This is the second report in the survey research conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the Canada West Foundation; le Centre d’analyse politique : Constitution et Fédéralisme (CAP-CF) à l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM); Institute for Research on Public Policy; the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government

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Executive Summary

In any federation, conflicts often arise over the distribution of powers and resources. Both must be apportioned “vertically” between the federal and provincial or state governments, and shared “horizontally” among the federated provinces or states. Views may differ over whether each government has adequate powers and resources (transfers or access to tax revenue) to enable them to deliver the programs and services that citizens expect, and whether they have their fair share of powers and resources compared to their federal partners.

Contemporary politics also makes strict delineations of responsibilities difficult to uphold. Policy areas such as those related to public health, the environment or the economy can no longer be classified as entirely local, national or even international in nature. Whatever the constitutional division of powers may stipulate, different orders of government are compelled to find ways to collaborate to address public priorities.

The fairness of federal transfers

The Confederation of Tomorrow 2020 Survey of Canadians reveals a gap between opinions in the three biggest provinces and those in the rest of the country on the question of whether one’s jurisdiction receives its fair share of the money the federal government spends. In Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia (taken together), just over one in three say their province receives less than its fair share of transfers; in the rest of the country, closer to two in three hold this view. In the West, the region’s two biggest provinces are trending in opposite directions, with British Columbians becoming less likely to say they are not treated fairly, and Albertans becoming more likely to feel that way.

Nine in ten Canadians agree that all Canadians should have access to high-quality public services such as health care and education, regardless of where in the country they live. Three in four also support the equalization program more specifically, under which the federal government transfers money to the poorer provinces, in order to ensure that Canadians living in every province have access to similar levels of public services. Across the different provinces, support for equalization has changed very little, if at all, since last year, with the exception of Alberta, where support increased six points. At the same time, a plurality of Canadians cannot say whether or not their province receives equalization payments. The proportion that cannot say is just as high in provinces that currently receive equalization payments as it is in those that do not.

The division of powers

Canadians appear comfortable with their highly decentralized federation: only about one in five citizens favour a transfer of powers from the provinces or territories to the federal government. At the same time, a majority of Canadians prefer that the provinces be treated equally in terms of the distribution of powers, while one in four prefer a more “asymmetrical” arrangement that would allow the federal government to offer more powers to those provinces that want them. The concept of “asymmetrical federalism” continues to be perceived quite differently in the various parts of the country. In Quebec, those who favour a transfer of powers from Ottawa to the provinces are more likely to favour an asymmetrical distribution of powers. In the rest of Canada, decentralists are less likely to favour asymmetrical arrangements.

The issue of the division of powers also touches on the powers of municipal governments. The survey shows that, on this issue, a plurality of Canadians is comfortable with the status quo, while about three in ten say that the provincial government should give their municipal governments more power compared to now, and just under one in five say it should have less. Responses to this question do not vary significantly between those who live in one of Canada’s six biggest cities, and the rest of the country.

Leadership and representation

Canadians are about twice as likely to say that their provincial or territorial government best represents their interests as they are to say the same of the federal government or their municipal government. However, about one in three Canadians do not choose any government as best representing their interests. Among those who identify as First Nations, a small plurality say their Indigenous government best represents their interests.

Francophone Quebecers are twice as likely as Canadians outside of the province to say that their provincial government best represents their interests. But there is a significant difference of opinion across generations in Quebec. Among Quebec francophones, baby boomers (those age 55 and older) are twice as likely as millennials (those under the age of 40) to say the provincial government best represents their interests. There is no comparable generational difference in the rest of Canada.

Neither order of government has a monopoly on the extent to which they are trusted to make the right decisions on key issues: in each of five policy areas mentioned in the survey, both the federal and the provincial or territorial government attract at least some level of trust, while a significant portion of the public trusts both governments equally, and about one in five trust neither. A comparison to the results from 2019 show that Alberta is the only province where the proportion trusting the federal government more to make the right decisions increased by more than five points in each of the five policy areas.

Again, there is a significant difference among the generations in Quebec that does not appear in the rest of the country. For instance, francophone Quebecers age 55 and over are twice as likely to trust the provincial government more on both health care and immigration as are francophone Quebecers between the ages of 18 and 39.

On several key issues, a plurality of Canadians also favour having the federal government set one national policy for the country, rather than having provinces and territories set policies that would differ across jurisdictions. This view is more likely to be expressed in the case of pharmacare and climate change policy, where almost one in two favour a federally-led approach that would be the same across the country. As is often the case, the views of Quebecers are different from those of other Canadians. In three of the four areas, pluralities of francophone Quebecers prefer that each province set its own policy. The differences between francophone Quebecers and other Canadians are largest in the case of pharmacare and immigration.

The one policy area where the views in Quebec and the rest of Canada (as a whole) do not differ significantly is climate change. On this issue, it is Saskatchewan that stands out: it is the only jurisdiction where the proportion favouring each province setting its own policy is larger than that favouring one national policy set by Ottawa.

There is a difference in views on how best to manage energy resources, but this difference is not along traditional regional lines (e.g., the dividing line is not the West versus the East). In those jurisdictions whose economies are more closely tied to energy resources (Saskatchewan, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, and the three territories), a plurality favour having each province or territory set their own energy policy. In the rest of the country (the Maritimes, Ontario, Manitoba and B.C.), a plurality favour having one national energy policy set in Ottawa.

Finally, while provinces and territories exist to give representation and expression to the distinct interests of their respective populations, this does not mean that Canadians expect their provincial or territorial governments to disregard broader, national interests altogether. In fact, the opposite is the case: one in two Canadians want their provincial or territorial government to find a balance between its own interests and the economic interests of other parts of Canada, while three in ten prefer that their provincial or territorial government put its own economic interests first.