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Discussions of how Canadians view their federation inevitably zero in on regional differences. Western Canadians are alienated, Quebecers are nationalist, Atlantic Canadians feel overlooked and Ontarians are more or less oblivious. The terms we use to describe these different outlooks – discontent, anger, resentment – may vary. But the unit of analysis remains constant: region. To understand the opinions that people hold, the main thing we need to know about them is where in the country they live. Or so we used to think.
What if we’re looking at it all wrong? There is growing evidence that what divides us, when it comes to views on how the federation works, is not where you live, but how old you are. Generation, not region, may be the country’s most important cleavage.
Consider two traditional survey questions about fairness, which are included in our annual Confederation of Tomorrow survey of Canadians. In the most recent survey from February 2023, only 29 per cent of Canadians say the federal government treats all regions in the country equally (figure 1).
A larger proportion (50 per cent) thinks that Ottawa favours one region over the others (and 21 per cent express no opinion). The proportion saying that Ottawa favours one region over the others ranges from a low of 39 per cent in Quebec to a high of 73 per cent in Saskatchewan.
Regional differences are also apparent when those who say that the current federal government plays favourites are asked to identify the particular province that benefits. Naturally, there is some finger pointing – mostly directed at central Canada. Eighty-five per cent of those living outside of central Canada say that either Quebec or Ontario is favoured. More specifically, while 17 per cent of Quebecers concede that the federal government might favour them, twice as many outside the province (37 per cent) single out Quebec. Similarly, 35 per cent of Ontarians admit that they are Ottawa’s favourite, but many more outside the province (49 per cent) think this is the case, (figure 2).
Yet differences among age groups are just as striking. The proportion of Canadians who say that the current federal government favours one region over others rises from 37 per cent among those ages 18 to 29, to 57 per cent among those ages 60 and older. Those in the younger age group (42 per cent) are twice as likely to say all regions are treated equally than are those in the older age group (21 per cent). See figure 3.
Younger and older people also have dramatically different views about which province is favoured. Among those saying that there is favouritism, the proportion singling out Quebec rises from 15 per cent among those ages 18 to 29, to 46 per cent among those ages 60 and older. Conversely, the proportion naming Ontario is 54 per cent among those in the younger age group, but it falls to 39 per cent among those in the older age group. In Canada outside Quebec, the age difference is even more stark: among those saying one region is favoured, 12 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds say that the favoured province is Quebec, compared with 55 per cent among those ages 60 and older (figure 4).
The most complete picture comes into focus when we combine answers to the two questions into a single measure. What stands out is the absence of any preoccupation with Quebec among younger Canadians living outside of that province. Among those ages 18 to 29, a plurality (40 per cent) says that no one region is favoured, and another significant proportion (22 per cent) says that one region is favoured, and that region is Ontario. Only five per cent say that the federal system is unequal in favour of Quebec – almost as many as who say it favours Alberta (4 per cent).
The proportion of the population outside Quebec that says that one region is favoured, and that region is Quebec, then rises steadily with age (figure 5).
Further analysis confirms that it is age, rather than province of residence, that is a stronger predictor of how Canadians outside Quebec answer these questions. Yes, where you live in Canada influences the extent to which you think that Quebec gets a sweet deal from Ottawa. But how old you are matters more.
(These findings are not a quirk tied to the selection of one particular pair of survey questions. The exact same pattern appears on a question that asks whether Quebec contributes its fair share to Canada. Outside Quebec, the proportion of those age 60 and over who say that Quebec contributes less than its fair share (55 per cent) is twice as high as that for those ages 18 to 29 (26 per cent). Again, more elaborate analysis shows that outside Quebec, age explains more of the variation in opinion than province of residence.)
Life-cycle or generational?
What remains to be explained is why age matters so much when it comes to perceptions of how Quebec is treated by the federal government. There are two possible explanations. The first points to a life-cycle effect: As they age, Canadians outside Quebec are either socialized to adopt the anti-Quebec mindset that prevails in Canadian political culture, or, alternatively, they are exposed to more occasions in which Quebec obtains the federal government’s favour. Resentment of Quebec therefore accumulates for each generation as it grows older.
The second explanation points to a generational effect. For older generations of Canadians, events have shaped their opinions of the federation and particularly of Quebec. The obvious examples are the various episodes of the prolonged national unity crisis that dominated Canadian politics from the start of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s through to the 1995 Quebec referendum. Canadians who are 60 years old today were in their 20s, 30s and 40s when the country wrestled with the fallout from patriation of the Constitution or the Meech Lake Accord, and they have carried their impressions of them as they have aged. Canadians roughly under the age of 40 have no direct adult memory of any of these events.
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The evidence (drawing from Environics surveys dating back to the early 1980s) supports this second explanation. This is partly because younger Canadians today look very different from younger Canadians 30 or 35 years ago. Compared to younger Canadians in the late 1980s and early 1990s, younger Canadians today are about twice as likely to say that no region is favoured by Ottawa, and far less likely to say that one region is favoured and that region is Quebec. Among those in the 18 to 29 age group, the proportion saying that Quebec is favoured has declined steadily from a high of 36 per cent in 1994 to five per cent today.
Therefore, it is not the case that younger Canadians have always been unconcerned about Quebec. The views of younger Canadians in earlier decades were very different from those today – likely because they were shaped by the constitutional crises of the time.
The second reason to support the explanation that focuses on the generational effect is that the opinions of older Canadians have changed over time, too, though in a different way from their younger counterparts. After peaking in 1994, the sense among Canadians outside of Quebec that Quebec is favoured by Ottawa declined in the late 1990s and into the 2000s as the constitutional debate waned. But it rebounded after 2014, likely as a result of the change of federal government in 2015. Most importantly, it rebounded particularly among older Canadians, especially those ages 60 and older – that is to say, especially those who were of voting age in the early 1980s, the last time a person named Trudeau was prime minister.
If the life cycle drove the perception that Quebec is favoured, it would be difficult to account for this decline and subsequent rise in the extent to which older Canadians feel that the federal government treats other regions unfairly by leaning toward Quebec. The older age group in each period of time should be more or less equally likely to hold this view. But this is not the case, and after the 2015 federal election, there was a rebound in finger pointing at Quebec among older Canadians. This suggests that the nature of federal politics in this most recent period has reawakened memories among those old enough to have lived through earlier national unity crises.
In short, the perspectives of older Canadians continue to be shaped by the events that gripped the country several decades ago. They replay perspectives triggered by debates about the patriation of the Constitution, the National Energy Program, the Meech Lake or Charlottetown Accords, or the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referendums. And it’s not that younger Canadians have moved on from all this; they were never there. Almost one in two Canadian adults alive today were either not born or were under the age of 18 at the time of the 1995 referendum, when the country almost broke apart.
This is more than just a fun fact. It is an important corrective to the all-too familiar way of seeing Canada – as a country hopelessly divided by geography – that can be misleading and unhelpful. Yes, resentment of Quebec is prevalent among some Canadians living outside of that province – and more prevalent in some corners of the country than in others. But it is more notable that very few Canadians under the age of 30 think the country is skewed in Quebec’s favour.
Finally, we can add this to the list of ways in which the political conversations that younger Canadians might like to be having today are derailed by the concerns of their parents and grandparents. We wonder why younger people are less interested in voting or joining political parties, yet we continue to revisit yesterday’s political debates that mean less and less to each new generation.