MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL

Visions of an ex-tincsocitey

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH December 25 1995
MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL

Visions of an ex-tincsocitey

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH December 25 1995

Visions of an ex-tincsocitey

MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL

With attitudes hardening, a solution to the unity crisis appears increasingly unlikely

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

A community of communities? A union of 10 equal provinces? A pact between two—or, with the natives, among three—founding peoples? A sea-to-sea-sea notion that be came a nation despite its vastness and cultural differences? Throughout the country's 128-year history, it has always been easier to be Canadian than to define the qualities that make one. “Canada,” said Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan, “is the only country in the world that knows how to five without an identity.” If only that were true. Arguably, the real problem with Canadians is not that they have no notion of their country’s identity, but rather, that they have too many. Which of the above concepts best defines Canada? The answer changes according to the part of the country where the question is asked. Even describing themselves just as Canadian will not do for many citizens, who also define themselves according to language or ethnic group, the region or province they come from—or, in the case of sovereigntist Quebecers, by the fact that they do not want to be Canadians at all.

As Canadians contemplate the approach of a new millennium, a disturbing number— more than one in four—doubt whether the country they have known will survive to greet it. That is in sharp contrast to the upbeat public declarations of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and other political leaders about the collective will of Canadians to stay united. To a degree that is unprecedented in the 12 years that this magazine has been taking its annual year-end sampling of the nation’s mood, the 1995 Maclean’s/CBC News poll finds that Canadians view their country’s future with a pessimism that borders on outright despair. Divided by regional, linguistic, age and income differences, respondents disagree on many issues—but they are remarkably united in their belief that their society five years down the road will be meaner and poorer than it is now. To wit: overwhelming majorities believe that such benefits as welfare, unemployment insurance and old age pensions will be dramatically reduced or eliminated altogether; more than six out of 10 say that free universal access to health care will be curtailed or eliminated; one in three Canadians actually expects Canada to be a worse place to live.

THE RALLY FACTOR

think the big No rallies in Montreal and elsewhere just before the referendum accomplished their aim of attracting votes to the federalist cause

• Most likely to believe that: Ontarians at 68%

• Least likely to believe that: Quebecers at 50% (with little distinction between those who say they voted Yes— 51 %—and those who say they voted No—54%)

At the same time, if Canadians choose not to contemplate their shared and gloomy vision of the future, they can always debate their sharply different views on present issues. One of the enduring bromides of recent years has centred on the notion that politicians are more of an obstacle than an asset to forging consensus in the country. But when it comes to things constitutional, the Maclean’s poll suggests that Canadians deserve the political representation that they have. Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois is an appropriate representative of the majority of Quebecers who say that they would vote Yes to sovereignty in another referendum. And Preston Manning’s Reform party can claim to speak for the 71 per cent of Canadians who supported decentralization of powers and the 67 per cent of Canadians who said the country, rather than being a pact between two founding groups, is, in fact, a union of 10 equal provinces.

Meanwhile, Chrétien, who prides himself on the fact that his Liberal party historically has sought the centre ground of most political issues, tried to do that again in his late-November national-unity initiative—and landed himself in the eye of a political hurricane. In declaring Quebec a “distinct society” and granting it (along with Ontario, the West and the Atlantic region) a veto over future constitutional change, he ruffled feathers on both sides of the Quebec-Rest of Canada divide. Giving in to the clamor from the West, the government declared British Columbia a fifth region for veto purposes. (Advisers to Chrétien, who were divided over the issue of whether to grant British Columbia a veto, admitted they seriously underestimated the level of passion surrounding the issue.)

BREAK TIME

61% of Canadians, including 55% of Quebecers, think the politicians should leave the constitutional question alone for a while

As the poll confirms, few matters divide Quebecers and other Canadians more than veto powers and the distinct society concept. While 68 per cent of Quebecers think their province should have a constitutional veto, only 18 per cent of other Canadians agree. Similarly, 75 per cent of Quebecers think their province should be recognized in the Constitution as a distinct society, a view shared by only 43 per cent of other Canadians. But Chrétien’s initiative fell short of many Quebecers’ aspirations in that he did not propose to enshrine the changes in the Constitution.

Overall, then, fractious Canada seems in need of a rousing, spirit-lifting party. But even the biggest of Canadian parties can end up mired in controversy. In the wake of the unity rally in Montreal three days before the referendum, there was little agreement on such basic notions as how many people attended or whether it was a success. Police provided sharply conflicting crowd estimates, most English-language media reported it around 150,000, and the French-language media estimated it at as small as 35,000. One newspaper— the mass-market tabloid Le Journal de Montréal—dismissed the event as an anglophone “invasion.” But did it achieve its aim of bolstering the anti-separatist vote? The poll found 64 per cent of respondents from outside Quebec believing that it helped persuade some Quebecers to vote No to separation. Half of Quebecers, as well, believe that was the case—but 19 per cent think the event actually drove some undecided voters to the Yes side.

LEADER OF THE PACK

British Columbians are most

likely to say:

• Quebec's place in Canada is settled and no further actions are required: 26% (All provinces except Quebec: 20%)

• Canada should make no concessions to Quebec, and if a majority of Quebecers vote Yes in a future referendum, so be it: 35%

(All provinces except Quebec: 26%)

• If a majority of Quebecers wish to separate, "just let them go": 67%

(All provinces except Quebec: 51%)

• Do not give Quebec a veto over constitutional changes: 83%

(All provinces except Quebec: 77%)

• Do not constitutionally recognize Quebec as a distinct society: 61%

(All provinces except Quebec: 53%)

• Canada is not composed of two founding groups but rather of 10 equal provinces: 83%

(All provinces except Quebec: 75%)

Against that tempestuous backdrop, the defining essence of Canada may be a sometimes shared sense of wonder and delight that it survives at all. That was the case as recently as July, when a Maclean’s poll found a surprisingly large consensus among Canadians on subjects ranging from their willingness to serve in elected office to their pride in their country. Pollster Allan Gregg said those results showed Canadians to be “at a crossroads: questioning the past without breaking with it completely, ready to try almost anything in the future.”

Six months later, the year-end poll asked Canadians to look into their future—and they found it wanting. Bruised by a referendum that has, in its aftermath, evoked sharply different emotions from Quebecers and other Canadians, and battered by budget and service cuts at all levels of government, poll respondents foresee a future in which the federal government plays a much smaller role in the everyday life of the country—if Canada survives at all. Similarly, many see little or no hope for the future of the social programs that have become cornerstones of the country’s image of itself as a caring, generous society. “Canadians,” says Gregg, “always believed that our distinctive identity is in part formed by our social programs, and now consider that these are endangered.”

THE ROAD AHEAD

Support across Canada for:

• Giving Quebec new powers that would also be available to the other provinces: 71%

• Enshrining the notion of Quebec as a distinct society in the Constitution: 51%

(Outside Quebec: 43%)

• Granting Quebec a veto over any future constitutional changes: 31%

• Giving Quebec special status and powers that would not be available to the other provinces: 22%

Those fears seem well grounded in recent events. Eleven million Canadians living in Ontario learned in November that, because of the provincial government’s plans to trim $6.3 billion in spending over the next three years, they will soon pay more for everything from garbage collection to university education. Across Canada, the everyday effects of cost-cutting efforts range from reduced healthcare services and hospital closures to parent volunteers driving school buses and performing other work previously done by staff. Every province but one has gone through the wrenching experience of balancing its budget or setting itself on a course to do so. As for Quebec, outgoing Premier Jacques Parizeau has warned that its turn is coming in the next budget—and he blamed the referendum result for that necessity.

The chasm that separates attitudes in Quebec and the rest of Canada seems wider than ever. The razor-thin margin of the No side’s Oct. 30 referendum victory—50.6 per cent to 49.4 per cent—evoked dramatically different responses within and outside the province. “While English-Canadians were recovering from the near-death experience of their country,” says Gregg, “Quebecers were mourning what they see as a narrowly missed chance.” And just as polling in the immediate aftermath of an election generally shows more support for the winning party than it got at the polls, the strong showing of the Yes side is benefiting from a “halo effect” in Quebec. The Maclean’s poll, conducted two weeks after the referendum, found that fully 57 per cent of those who said they had cast ballots claimed to have voted Yes. And a solid majority of 64 per cent of Quebec respondents expect Quebecers to vote Yes in any referendum held within five years.

Those findings reflect another key shift in attitudes in the province. Traditionally, federal strategists have calculated that some of what they call “soft” nationalists support the Yes side only for strategic reasons—to give Quebec a stronger voice in future constitutional negotiations—and are more likely to vote No if they feel that the sovereignty side is actually likely to win. Now, for the first time, says Gregg, “people like that are actually more likely to vote Yes in that event.”

ASSESSING CHRETIEN

34% give Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at least some of the credit for the No side winning the Oct. 30 referendum in Quebec

25% blame him for so many Quebecers voting Yes

One reason for the Yes side’s resurgence, paradoxically, is the despair that Quebecers share with other Canadians when they look at the future of social programs. In the 1980 referendum, sovereigntists bitterly accused the federal side of running a fear campaign in which they warned Quebecers that such benefits as old age pensions and unemployment insurance would be lost if they left Canada. This time, the equation was reversed: sovereigntists argue that the only way to maintain those services is to leave a soon-to-be-bankrupt Canada and form a smaller nation based on social-democratic ideals. At least part of that argument is resonating: Quebecers, who in past polls were collectively among the most upbeat respondents on a variety of issues, are now the most gloomy about the ability of future governments to maintain existing levels of open-access health care, old age pensions and other social programs. In fact, Quebec’s Pauline Marois startled a meeting of federal and provincial finance ministers in mid-December by demanding that Ottawa cease funding Quebec’s social programs. Instead of transferring money to the province for those programs, Marois said, Ottawa should lower federal income tax rates in the province so that Quebec could increase its taxes by the same amount and fund its own programs. Federal Finance Minister Paul Martin rejected the proposal. Both Parizeau and Bouchard, who seems certain to succeed him, have repeatedly promised that a sovereign Quebec would have a more “humane” approach to spending cuts than Alberta and Ontario, where social and health-care services have been hit hard.

For Chrétien, meanwhile, the poll’s findings are a mixed blessing. On the positive side, despite widespread criticism of his referendum strategy within Quebec and some Ottawa circles, Canadians as a whole are not nearly as harsh. More than one in three gives him some of the credit for the No side’s victory, while just one in four blames him for the near loss. As is the case in so many areas covered in the poll, the gap on this issue between Quebecers and other Canadians becomes an abyss in comparing responses from Quebec and British Columbia. Thirty-six per cent of Quebecers say Chrétien bears at least some of the responsibility for the surprising strength of the Yes vote, and only 16 per cent think he deserves credit for the No victory. But among B.C. respondents, those figures are reversed: 43 per cent think he deserves credit for the win, and only 14 per cent disapprove of his performance in the campaign.

And with Chrétien now saying that he plans to avoid constitutioncertain to find that it is as divided as ever about what composes Canada, how and how much it should be changed, and how quickly. The closeness of the referendum result may have frightened Canadians in the short term, but it appears to have done little to budge their overall view of Quebec’s place within—or outside— Confederation. Although 71 per cent of Canadians agree that it is important “to make changes to our Constitution to show Quebecers that federalism can work,” that consensus swiftly falls apart when it comes to deciding what those changes should be. Along with widespread opposition to giving Quebec a constitutional veto or constitutional recognition as a distinct society, 60 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec think that only “modest changes” or “no changes” should be made to the Constitution. But 45 per cent of Quebec respondents said they want “significant change,” while only 23 per cent want little or no change. And other Canadians remain massively opposed to the notion of giving Quebec special status and powers: only 10 per cent support the idea, and residents of British Coal discussions in the immediate future, he can take solace in the fact that

WHAT NEXT?

Q: If there are to be changes to the Constitution, how should they be done?

By the prime minister and premiers

By a constituent assembly of elected officials and people representing different groups

By community groups that submit ideas to the government for approval

By national referendum

most Canadians like the idea of giving the issue a rest. But the more un-

pleasant reality is that they are simply agreeing not to disagree for a while longer. When the inevitable next round of national-unity discussions comes along—and the first ministers are constitutionally obliged to meet to discuss the existing amending formula in early 1997—the country seems lumbia are almost unanimous (94 per cent) in their opposition.

GETTING TO YES

59% of Quebecers who say how they would cast their ballot "if another referendum on the same question were held tomorrow" say they would vote Yes

64% of Quebecers believe a majority would vote Yes in another referendum within five years (38% share that view in the rest of the country)

43% of Quebecers who voted No in the referendum expect their side to lose in another referendum held within five years

The B.C. responses, in fact, suggest a new phenomenon in the otherwise relentlessly predictable cycle of federal-provincial and interprovincial government bickering. For years at first ministers’ conferences, Alberta has alternately positioned itself as Quebec’s biggest ally when it came to the issue of decentralization and its biggest foe on issues relating to special powers for Quebec. Now, the poll suggests that British Columbians want to assume that mantle. Consistently, B.C. residents were the most strongly opposed to such measures as a constitutional veto and distinct-society status for Quebec, and to any form of negotiation in the aftermath of a Yes referendum vote. Similarly, B.C. residents strongly support the definition of Canada as a union of 10 equal provinces rather than the historical view of Canada as a pact between French and English founding peoples.

Those responses, along with many others expressed in the poll, should bring no joy to Chrétien—but plenty to Manning. In little more than a decade, his party has grown from a small, Westernbased grassroots movement to an established political party that increasingly finds itself in the mainstream of English-speaking Canada’s political thought. Manning is one of the most enthusiastic proponents of portraying Canada as 10 equal provinces, and he has long argued that any constitutional reform should be aimed at all of Canada rather than only Quebec. Alone among the present federal parties, Reform has specific proposals on how to change the way Canada is governed, including a 20-point plan that concentrates on non-constitutional changes that could be made without the unanimous approval of the provinces. It would give the provinces exclusive responsibility over a wide variety of issues now shared with or controlled by the federal government, ranging from culture and tourism to management of natural resources.

Reform’s messages on the need for smaller, more decentralized government also address the concerns of most Canadians. And Manning’s insistence that the federal government has not yet gone far enough in its deficit reduction efforts wins across-the-board support from Canadians in all regions. Sixty-six per cent of Canadians say the Liberals have not yet gone far enough, ranging from a high of 77 per cent in booming British Columbia to a low of 56 per cent in the struggling Atlantic region.

That is good news for budget-cutting governments at the provincial level. Despite the critical media attention devoted to the spending cuts made by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and Ontario Premier Mike Harris, 63 per cent of respondents say they do not think any provincial government has yet gone too far in its efforts. Even in Quebec, where Bouchard and Parizeau cite Alberta and Ontario as examples of the trouble with Canada, 75 per cent of respondents say that no government has gone too far. Bouchard, in fact, could benefit from that attitude: if he becomes premier as expected in January, he will have to take tough measures to get Quebec’s financial house in order.

Ultimately, the poll provides little comfort for those who argue that the negative influence of the deficit has been exaggerated. Only nine per cent of Canadians agree. The real debate is not whether to reduce the deficit, but how quickly. While 30 per cent of respondents say it should be done by the end of the decade “even if it hurts,” almost twice as many favor the notion of “going slow.”

All of which suggests that most Canadians are in no great hurry to confront the two issues that trouble them most: the state of the economy and national unity. It has been a difficult year for Canadians, one dominated by concerns about survival—financial and political. Viewed from the present, the Canada of tomorrow will be a leaner, meaner country whose citizens will be much more preoccupied with their own lives than that of their nation. But in the meantime, they collectively agree on one thing: that they would rather not make today the tough decisions that they can put off until tomorrow.