Breaching The Barriers
Common ground appears on the Constitution
For Winnipeg MP Dorothy Dobbie, the findings confirm a sobering insight: most Canadians have only a dim grasp of the issues that may rend the country before the year is out. As cochairman with Senator Gérald Beaudoin of a parliamentary committee on the Constitution, Dobbie has spent much of the past three months listening to Canadians express confusion and concern over the federal government’s proposals to reform Confederation. With the eighth annual Maclean’s/Decima poll, however, the full extent of those national emotions became dishearteningly clear. And for Dobbie, there was no escaping the conclusion that the country’s politicians, including herself, have failed its citizens. Said the first-term MP: “I think the problem is with us. We have to explain this issue better, in simple terms that are honest and direct.”
Clearly, many Canadians do not feel that they have yet been given that simple and direct explanation of the government’s proposals. Fully four out of five of those polled for Maclean ’s said that they knew little or nothing about the government’s plan to make sweeping changes to the Constitution—including recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society.” At the same time, only a small minority (13 per cent nationally) said that they consider the Constitution to be the country’s most pressing problem; three times as many reserved that description for the economy.
Most poll respondents also made it plain that they no longer have confidence in the country’s politicians to come to an agreement on national unity by themselves.
Despite that, other poll results indicate a readiness to
resolve Canada’s protracted unity crisis. The annual survey found unexpectedly wide support across the country for a national compromise. The most hopeful finding: nearly half of Quebecers and other Canadians surveyed said that they were willing to give ground on the most divisive federal proposal—Quebec’s recognition as a distinct society—if that were the only way to reach a constitutional settlement. Said Decima analyst Catherine Murray: “Basically, one in two Canadians is prepared to compromise. You would not have seen that a year ago.”
Still, many Canadians remain unfamiliar with other details of what Ottawa is asking them to agree to. The federal government first unveiled its proposals for reform last September. Among other things, they call for an elected Senate, aboriginal self-government, measures
to strike down barriers to interprovincial trade and a clause recognizing Quebec as a distinct society—defined as “including a Frenchspeaking majority, a unique culture and a civil law tradition.” Surveyed almost two months after those proposals were unveiled, however, 52 per cent of poll respondents told Decima’s researchers that they had heard “only vaguely” about the proposals. Indeed, 30 per cent said that they knew nothing at all about them. Only 16 per cent claimed to know “the basics” of the federal plan. And a minute three per cent claimed to know about Ottawa’s proposals in detail. (Poll respondents were given an outline of the proposals in subsequent questioning.)
Experts offered several explanations for that low awareness of the issue. David Taras, director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Calgary, for one, speculated that Canadians are too concerned about the economy to focus their attention on the Constitution. Remarked Taras: “There is an enormous amount of suffering and worry. The Constitution is too gloomy and it is too shattering. We are just tuning out.” Added University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss: “You cannot eat national unity and you cannot wear it on your back.”
The very complexity of the constitutional debate may be another reason for Canadians’ aversion to it. “There is information overload,” said political science professor Donald Desserud of the University of New Brunswick at Saint John.
“The differences between all the proposals are getting so slight, you hear them and you think you have heard them before. So you do not pay any attention to them.”
At least one Quebec Conservative MP shares the prevailing impatience with the Constitution—setting himself apart from most of his provincial colleagues. Last fall, St-Maurice MP Denis Pronovost discovered through a survey that constitutional reform ranked a mere seventh on the list of his constituents’ priorities. In response, he called for a lengthy freeze on all constitutional discussions. Declared Pronovost: “I think having a freeze of all those kinds of discussions for one or two years will be warmly welcomed in every part of Canada, including Quebec.”
No such freeze is likely. Constitutional Affairs Minis-
ter Joe Clark acknowledged in an interview that many voters feel “that we have been talking too much about the Constitution and that we need to get on to other issues.” But he added: “There is a growing sense that, like it or not—and whether this package is ideal or not—we have to try to put it behind us.”
Before that is accomplished, however, Clark and his federal colleagues must overcome some sharply divided opinions about the proposed reform package. Much of the division, as it was with the failed Meech Lake accord, focuses on special recognition of Quebec. Nearly one-half of Canadians polled outside Quebec (46 per cent) and nearly one-third of those surveyed inside that province (30 per cent) cited the issue as the main problem standing in the way of a constitutional
settlement. But views on how it should be resolved differ dramatically: the 77 per cent of Quebecers who support constitutional recognition as a distinct society are almost evenly matched by the 69 per
cent of other Canadians who oppose it. Even so, the poll found reason for optimism that those long-standing differences can be overcome.
Clearly, the perception lingers outside Quebec that the government’s latest version of the distinct society clause will give that province powers that others do not have. Forty-five per cent of Canadians polled outside Quebec, including the majority of those opposed to the clause, told Decima that the words would give the government of Quebec “powers in [a] broad range of areas where it did not have power before.” Only 26 per cent said that those powers would be limited to the areas defined in Clark’s proposals— language, culture and civil law. Even fewer (15 per cent) described the clause as “just a symbolic gesture.”
The view inside the French-speaking province is very different. Among Quebecers polled, more than twothirds said that recognition as a distinct society would either convey limited new powers in the defined areas (37 per cent) or be purely symbolic (32 per cent). Only one in four said that the clause would give Quebec additional powers over a wide area.
But the survey also identified room for accommodation between Quebecers who insist upon the clause—while playing down its significance—and other Canadians who reject it because they anticipate that it will have a more sweeping effect. That desire for compromise seems to be almost equally strong among both camps. Within Quebec, while most respondents supported the distinct society clause, almost half of those (38 per cent of all Quebecers surveyed) said that they would be willing to leave the wording out of the Constitution if that were the only way to get a deal. Similarly, two-fifths of those who oppose the clause in the rest of Canada (29 per cent of the total) said that they would be prepared to accept its inclusion if that were the only way to get a final agreement. That measure of compromise—among both supporters and opponents of the distinct society clause— leads to a striking conclusion: a clear majority of Canadians surveyed would accept a constitutional settlement regardless of whether it contained the clause.
In an interesting twist, the poll also showed that respondents outside Quebec who refused to budge in their opposition to the clause also considered it highly unlikely that the province would separate under any circumstances. In other words, said Decima analyst Christopher Kelly, “They do not really see any risk in their opposition.”
There was an even greater willingness to compromise among Canadians outside Quebec when they were asked to consider alternative wording for the recognition of that province’s differences.
If Quebec were described as possessing “a unique language and culture,” 54 per cent of non-Quebecers said that they would be more likely to accept the idea than if the lightning-rod term “distinct” was enshrined in the Constitution. Said New Brunswick’s Desserud: “Everybody recognizes the reality of Quebec. What they do not like is the chance that Quebec is going to have some new power.” Toronto’s Bliss agreed, noting that “ ‘distinct’ has become a symbol.”
In the poll, however, the distinct society clause ranked below others when respondents were asked to identify the most important change in the federal package. Thirty-eight per cent of them (28 per cent of Quebecers; 42 per cent of other respondents) cited the proposal to eliminate provincial trade barriers as the most important part of the package. Although the survey did not inquire whether those respondents approved or disapproved of the trade
proposal, some analysts suggested Canadians are likely to support any measure that holds out the promise of easing the tough economic times. Said University of Calgary historian David Bercuson, who is currently working with a task force studying Clark’s economic proposals on behalf of that city’s Chamber of Commerce: “I have not seen anybody opposed to it at all. Both small and medium-sized businesses
are very, very keen on this.” Similarly, participants in Maclean’s Montebello forum also strongly supported the government’s goal of free trade among the provinces—although they suggested that it could be accomplished outside constitutional negotiations.
Despite its potential popularity with the public, Ottawa’s proposal to lower interprovincial trade barriers may be among the most vulnerable elements of the federal package. Several provincial governments, eager to preserve regulations that protect their own industries, have opposed the measure as a
thinly disguised federal power grab. In response, Clark has said that he is prepared to amend the proposal to make it more palatable to the provinces. Said Clark, after meeting with Quebec’s largest employer group in November: “We do not intend to act unilaterally. If our language does not reflect our intentions, we will change words.” But Clark insisted that the economic proposals would remain in the constitutional reform package.
Others expressed skepticism that Clark’s undertaking will be kept. Toronto’s Bliss said that he has “seen every sign that the government is going to drop economic union from the proposals like a hot potato.” The reason, in Bliss’s view: “Because provincial politicians—for all their posturing about being in favor of free trade—usually are not.” Added the historian: “This is an example of the people being out ahead of the politicians.”
It may not be the only such example. In several respects, Canadians polled for the most recent annual Maclean ’s survey expressed distrust of politicians’ ability to carry out voters’ wishes about constitutional change. For one thing, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed (65 per cent of Quebecers and 76 per cent of other Canadians) called for some form of constituent assembly in which individual Canadians—either with or without the help of elected politicians—would reach an agreement on constitutional reform. Politicians seem well aware of the popular mood. B.C. New Democrat MP Lynn Hunter had a similarly gloomy assessment based on her participation in Dobbie’s parliamentary committee on constitutional reform. Said Hunter: “We in the cut-and-thrust of it, facing the political fire storm, are seen to have somehow dirty hands.” For his part, Clark agreed in November to convene a series of five conferences in early 1992, at which a range of nonpolitical experts will debate various aspects of the government’s reform package.
At the same time, almost nine-tenths of Canadians surveyed spoke out in favor of a national referendum to ratify whatever constitutional settlement emerges. Nearly one-half of the respondents (46 per cent) would turn the question over entirely to a national referendum. Almost as many (42 per cent) want a referendum in addition to ratification votes by Parliament and the 10 provincial legislatures. Barely one Canadian in 10 expressed approval for the existing ratification formula, which requires only the approval of Parliament and the legislatures, with no opportunity for a countrywide vote.
Clearly, not every Canadian is convinced about the merits of a referendum. Former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney, for one, spoke out against such a step when he appeared before the Beaudoin-Dobbie constitutional committee in December. Said Blakeney, who led the Prairie province from 1971 until 1982: “I detect that a plebiscite could be significantly divisive.” Among participants in the Maclean’s Montebello forum, meanwhile, St. Andrews, N.B., shop owner Sheila Simpson expressed her concern that Canadians know too little about the reform proposals to render a fair verdict on them in a referendum. Said Simpson: “I am opposed to the idea because I believe choices should be made with a lot of insight and education.”
But Simpson and Blakeney are plainly in a minority. Support for a referendum to ratify the Constitution is strongest in Manitoba and British Columbia, and weakest in Quebec and Saskatchewan. But even in the latter two provinces, a clear majority of respondents (82 per cent in Quebec and 79 per cent in Saskatchewan) supported the notion either on its own or in tandem with legislative approval. In fact, two governments—British Columbia and Quebec—have already committed themselves to hold provincial referendums on the final constitutional proposals.
And at least one expert holds that Canadians’ apparent unfamiliarity with the issues is not a good enough reason to rule out a national referendum on the Constitution. According to Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, many Canadians have intentionally remained uninformed about the Constitution out of frustration with a consultation process that he describes as a “fake.” Declared Johnston: “If
you tell people they will not be held responsible for their actions, they will not behave responsibly.” But, in his view, Canadians would “rise to the challenge and perform their civic duty” if they had confidence that their opinions, expressed in a referendum, would determine the country’s constitutional future.
The federal government, meanwhile, has backed away from its earlier willingness to
consider a nationwide referendum to ratify a reformed Constitution. In late November, Clark delayed legislation that would have enabled Ottawa to hold such a vote. In doing so, he yielded to pressure from the Conservatives’ Quebec caucus, whose members feared that a majority of other Canadians might impose a settlement on Quebec. Still, Clark told Maclean’s that he remains “committed to some form of consultation,” adding: “We have not decided yet what it will be.”
Within the next few months, Clark and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will have to determine what form their consultation will take. For his part, Mulroney has already ruled out one option: he will not hold an election on national unity. But he has also made it clear that the ultimate decision on the country’s future will rest with its citizens. “Canadians are going to have to decide,” Mulroney said in a recent speech, “whether they want to keep a country or whether they want to lose a heritage.”
Clearly, whatever divisions afflict the nation, the latest annual Maclean’s/Decima poll uncovered a strong public desire for a settlement that will not dismember Canada. The challenge for Mulroney, as for Clark and Dobbie, is to overcome the twin hurdles of the public’s ignorance of the government’s proposals and its distrust of the government’s messengers long enough to forge a national compromise.