Can Canada Survive?

ALLAN R. GREGG December 25 1995

Can Canada Survive?

ALLAN R. GREGG December 25 1995

Can Canada Survive?


For 12 years, pollster Allan Gregg has worked closely with Maclean's in designing and conducting the magazine's yearend survey, which tracks the mood of the nation. Through tough times and good, Canadians have bared their souls on issues ranging from finances—personal and national—to the state of their sex lives. The respondents' optimism has tended to dip when things were not going well for the nation. But, Gregg notes, never before have their answers been as bleak as they are this year. In the accompanying analysis, Gregg, chairman of Torontobased The Strategic Counsel Inc., explains why this year's poll, conducted for Maclean's and The National, has convinced him, for the first time, that Canada is on the verge of falling apart.


The unalterable conclusion to be drawn from this poll is that Canadians and their country today bear little resemblance to the people we grew up with and the place where we grew up. The responses also point to a high likelihood that Canada, as we have come to know it, will never be the same again. Despite the attention being given to Quebec’s aspirations, polarization over that issue is only increasing. This poll has forced me to conclude that there is no way we will be able to maintain those attributes of Canada that we hold most dear short of accepting that some form of sovereignty-association is inevitable.

Skeptics, no doubt, will note that those of us who try to understand, chronicle and study societal change have a vested interest in proclaiming constant new discoveries about the public conscience and popular culture. Unfortunately for our discipline, the researchers’ need for new discoveries has almost always outstripped their ability to find them. But I have to state that, in 20 years of analyzing poll results, this year’s set of findings is the blackest I have ever examined. To appreciate the foundation of our grim conclusions, however, those findings have to be viewed against the background of our understanding of the Canada that was.

Since the Second World War, North American society has been propelled forward by an overriding ethos that held that progress was normal; that the human condition was destined to evolve ever upward; and that future generations are to be taught to expect that they will improve upon, add to and advance from the place that they inherit. That value system formed the cornerstone of our common outlook, and our experience reinforced our optimistic view of the world and our place in it.

From time to time, the public’s mood would deteriorate and the population would report that certain aspects of Canadian life had worsened. But those swings invariably moved in tandem with (equally predictable) economic cycles, and were always paralleled with an offsetting, opposite view that, in time, we would return once again to our “normal’ pattern of constant improvement.

In the past 10 years, that tendency has become both more common and more pronounced than in any other period over the past 50 years. Canadians recognized, as individuals and as a nation, that we faced problems. We were able to articulate what those problems were, and we were increasingly prone to vent our anger at those we held responsible for the creation of \ these problems. That notwithstanding, we also held that, no matter how bad those problems were, or in how low a regard we held those entrusted with the responsibility for solving them, better times lay ahead. ;

As recently as last year, our analysis of the 1994 j Maclean’s year-end poll concluded: “Canadians still ; feel they share enough common ground, that the I country is sufficiently strong to weather these storms and, in the end, that they can regroup and overcome the adversity of the past 10 years.” This year’s poll suggests that, if that conclusion was correct in 1994, it most certainly is not in 1995.

Today, almost one in three Canadians—and every second Quebecer—reports a belief that by the end of this decade, our nation, as we know it, will cease to exist. If that finding stood in isolation, it might be easy (and tempting) to attribute the despondency to little more than a temporary hangover from the “near-death” experience of the Oct. 30 referendum in Quebec. But it does not. And it would be an error to do so.

Much more fundamentally, Canadians believe that virtually everything about Canada not only has got worse than it was in times past—a condition we have witnessed in other research findings—but that we can expect continued deterioration as we move into the future, a tendency that is foreign not only to past research findings, but to the very underpinnings of our popular culture. Moreover, those areas where this deterioration is anticipated most are the same ones that best define Canadians’ unique sense of national identity and self: our social programs and social fabric, the opportunities for advancement afforded to our young people and our economic prosperity. In short, Canadians report that, not only is their outlook for the future negative, but also the aspects of Canadian life that have given us a common sense of purpose and character will exist—if at all—only as pale imitations of what they were.

A despondent nation seems unwilling to make the necessary compromises

These findings also give voice to much more than merely our collective pessimism. They demonstrate quite clearly our absolute lack of faith in the existing leadership to put a brake on, let alone reverse, the pattern of deterioration of recent years. Even with all the fanfare over governments’ efforts to finally come to grips with the deficit, no more than two per cent of the population believe that problem will be eliminated by the year 2000.

As the people wait for the world around them to deteriorate, they appear to be trying to insulate themselves from external threats through an increased quest for spirituality and a greater search for solace and affection from their personal partners. inner well-being, however, they expect virtually all other aspects of Canadian life to diminish and worsen. It is not as if Canadians believe some aspects of their lives will decline while others improve; nothing is deemed to be on the upswing—except harsher sentencing for criminals. (Even that can be viewed as part of a larger pattern of despair. After all, the belief in rehabilitation has always been the prerogative of a population that embraced the prospect of improvement for all, including society’s worst elements.)

Taken together, these attitudes provide the most alarming aspect of this poll. Because if the population feels that the qualities that bind and define us as a people are in decline, then it follows that the country that we have fought for and defended in the past will be less worth saving in the future.

Having tired of the seemingly endless, and fruitless, attempts to achieve constitutional accord, English-speaking Canada appears to be losing its resolve to embrace Quebecers and their aspirations to their bosom. (That is the case even though they acknowledge that the huge federalist rally in Montreal just before the referendum appears to have helped the No side.) But Quebecers, far from growing weary, seem to have been emboldened by the referendum, propelled even closer to the path extolled by the forces of national sovereignty.

As I look at all these findings, I see very little cause for optimism that the public opinion fabric of the nation is strong enough to hold Canada together. Certainly, it would not withstand the strains of another referendum in the near future. Quebecers are increasingly convinced that sovereignty is inevitable. More to the point, they appear to have bought into the propositions that they have little to lose and that a deteriorating Canada offers few reasons to stay. While less convinced of the inevitability of a breakup of the country, English-speaking Canadians hold a seemingly unshakable view that their nation is based on a partnership of 10 equal provinces that entitles Quebec to absolutely nothing that would not be available to all. Taken together, those attitudes are a prescription not only for paralysis—as we have seen—but for fracture.

Quebecers and other Canadians alike felt the recent referendum results signalled the need for reform and change. Beyond that simple acknowledgment, however, not only is there no consensus, there are outright opposing views as to the scope, timing or nature of what those changes should encompass. More pointedly, the poll makes clear what so many of us have instinctively come to sense—namely, that nothing short of a direct ability to control the destiny of their province will satisfy Quebecers, and that anything that even comes close to satisfying that desire will be flatly rejected by the rest of the country. In fact, the only political solution that might hold the country together appears to be an overture that would offer to give the rest of the nation precisely what Quebec wants—a massive devolution of powers to all provinces.

While that solution might seem appealing to some political leaders and the electorate itself, it raises a basic question: with a population that sees its defining attributes withering, what forces would remain to bind us together if power is merely transferred to the provinces without any offsetting changes to our national institutions? My suspicion is that this question would cause concern among more than Trudeau federalists and old-line defenders of the confederal status quo.

All the indicators point to a Yes win in any referendum soon on the sovereignty issue. What is more, the poll findings suggest that Meech/Charlottetown-type attempts at constitutional reform (and the federal government’s recent initiative is little more than a variation on that theme) will be both insufficient to accommodate Quebec and far too much for English Canada to swallow. And besides that, Canadians believe those characteristics that have bound us together as a unique country and people are destined to wane and disappear. In that case, why would we assume that one—or five or 10—more autonomous governments, each with its own mandate to represent its constituency, would be able to seize the national imagination with a new and unifying vision of the future?

The combination of factors presented in this poll, without some form of national intercession, will see Canada hurtling towards its own destruction. The existence of these same forces leads me to believe that any combination, in whole or in part, of the distinct-society/veto-power/incremental-changes-to-federalism approach to holding the country together, no matter how imaginative or how cleverly clothed, simply will not work.

In fact, I can see only one solution to this dilemma. And it would require an up-front acceptance that Quebec will become, in a best case, a sovereign-associated state. That proposition would be a starting point—even before any new referendum in Quebec—for negotiations for what would evolve and remain of our nation. In short, the single best option available could be the one offered in 1990 by then-Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa: the creation of a “superstructure” government. It could be responsible for monetary policy, trade, defence and treaty-making; entrusted with establishing and monitoring national standards and “values”; and leaving all other matters to “communitybased” regional and provincial governments—hardly the nation envisioned by John A Macdonald or Wilfrid Laurier. Only something as radical in design or as fundamental in scope, I believe, will prevent us from sleepwalking into a future even less acceptable than the rather pathetic one Canadians are anticipating today.