Opinion-Policy Nexus

Opinion polls about national unity issues are often troublesome. Here is one by Abacus that suggests that while a slim majority of non-Quebecers want Quebec to remain in Canada, a quarter would vote to kick out the province. The basis for either lukewarm support for Quebec or hard-edged opposition to the province stems from a perception of extra-favourable treatment, as if Quebec were a spoiled child of the Canadian family. This perception, as is true for much public opinion about politics, is based on a great deal of ignorance.

First, the problem with the "national unity" issue is that it assumes there is a "nation" in the traditional sense of a people coming together to form a common bond. Canada was not founded from such a national spirit, but out of an attempt from the British to find a way for the North American colonies to govern themselves. So the genesis of Canada was not a collective continental embrace of farmers, artisans and other "ordinary" people from disparate regions under some new identity. It was a partnership among the provinces.

Second, the problem with Canada's on-again-off-again national unity debates is the differences in the understanding of the terms of that partnership. The colonies were constituent units with already fairly cohesive governing structures. When they came together to form Canada, they negotiated. But who negotiated what? What concessions were made? What vision propelled the partnership? What side-deals were made? What promise were made, and what promises were perceived?

Such questions produced reams of books and papers, so there are many possible answers. Over time, this evolved into a situation that, Lusztig noted in a CJPS article back in 1994, left Canada with competing and irreconcilable visions of the country's founding constitutional character. This is apart from what is actually written in the BNA Act of 1867 or in the Canada Act of 1982. These competing visions concern some key assumptions about what brought Canada together. Here are some.

  • was the founding of Canada a partnership between the French and English?
  • was it a partnership between Quebec (which, since the 1700s had been granted various legislative exceptions from Britain) and the predominantly English-speaking provinces?
  • was it simply a merger of provinces as equal partners, beginning with the original four (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia)?

Add to that list new visions inspired by more contemporary expectations, some of which are reflected in the Charter of Rights. For instance, regardless of what Canada was like in the 19th century, has it become a union of individuals, each with unalienable rights? Is it (also?) a coalition of "groups" whose identities transcend territory?

Now, consider this: In an age when we are supposed to be all "equal," when favouritism is no longer tolerated, at least not in politics, how, then can you expect anybody who puts less than a few fleeting thoughts into complex political matters to agree that yes, one province should be granted all sorts of exceptions? Or, how could you expect the typical Quebecker to disagree with the asymmetrical vision that Canada was a compact between Quebec and the other provinces? After all, that's what Quebec premiers have been advancing for nearly a century, so it's not absurd to see that province's population follow suit. Just as it is not surprising that people in other provinces, whose premiers push agendas best legitimized through a vision that Canada as founded through a merger of equal partners. All provinces manipulate various visions because, as noted earlier, Canada was not founded by "people" so much as by provinces, each with their own (mainly economic) priorities, each ready to pursue gains at the expense of another province. Look at the squabbling over oil pipelines in the West and hydro power in the East. There is absolutely no binding "national spirit" in any of these inter-provincial disputes. Political leaders may mention how a particular project benefits "all Canadians," but the bottom line has nothing to do with benefits to people or any sense of "equality" among stakeholders. It has all to do with provincial interests and how membership to Canada is a benefit or a hindrance to those interests.

This is not to slag Abacus and its methodology. My point is we shouldn't expect much from such a poll question. It's like poking a stick to a hornets' nest. Do not expect a surprise, and in the case of opinions about national unity, don't expect much more than a reflection of whatever vision passes as orthodoxy in their home province. Perhaps such national-unity poll questions should contain subsequent questions to determine how much a respondent knows about Canada's primarily interprovincial history, and whether they can name other provinces (or regions) that have at one point or another threatened to separate. For instance, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Alberta, and even Toronto. Quebec was not the first and only member of Canada's "club of the constitutionally aggrieved."


Thursday, August 16, 2012 - 18:20