according to a new Maclean’s/Decima poll, that is certainly not what people want. Conducted between June 9 and 13, the poll of 1,000 Canadians—including 257 Quebecers, 222 of them francophone—reveals a deep love of country shared across the nation, with 94 per cent of respondents agreeing that Canada is the best country in the world in which to live. Among Quebecers, the figure is a stunning 90 per cent—with 83 per cent of those confirming they meant all of Canada.
And although those polled lacked a firm consensus on what it is that unites the country, they clearly see hope for genuine political solutions to the problems that currently divide it. More than two-thirds of Canadians— including about three-quarters of Quebecers—say they would welcome a more decentralized nation, in which all provinces are given more authority to run their affairs, if that would keep Quebec in Canada. In fact, those in Quebec prefer that option to one in which they would have greater powers than the other provinces. Says Decima executive vice-president Christopher Kelly: “The commitment to Canada is there, and so is the determination to keep it together.”
Equally telling, almost two-thirds of those living outside Quebec say they would be either “sad” or “heartbroken” if that province were to separate. That figure, says Kelly, represents “a hand reaching out.” Distressed at the prospect of seeing their country dissolve, those polled also demonstrated a deep frustration with the failure of their political leaders to reflect the love of country that Canadians feel. Roughly two-thirds blame politicians for pushing the divisive issue of Quebec into the spotlight, and about the same number agree that it is either the ineptitude of politicians, or the public’s lack of faith in them, that stands in the way of that issue’s resolution. And that figure jumps to almost threequarters in Quebec. “We are being betrayed by people who don’t have a vision of the country,” says Ottawa-based author and broadcaster Laurier LaPierre, one of several Canadians who spoke with Maclean’s about the issues raised by the poll. Adds LaPierre: “Politicians are salivating over the corpse of a place we call home. And a people known for our ability to compromise sits in amazement that this land we love may cease to be.”
At the same time as the poll showed a mood of compromise and reconciliation, it provided only partial clues about what is keeping the country together. When asked to volunteer words or phrases that describe Canada, only a quarter offered the same one: “free.” And when specifically asked to state what “most ties us together as a nation,” they had an even harder time agreeing: the top response—given by seven per cent—was the decidedly bland “our system of government.” About one-quarter had no opinion on the matter at all. Only when they were offered specific suggestions did those polled come to substantial agreement, with health care and hockey topping the list.
That failure to rally around a national, unifying symbol is a stereotypically Canadian trait. Architect Moshe Safdie, creator of the Habitat village at Montreal’s Expo 67 and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, vividly recalls the day that several members of a cabinet committee resisted his ambitious plans for the gallery. “Some said they preferred a more modest, and what they saw as therefore more Canadian, alternative,” says Safdie, whose cathedral-like vision finally prevailed. ‘Too often, those in power make a point of being negative and skeptical about our exuberance for Canada.”
That attitude, critics say, flourished during a decade of Conservative rule in which many of the constituent parts of the national dream were diminished in the name of deficit reduction: the country’s transcontinental rail lines cut back, the CBC downsized and Petro-Canada privatized. Current leaders, many insist, seem determined to keep up the pace. Even after a record-setting Canadian medal haul at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, federal officials are now contemplating cutting off funding to several amateur sports. “It’s sort of unbelievable,” says Canadian Olympic Association vice-president Bob Hindmarch. ‘We find something that pulls us all together, and all of a sudden it is too expensive to keep afloat.”
Perversely, Canadians are united in recognizing what divides them: about half put separatism and bilingualism at the top of their list. And slightly more Canadians—about two in five—are as convinced now as during the heated debates preceding the 1992 vote on the Charlottetown accord that Quebec will likely separate within two years. “A lot of people here already think of Quebec as their country,” says Montreal playwright David Fennario, whose works include this year’s Banana Boots, which compares Quebec’s position in Canada to that of the Republican minority in Northern Ireland. “In fact, some days it is easy to forget I’m in Canada, until I look at the money or the stamps.”
THE THINGS THAT TIE US TOGETHER
Health-care system Hockey
National history Geography
Tolerance of different races
Fear of United States
Rest of Canada
CANADA IS THE WORLD’S BEST COUNTRY TO LIVE IN
Strongly agree Agree
Rest of Canada
CANADA IS THE BEST? OR JUST WHERE YOU LIVE?
All of Canada
Just the area where you live
Parts of Canada
Rest of Canada
YOUR VIEW OF CANADA TODAY
A pact between two founding groups
A relationship among 10 equal provinces
Rest of Canada
FEELINGS IF QUEBEC WERE TO SEPARATE
Rest of Canada
Still, whatever anxiety the rest of Canada might be feeling at the prospect of an independent Quebec, there appears to be a growing number—although still clearly a minority—of non-Quebecers who are willing to concede an argument long made by many Québécois: that Quebec played a pivotal role in the birth of the nation. In a 1992 poll, only about one-quarter of those outside Quebec agreed with the notion that Canada is “a pact between two founding groups, English and French,” rather than a country of 10 provinces. Although that figure jumped to nearly one-half in the relative calm of 1993, it has now settled, despite the current fears about Quebec’s separation, at 35 per cent. “We all like to think we’re as different as the next province,” says Newfoundland painter Christopher Pratt. “But it’s about time that more of us acknowledge that its place in our history makes Quebec a different kind of different.”
However unique Quebec’s role in Canadian history, only about one in five of those living outside its boundaries are willing to grant it special powers as a condition of keeping it part of Canada’s future. New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards expresses the mixed emotions felt by those who would be saddened by Quebec’s departure—but who view its demands for special rights to be unacceptable. “I love Quebec and I hope to God Quebec doesn’t go, but I’m weary of being held hostage,” says Richards. “Eventually, you have to say, ‘OK, go. I wish so much you could stay, but you better go.’ ”
If Quebec does leave, Canadians are unsure about the fate of the Canada that would remain. A bare majority—55 per cent—envision “a strong, united country.”
Of course, even if the rest of Canada stays together, it is unclear to what extent it would be the same country at all. ‘Would what we were left with really be Canada?” asks Pratt. “Isn’t Canada the Maple Leaf and the Fleur-de-lys? Isn’t Canada the prairie farmer and the habitant? If Quebec leaves us, there will be Quebec, and there will be something else—and that something else will not be the Canada with which we are currently smitten.”
But if Canadians’ hearts are bilingual, there is hope that their passports may remain so, too. In fact, many of those polled see workable solutions for accommodating the province’s demands. While 83 per cent of those living outside Quebec said they would not agree to giving that province special status, about two-thirds liked the idea of an across-the-board form
THE THING THAT MOST DIVIDES US
OUTCOME FOR REST OF CANADA IF QUEBEC SEPARATES
Strong united country
Break up into smaller countries
Parts to be absorbed by United States
of power sharing, in which all provinces would be given a greater role in their own affairs. Even Quebecers seem to see the latter setup as a more workable one: while 55 per cent would stay in Confederation if Quebec were given special status, more than three-quarters could live with the across-the-board option. “I think most of us in Quebec would like to stay in Canada,” says Fennario. “It is only when politicians outside Quebec start to threaten us with retribution for leaving that in our minds, and in reality, we become oppressed. Then, we get backed into a psychological comer from which separation is the only honorable exit.”
The pitch of the current debate could easily create that situation.
This is, after all, a new political era, in which the official Opposition leader, the Bloc Québécois’s Lucien Bouchard, is vowing to take Quebec out of Canada, and newly powerful Reform Leader Preston Manning is militantly opposing him. With both sides digging in their heels, says Safdie, the result could be “a sort of self-fulfilling dynamic, where the temperature keeps rising, and irreversible things suddenly happen that no one really intended.” Others detect an almost evangelical fervor in many current politicians. “Especially at the extremes,” says McGill political philosophy professor Charles Taylor, “politicians are treating the issue of separation like a religious belief about which, they claim, there can be no room for compromise.”
Still, many analysts feel that the rhetoric will stop only when English-Canadians begin to feel comfortable with their own uniqueness—with their role as the founders and guardians of their own distinct society. Montreal novelist Neil Bissoondath, who has lived in both English and French Canada since emigrating from Trinidad in 1973, says that English-Canadians should see in Quebec an example— rather than a threat—of the importance of enforcing mies “to preserve not only their distinctness, but also to ensure their survival.” Although English Canada’s language is clearly not under threat, he adds, two decades of federal government policy aimed at promoting a “vertical mosaic” of multiculturalism has left it “unable to develop a healthy and unified sense of itself.” In his just-released book, Thinking English Canada, University of British Columbia political science professor Philip Resnick takes the argument one step further. “Why the Charlottetown accord-could never have worked,” says Resnick, “was that there was something in there for the separate provinces, and for Quebec and for the aboriginals, but not for English Canada as such.” The reason, says Resnick: “We were fixating—and we continue to fixate—on constitutional questions of political rights, but were ignoring a more important issue, that of securing a safe space for our identity as English-Canadians.” Like Bissoondath, Resnick says that Canadians outside of Quebec “have to define a fundamental loyalty to this place rather than to the thousand and one places people may have come from.” When they do that, he adds, they will not only have an easier time defining what their country means to them, “they will also feel a greater comfort in acknowledging, the obvious: that French Canada is distinct as well—and that what, in many ways, are two
IF QUEBEC WANTED THESE CHANGES, WOULD YOU AGREE TO THEM IN ORDER TO KEEP THE COUNTRY UNITED?
Rest of Canada
Give Quebec special status and more powers than the other provinces
Transfer significant powers to all the provinces with far less of a role for the federal government
Offer all provinces the same deal as Quebec wanted
Allow each province to choose what it wanted, so that different provinces might have different powers
nations can live peacefully in one state.”
In fact, the bluster of their leaders notwithstanding, Canadians share an unstated awareness that they possess the attributes needed to keep the country together. Although the poll showed that there is little agreement on the exact words that describe Canadians, all of the top 10 answers were positive ones: words like “free” and “great” and “peaceful.” Vancouver novelist Joy Kogawa sees hope in that informal consensus. “Haven’t we always known that the greatness of Canadians lies in how good they are to each other, how kind they are? In a world of intolerance, we have shown ourselves to be uncommonly tolerant. Now, we must build on that.”
Safdie insists that the alternative will mean “all parts of Canada becoming more provincial, less open to the world, less competitive and less creative.” And he predicts that it is Quebec that will be the hardest hit of all. “It will go through decades of intense introversion,” says Safdie, “and that is not good for cultural development.” But others are confident that Canadians will not take that road. “If you really love something, no matter the exact words you use to describe it, you don’t tear it down,” says LaPierre. “You respect it, and you get to know it better and you make room for it.” At a time when many other nations appear intent on tearing themselves apart, there is not only promise in such a notion, but wisdom as well. □
The Maclean’s/Decmc poll of 1,000 Canadian adults, conducted June 9 to 13, 1994, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Margins of error are larger for subgroups, such as regions.
AT THE MOMENT, WHO IS RAISING THE ISSUE OF QUEBEC’S PLACE IN CANADA?
Average people in Quebec
Average Canadians Quebec politicians
Business and community leaders in Quebec
Rest of Canada
WHY IS QUEBEC’S FUTURE IN CANADA STILL UNRESOLVED?
The failure of politicians to devise a solution that satisfies all Canadians
The unwillingness of Quebecers to accept a solution
The unwillingness of Canadians outside of Quebec to accept a solution
The public lack of faith in any solutions offered by any politicians
Rest of Canada
LIKELIHOOD OF QUEBEC SEPARATING IN THE NEXT TWO YEARS
Somewhat likely Not very likely Not likely at all
Rest of Canada
WHAT SHOULD RELATIONS BE IF QUEBEC SEPARATES?
Forget past/go forward with good relations
Feel angry/cut all future ties
Rest of Canada