Sovereignty far from a dead issue in Quebec, poll finds

MONTREAL — The Canadian Press

The Queen signs Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. (RON POLING/Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)

Quebeckers still have an appetite for independence if they don't get constitutional reform, suggests a new survey that could surprise people who consider the sovereignty issue dormant.

Given a choice of three options, independence was the most popular choice among poll respondents when asked what they would want if the Constitution isn't revised.

Story continues below ad

The Leger Marketing survey, released Monday, was commissioned by a group of academics just before the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Constitution.

The backbone of Canada's governing system and its framework for legal rights, the new Constitution was endorsed by every province except Quebec when it came into effect in 1982. Later attempts to reopen the discussion resulted in spectacular failure, dividing the country.

The new survey found that 44.5 per cent of Quebeckers would still support separating from Canada if the Constitution could not be changed enough to satisfy the majority of the province.

Nearly 39 per cent said the province should stay in the federation even if no amendments are made to the Constitution; 16.8 per cent were undecided.

The survey, conducted online between March 5 and 12, also found that nearly 71 per cent of Quebeckers believed the Quebec government should take the first step to propose changes be made to the Constitution.

“That question of constitutional reform of Canadian federalism is still alive — this is still a preoccupation for many Quebeckers, and I would even say for most Quebeckers,” said Benoit Pelletier, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister who is now a constitutional scholar at the University of Ottawa.

It's unclear whether such a move would bear any fruit.

The survey's results from elsewhere in Canada suggest there's almost no desire outside Quebec to change the Constitution to grant the province more power.

Mr. Pelletier now sits on the board of the Association internationale des etudes quebecoises, the group of academics that commissioned the study. The ex-intergovernmental affairs minister in Premier Jean Charest's government has long advocated for the constitutional issue to be re-examined by politicians.

Mr. Pelletier, who is a federalist, said he doesn't see a constitutional crisis on the horizon because Quebecers have not set a deadline on reform.

But even though he believes the provincial government doesn't have to make an immediate push for amendments, Mr. Pelletier thinks a society should always be interested in the state of its constitution.

The poll surveyed more than 2,039 people this month across Canada, 1,002 of whom live in Quebec. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The subject of constitutional reform has been a controversial topic since the document's patriation three decades ago.

In November 1981, Pierre Elliott Trudeau's government reached a deal with nine provinces to add a new constitution, including a charter of rights, to the 1867 British North America Act.

The event is commonly portrayed as a betrayal in Quebec – the result of an all-night negotiating session referred to as the “Night of the Long Knives.”

After the subsequent failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the demise of the old Progressive Conservative party, the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois, and the knife's-edge result in the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, politicians have steadfastly avoided the topic.

Quebec's sovereigntist politicians have frequently prodded their pro-Canada rivals to pick up the conversation again, to no avail.

Mr. Charest's current intergovernmental affairs minister steered clear of the subject Monday. A spokeswoman for Yvon Vallieres said he was not available to comment on the poll results.

The poll found that 21.7 per cent of Quebeckers thought Ottawa had a reason to patriate the Constitution without Quebec's signature; 54.1 said the federal government did not have a good reason and 24.3 were undecided.

In the rest of Canada, 51.2 per cent of respondents said the federal government had a reason to patriate the Constitution without Quebec; 18.1 said it did not have a good reason and 30.6 were undecided.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobePolitics

Topics: