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Quebeckers support religious-symbols ban, but not secular charter: polls

Support for Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois has climbed to 36 per cent, a Léger Marketing poll shows.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

A new Léger/Le Journal de Montréal poll suggests that support for Quebec's proposed charter of values remains significant, particularly among francophone residents of the province. But it also indicates that the charter itself, rather than its proposals, may be the bone of contention.

The survey polled 1,207 Quebeckers on Jan. 17 and 18 via Léger's online panel. Due to the non-probabilistic nature of an online sample, no margin of error applies.

According to the poll, 48 per cent of respondents reported a somewhat or very favourable opinion of the charter. That was up slightly from a poll conducted in December, which found 45 per cent support, and up from the 43 per cent support the charter garnered in a poll carried out in September, when the proposal was introduced. Polling by fellow Quebec-based pollster CROP has found similar levels of support for the charter in recent months.

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The proportion of Quebeckers who said they had a somewhat or very unfavourable opinion of the charter decreased to 41 per cent from 45 per cent in December, though opposition to it stood at 41 to 42 per cent in September and October.

However, the main focus of the charter – the prohibition of government employees from wearing 'ostentatious' religious symbols at the workplace – received considerably more support than the charter itself. Fully 60 per cent of Quebeckers said they had a favourable opinion of this restriction, rising to 69 per cent among francophones.

The opinion among non-francophones about the restriction itself was little different than their views of the entire charter, suggesting that, unlike non-francophones, French-speakers are drawing a line between the goal of the proposed legislation and the problems surrounding its implementation.

Why this is so is unclear – respondents may not support the charter due to the division it is causing in the province. They may also be influenced by partisan considerations.

Party unity and disunity

The Parti Québécois's ranks have solidified, with 86 per cent having a favourable view of the charter. Liberal supporters are almost as strongly against it, with 71 per cent saying they have an unfavourable opinion of the charter (and a majority having a very unfavourable opinion). Still, 20 per cent of Liberal voters have a favourable view of the charter, suggesting they do have some dissent within the party (exemplified by MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin's exclusion from caucus).

More problematic, however, is the position of the Coalition Avenir Québec. The party is split down the middle, with 46 per cent of its supporters having a favourable opinion of the charter and 47 per cent having an unfavourable one. Their leader, François Legault, has much to lose by coming down hard either for or against (which may explain his middle-of-the-road position).

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On the prohibition on ostentatious religious symbols, 59 per cent of CAQ supporters had a favourable view, as did 37 per cent of Liberal voters.

Linguistic fault-lines

The dividing line is clearly drawn between linguistic groups, as 57 per cent of francophones said they had a favourable opinion of the charter, compared to 18 per cent of non-francophones. That proportion has been increasingly steadily, from 54 per cent in December and 49 per cent in September. Among non-francophones, opposition stood at 65 per cent.

There is no similar regional dichotomy between urban and rural francophones, as support for the charter stood at 45 per cent in the Montreal region (where most of Quebec's non-francophones reside). In fact, on the island of Montreal itself support for the charter stood at 63 per cent among francophones, higher than the proportion who said they supported the charter in the predominantly French-speaking regions of the province outside the two main cities.

But contrary to what one might expect due to its conservative politics and popular talk radio, support for the charter was actually lowest in the region around Quebec City, at 37 per cent. Unlike Montreal or the other regions of the province, a majority of Quebec City's residents said they had an unfavourable view of the charter. This has been recorded in other surveys as well, though when it came to the question of the religious symbol prohibition residents of the capital were more likely to support it than Montrealers.

Is the charter an election-deciding issue? The Parti Québécois certainly hopes it is. However, it ranked only fourth on a list of ballot-box issues at just 10 per cent, behind healthcare (23 per cent), job creation (16 per cent), and deficit and debt reduction (11 per cent). And only 14 per cent of PQ voters selected the charter as their top issue, though that put it second behind healthcare. Just 6 per cent of CAQ voters said it was their top issue, ranking fifth behind healthcare, jobs, debt/deficit reduction, and infrastructure. In the end, Mr. Legault may not lose too many supporters if he decides to back or oppose the charter.

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With the numbers seemingly moving in her direction, Premier Pauline Marois may decide to call an election sooner rather than later and let Quebeckers weigh-in with their views directly at the ballot box. If the charter motivates voters, she may very well win. It is far from certain that it will be the decisive issue. But it will be the loudest.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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