There is never any shortage of reasons to track the ups and downs of regional grievances in Canada: Every year brings new developments that fuel perceptions of regional winners and losers. Over the past 18 months, however, a unique event came into play: the COVID-19 pandemic. Did the collective response to a national emergency create a sense of common purpose that transcends our regional differences? Or did it widen existing gaps between those who feel the country’s federal system works in their favour, and those who feel it does not?

Our latest Confederation of Tomorrow survey of Canadians finds that, despite the scale of the emergency, there has been more continuity than change in Canadian attitudes about the federation. Most importantly, the experience has not upended Canadians’ longstanding preference for a decentralized federation with strong provincial governments.

The annual comprehensive survey, which began in 2019, allows us to explore this issue in depth. These surveys of more than 5,000 Canadians each, with meaningful sub-samples in each province and territory, include a wide range of questions about how the federation works, and how it could work better. The second edition of the survey was conducted in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic told hold in Canada. The third edition was conducted in February 2021, on the eve of the third wave. The research team identified three important questions that new survey data could help answer.

To what extent was the public response to the pandemic shaped by differences in regional political cultures?

Efforts to limit the spread of COVID have depended on the willingness of citizens to modify their behaviour to conform with public health guidelines, notably those relating to physical distancing, wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Two assumptions led to an expectation that compliance might vary significantly across regions of the country. The first is that certain regions (for instance, the West) are more individualist or non-conformist in outlook, while others (for instance, Quebec) are more collectivist. The second is that certain regions are less supportive of the federal government and therefore less inclined to accept made-in-Ottawa rules.

Yet the Confederation of Tomorrow 2021 survey found that there was widespread agreement across the country on key aspects of the response to the pandemic, including the requirement to wear masks in public, the importance of getting vaccinated and the need for a prudent approach to reopening the economy. Asked to choose between a faster or slower reopening, for instance, the more cautious option was favoured by almost two-thirds of residents of each province, ranging from a low of 64 per cent in Alberta, to a high of 79 per cent in Quebec (figure 1).

Two additional findings from the survey can help explain why. First, the assumption that certain regions are more individualist or collectivist in outlook is somewhat misplaced. For instance, modest majorities in every province disagree that “the government should not tell average citizens like me what we can and cannot do.” Disagreement varies just a few points from the national average, from a low of 52 per cent in Saskatchewan to a high of 58 per cent in Quebec. Opinions on this question in Atlantic Canada and the Prairies are almost identical.

Second, regional grievances with the federal government did not translate into distrust of scientific and medical advice, even when that advice came from Ottawa: 80 per cent of Canadians expressed a lot or some trust in the medical and health advice given by the federal government, with no significant variation among regions.

In short, the public response to the pandemic was characterized more by the absence of differences across regions than by regional divisions. Regional political cultures therefore did not appear to be a major factor shaping the public response to the pandemic.

To what extent has the pandemic reshaped public perceptions of the appropriate roles of the federal and provincial or territorial governments?

The pandemic sharpened public attention on the respective roles that each order of government plays in the federation. The federal government has made extraordinary use of its powers to borrow and spend, while provinces and territories were at the forefront of providing essential health care and other public services. This experience, however, does not appear to have prompted Canadians to rethink their views about the division of powers.

Most Canadians continue to be comfortable with the decentralized nature of their federation, with relatively few seeing the need to transfer powers from their provincial or territorial government to Ottawa (figure 2). More significantly, there has been relatively little change since 2019, including in the year after the onset of the pandemic (i.e. between 2020 and 2021). Despite the important role that Ottawa has played in providing emergency supports and a call by many experts for a more uniform response, the proportion of Canadians seeking a more centralized federation has not increased – if anything, it is slightly lower now than before the pandemic began.

The 2021 survey did find widespread support for more federal funding to provinces and territories in many areas, such as health care, care for the elderly, and child care. Yet there is no agreement as to whether this funding should come with strings attached. Overall, a plurality (about two in five) say that the federal government should provide more funding to the provinces and territories, and let each province and territory decide how to spend this money to improve services in their area. About one in three say that federal government should create a single set of national standards for services in each of these areas, and then provide more funding only to those provinces and territories that meet those standards.

Not surprisingly, support for more federal funding without conditions is stronger in Quebec. In the rest of Canada, the public is more evenly split on the question. But the key point is that the pandemic notwithstanding, support for funding tied to “national standards” is the generally a minority position, both inside and outside Quebec – a finding that is consistent with the notion that Canadians remain comfortable with their relatively decentralized federation.

To what extent has the response to the pandemic exacerbated or dampened regional grievances about the way federalism works in Canada?

In spring 2020, as the pandemic took hold in Canada, commentators praised the willingness of first ministers to come together to confront the crisis. Later in the year, the political tone became less collegial, as disagreements arose as to which governments were, or were not, taking the right steps to contain the spread of the virus. Did the pandemic strengthen pan-Canadian solidarity by creating a sense that “we are all in this together?” Or did it simply reinforce pre-existing sentiments that one’s province or territory is unfairly treated within the federal system?

The 2021 survey finds much more consistency than change in Canadians’ attitudes toward federalism (figure 3). General attitudes about how the federation works, for instance, are stable:

  • The proportion of Canadians who feel that the current federal government favours one province over the others did not change between 2019 and 2021.
  • Slightly fewer than one-in-two Canadians agree that federalism has more advantages than disadvantages for their province or territory – the same proportion as in 2020 and 2019. The level of agreement in 2021 is, in fact, exactly the same as in an earlier survey conducted in 2010.
  • Two-thirds of Canadians have either a great deal or some confidence in our capacity to resolve our internal differences – exactly the same proportion as in 2019.

More specific grievances with federalism in Canada are typically tracked using three key measures: feelings of respect for one’s province; perceptions of influence on national decision-making; and perceptions of the regional fairness of federal spending. Here, results are somewhat less consistent, with grievances edging upward in some jurisdictions and downward in others.

That said, it is possible to detect a slight improvement in mood in Atlantic Canada, particularly when it comes to federal spending. Within the region, the proportion saying their province receives less than its fair share declined by 13 points (from 58 to 45 per cent) between 2020 and 2021. On this measure, there were also declines in two other smaller provinces (by population): Manitoba and Saskatchewan. These results point to a partial exception to the pattern of stability in attitudes, one that can be interpreted as a positive reaction to the emergency spending measures introduced by Ottawa in response to COVID.

But this finding should be treated cautiously, for two reasons.

  • First, because the levels of discontent in many of these provinces remain very high. Despite improvements on some measures between 2020 and 2021 in provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan, clear majorities there remain dissatisfied with their treatment in the federation.
  • Second, because these changes are frequently offset by the findings of other questions in the survey — for instance, between 2020 and 2021, the proportion of Western Canadians agreeing that the region would be better off on its own edged upwards.

For these reasons, it would be an exaggeration to claim that, as a general rule, the experience of the pandemic dampened regional grievances about the way federalism works in Canada.

The pandemic’s impact on the lives of Canadians has been so prolonged and pervasive that it is reasonable to expect it to have upended many longstanding attitudes about politics, the role of government and the federation. To date, this has not happened. It has not prompted Canadians to set aside their traditional regional grievances, nor has it created a groundswell of support for a more powerful federal government. Much of what Canadians now expect from their governments is new, but the public’s expectations of how these things should be delivered by government, within Canada’s federal context, remain largely the same.

This is an important conclusion, for it suggests that Canadians’ views of the federation, both positive and negative, are deeply anchored. Preferences for strong provincial governments, and perceptions of unfair treatment within the federal system, are not passing fads or views that are expressed without much reflection. The fact that these views so far have not reversed under the pressures of the pandemic should remind us how seriously they should be taken.

At the same time, the findings of the 2021 Confederation of Tomorrow survey also suggest that we may not be as fragmented as some might fear. Trust in government in general, and in the federal government in particular, varies significantly across regions. But trust in scientists or in the medical advice provided by the federal government, and support for a prudent approach to managing the pandemic, does not. Regional political cultures shape many attitudes, but do not always divide us or necessarily impede an effective collective response to the COVID-19 emergency.

Lack of change up until 2021 does not guarantee that change will never happen. The resurgence of case numbers with the pandemic’s fourth wave in Canada, the challenges of ensuring a full economic recovery, or the inevitable reckoning with historically high deficits, may still disrupt prevailing patterns of public opinions. The upcoming 2022 Confederation of Tomorrow survey will provide the next comprehensive update.

 

The Confederation of Tomorrow surveys are annual studies conducted by an association of the country’s leading public policy organizations: the Environics Institute for Survey Research, the Canada West Foundation, the Centre D’Analyse Politique – Constitution et Fédéralisme, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. The surveys give voice to Canadians about the major issues shaping the future of the federation and their political communities.

The 2021 study consists of a survey of 5,814 adults, conducted online in the provinces between Jan. 25 and Feb. 17; and online and by telephone in the territories between Jan. 25 and March 1. Survey results are weighted by region, gender, age, language, education, immigrant background and Indigenous identity, to ensure they are representative of the country as a whole. When results are reported for the territories (individually or combined), these are weighted separately to ensure they are representative of that region.

Results for 2021 are compared to previous Confederation of Tomorrow surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020, as well as to other surveys conducted by the Environics Research Group Ltd., the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC), and the now-closed Mowat Centre. More information on these surveys is available from the Environics Institute.

Complete results from the 2021 survey are presented in the following reports available at www.environicsinstitute.org/projects:

  • The Role of Governments and the Division of Powers: Federalism in the Context of a Pandemic
  • Respect, Influence and Fairness in the Canadian Federation

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Charles Breton
Charles Breton is the executive director of the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation at the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) and the former research director at Vox Pop Labs. He holds a PhD from the University of British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesbreton
Andrew Parkin
Andrew Parkin is the executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research.

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