It’s a striking finding given that Canada is the developed world’s most decentralized federation, but it bodes well for a federally led approach.

The issue of climate change, and how best to address it, is one that activates a number of society’s underlying fault lines, be they ideological, regional or even generational. In a federation such as Canada’s, however, there is an additional dynamic at play, namely views on the practice of federalism itself. Opinions about which policies to pursue to reduce carbon emissions get intertwined with feelings about which government, federal or provincial, should be playing the leading role, and which can be trusted to find the elusive balance between environmental and economic imperatives.

The Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 Survey of Canadians — one of the most comprehensive surveys of attitudes about federalism ever conducted — therefore provides some useful contextual information for those tracking the evolution of the debates over climate change and carbon taxes in Canada. The survey results help to bring into focus the public’s expectations as to how the two orders of government should respond to one of the most important challenges Canadians currently face.

To begin with, it is worth noting that Canadians are not instinctively wedded to the notion that the solution to all problems lies in Ottawa. Canada is already the developed world’s most decentralized federation: the federal government collects a lesser proportion of total public revenue and accounts for a smaller proportion of total public expenditure than does the central government of any comparable country. But only 17 percent of Canadians want to reverse this by allowing the federal government to take charge of many of the things that the government of their province does right now. Twice as many (36 percent) prefer even greater decentralization, saying that the government of their province should take charge of many of the things the federal government does right now. About half prefer the status quo or have no opinion.

Not surprisingly, the two provinces that stand out as the most decentralist are Alberta and Quebec. About half the residents of each of these provinces want their provincial government to take charge of many of the things that Ottawa handles. And these two provinces, along with Saskatchewan, also share some decentralist common ground when it comes specifically to the management of energy resources. This is evident in two ways:

  • In these three provinces, a plurality (roughly two in five) trust their provincial government more to manage energy resources. In comparison, Canadians in other provinces are less likely to trust their provincial government more on this issue, and more likely to trust both their provincial government and the federal government equally.
  • Residents of these same three provinces (along with those in Newfoundland and Labrador) are also the most likely to favour a federation in which policy about how to develop energy resources is set by each province, as opposed to having the federal government set one uniform policy for the whole country. In comparison, a plurality of Maritimers and Ontarians prefer a national energy policy set by Ottawa, while those in BC and Manitoba are evenly split between the two approaches.

The current debate on how best to respond to climate change, then, unfolds against the backdrop of a federation in which few citizens are seeking more power for Ottawa, and in which residents of provinces such as Quebec and Alberta are particularly protective of their provincial government’s prerogatives over energy resources. Viewed from this perspective, the deck on climate change policy is not necessarily stacked in the federal government’s favour.

It is all the more striking, then, that on the specific issue of climate change, there is relatively weak public support for a province-first approach (figure 1). Only 12 percent of Canadians trust their provincial government more to make the right decisions when it comes to addressing climate change. More than twice as many (29 percent) trust the federal government more, and almost three times as many trust both governments equally. About one in five (19 percent) trust neither government.

What’s more, the tendency to lean more toward the provincial government on this issue does not vary much between those provinces that are and those that are not challenging the federal carbon tax in court. Only 14 percent of Albertans, 10 percent of Ontarians and Manitobans, and 6 percent of New Brunswickers trust their provincial government more to address climate change. Only Saskatchewan stands out as somewhat of an outlier, with 25 percent trusting their provincial government more on this issue.

It is worth emphasizing that views on who should lead on climate change do not necessarily line up with views on how energy resources are managed within the federation. In Alberta, 42 percent trust the province more on energy, but only 14 percent trust the province more on climate change; in Quebec, the figures are 36 percent and 14 percent respectively. Even the decentralists in the country lean more to Ottawa than to their province on climate change: among those Canadians who want to see a shift of power from the federal to their provincial government, only 19 trust their province more to make the right decisions on addressing climate change, compared with 26 percent who trust the federal government more, and 32 percent who trust both equally.

The picture gets even more interesting when we turn to the question of whether Canadians prefer a federally set policy on climate change that applies across the whole country, or provincial policies that might vary across jurisdictions (figure 2). Overall, 48 percent of Canadians favour the federal government setting a national policy, while 30 percent favour each province and territory setting its own policy; the rest say it depends (15 percent), or they cannot say (7 percent).

Having the federal government set one national climate change policy for Canada is the preference of a plurality or even a majority in Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec and British Columbia. Saskatchewan stands out as an exception: in that province, only 34 percent favour a national policy, compared with 48 percent who say that each province should set its own policy. (A plurality also favour provincial policies in Prince Edward Island and Alberta, but by such a small margin that it is more accurate to say that opinions there are evenly split.)

The finding that Quebecers and British Columbians are among those most likely to support one national policy on climate change is especially interesting, as both of these provinces are exempt from the federal carbon tax precisely because they already have their own provincial policies to reduce carbon emissions. It is possible that their support for the federal government setting one national policy in this area is shaped by the fact that the national policy that does exist (the pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change) is one that allows provinces and territories to pursue their own course. It might also be the case that Quebecers and British Columbians are expressing support for federal intervention not in their own jurisdiction, but in other provinces that so far have not adopted adequate measures of their own to reduce carbon emissions.

Perhaps the most important conclusion, however, is that, once again, views on who should lead on climate change do not consistently align with other views on federalism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Quebec. Not only is Quebec the only province in which a clear majority prefer a uniform federal policy on climate change over provincial ones, but this preference for federal leadership is just as strong among those Quebecers who in principle prefer a more decentralized federation (see table 1). We can push the point further: even a majority of Quebecers who identify themselves as mainly sovereignist and a majority who say they would vote for the Coalition Avenir Québec in a provincial election prefer a federally led approach to policy-making to address climate change.

On balance, then, the survey results offer more reassurance to federal political leaders than to those who are currently pushing back against them on the issue of how best to address climate change. In the first instance, relatively few Canadians trust their province more on this issue (although many trust both their federal and provincial governments equally), and Canadians on the whole are more likely to favour a federal policy to address climate change that applies across the country than separate provincial ones. Secondly, the potential for a broad alliance of premiers in opposition to a federal policy is tempered by the fact that, for Quebecers, definitive action on climate change appears to trump their usual decentralized approach to issues management within the federation.

The Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 Survey of Canadians was conducted online in the provinces and by telephone in the territories, with a representative sample of 5,732 Canadians (ages 18 and over) between December 14, 2018, and January 16, 2019. The survey was conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research in partnership with five leading public policy organizations across the country: the Mowat Centre, the Canada West Foundation, the Centre D’Analyse Politique – Constitution et Fédéralisme, the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government.

This article is part of the The evolution of carbon pricing in the provinces special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, Royalty-free stock photo ID


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