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The Queen signs Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. (RON POLING/Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)
The Queen signs Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. (RON POLING/Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)

Federalism

On constitutional questions, it's still Quebec vs. the rest of Canada Add to ...

Thirty years after the patriation of the Constitution, Quebec and the rest of Canada remain as divided as ever over the need to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, according to a recent poll.

Quebec and the rest of Canada are at an impasse on a number of issues – more powers for Quebec, collective rights versus individual rights and the consequences of failing to reopen the constitutional debate – the survey shows.

In fact, when francophone Quebeckers are asked to choose between the status quo and political independence, 53.6 per cent prefer independence, the poll shows.

One of the rare points on which Quebec and the rest of Canada agree is whether renewed federalism is possible. About half of Quebeckers and 46 per cent of those in the rest of Canada say it is not. An even greater proportion say that even if talks were held, they would have no chance of succeeding.

“Thirty years after patriation a majority of Quebeckers and Canadians recognize that there is no constitutional change that could satisfy Quebec,” concluded University of Ottawa political scientist François Rocher in an analysis of the poll data presented to a three-day conference in Montreal marking the anniversary. “The patriation has left a deep scar that is not yet ready to be healed.”

The Internet poll conducted by Léger Marketing surveyed 2,039 Canadians from across the country, including 1,002 Quebeckers, between March 5 and March 12. A sample of this size has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The poll also found that the constitutional debate generates little interest regardless of where Canadians live, but that Quebeckers appear to be more knowledgeable about it. Less than one-third of those surveyed in the rest of Canada compared to half of those in Quebec knew that the 1981 constitutional conference was about the patriation of the Constitution. However in the rest of Canada, 40 per cent know that patriation also involved adopting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, something only 35 per cent of Quebeckers know.

Mr. Rocher said that people 35 years of age or younger, particularly the less-educated , are less likely to know about the defining moment in modern Canadian history.

The poll shows that Quebeckers want constitutional change and that 71 per cent of them believe that proposals for renewed federalism should be initiated by the province. But about half of those in the rest of Canada, and even more among English-speaking Quebeckers, are satisfied with the status quo – and, if talks were reopened, would support weakening Quebec’s powers on the crucial language issue.

The rest of Canada appears to support that the protection of individual rights is more important than protecting the collective rights of francophones. Seventy-three per cent of those in the rest of Canada compared to only 24 per cent among Quebec francophones agreed that individual rights should be protected even if it meant reducing Quebec’s power to protect its French language and culture.

The rift between Quebec and the rest of Canada widens even more when asked about how the federal government proceeded in patriating the Constitution. Only 15 per cent of Quebeckers said the federal government did the right thing by patriating the Constitution without Quebec’s consent while more than half of those in the rest of Canada shared that view.

According to the poll, almost 80 per cent of the province’s francophones said the constitution should recognize Quebec as a nation, compared with 13.7 per cent in the rest of Canada. Asked if renewed federalism should include more powers for the Quebec National Assembly, about 78 per cent of Quebec francophones agreed compared to only 9 per cent of those surveyed in the rest of Canada.

“The more people are informed about the constitutional stakes, the greater the divide between Quebec francophones and other Canadians,” Mr. Rocher stated in his presentation.

The conference’s spokesman, former Quebec Liberal minister of intergovernmental affairs Benoît Pelletier, said every effort must be made to re-open the constitutional debate “and bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold.”

Mr. Pelletier is realistic enough to believe that there won’t be any constitutional renewal any time soon. Federalists are afraid of failing, he said, as they did with the 1990 Meech Lake constitutional accord or the 1992 Charlottetown accord.

“Failure would give new impetus to the separatist movement and no federalist leader wants to be held responsible for that,” Mr. Pelletier said in an Radio-Canada television interview. “But the important thing is to talk. ... If debate over constitutional renewal remains taboo then nothing will be done and Quebec will be permanently excluded from the Canadian constitutional fold.”

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