This study was conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the Mowat Centre; 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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For full project details, including data tables, go to Environics Institute: Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 Survey of Canadians


Executive Summary

The first report from the Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 survey, Canada: Pulling Together or Drifting Apart?, highlighted significant tensions within the federation. Large majorities in a number of jurisdictions outside of Central Canada feel that their province or territory does not get the respect it deserves, has less than its fair share of influence on national decisions, and receives less than its fair share of federal spending. And while political support for Quebec sovereignty appears to have cooled, there has been no notable warming in the province in support for federalism.

This second report shows that, these tensions notwithstanding, there remains considerable support among Canadians for sharing and collaboration across jurisdictions. Many Canadians may be dissatisfied with the way the federation is working, but this does not mean that they are prepared to turn their backs on one another. That said, there are some notable variations in views across the country that speak both to the existence within Canada of distinct provincial and territorial political cultures and, more generally, to the country’s underlying diversity and complexity.

Sharing the Wealth

Equalization: Since the economic downturn in the country’s oil and gas sector, the federal equalization program – through which a portion of the revenues collected by the federal government is redistributed to provinces that would have difficulty funding adequate public services on their own – has come in for increasingly pointed criticism by political leaders in Alberta and Saskatchewan, who frame it as yet another penalty imposed on their provinces by their federal partners. This criticism notwithstanding, three in four Canadians support the country’s equalization program. Even in provinces that typically do not receive equalization payments, support for the program outweighs opposition by a factor of more than two to one. Support, however, has softened somewhat over the past two decades, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta, only a very thin majority remains supportive.

Natural resources: Many Canadians also appear open to sharing the country’s resource wealth. More than two in five say that natural resources are part of the country’s wealth, and so the royalties earned on them should be used to benefit all Canadians. By contrast, only one in five believe that natural resources, and the royalties they generate, belong to the province or territory in which they are found. Importantly, however, another one in three Canadians do not pick sides, saying it depends on the resource or how it is shared. Preference for the view that natural resources belong to the province or territory in which they are found is higher in the oil and gas producing provinces of Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan; but even in these provinces, views are more divided than hardline, with about as many saying that natural resources are part of the country’s wealth, and an even larger proportion saying that it depends.

The economic union: There is a stronger consensus on the question of the right of Canadians to move from one jurisdiction to another in order to find employment. Nine in ten Canadians agree that workers in Canada should have the right to move to another province or territory, and be eligible for a better job than the one they currently have. In the case of barriers to the movement of goods, however, Canadians are much less certain. Three in ten say that their provincial or territorial government should be allowed to favour local businesses by preventing businesses from elsewhere in Canada from selling their products in their province or territory, while fewer than one in four disagree. A plurality, however, is not definitive either way, saying that it depends on circumstances, such as the type of product or business.

Politics of compromise: Finally, a small majority of Canadians is generally supportive of the politics of compromise. More than half want their provincial or territorial government to try to find a balance between its economic interest and that of other parts of Canada, even if that means compromising on some of the policies that might be best for them. Fewer than one in three, by contrast, prefer that their provincial or territorial government put its jurisdiction’s economic interests first, even if that means implementing policies that weaken the economies of other parts of Canada.

Managing the Federation

Decentralization: Canada is the most decentralized federation in the developed world. That said, Canadians are more likely to want to see an even greater shift of responsibilities from the federal to their provincial government than vice versa. Just over one in three say that the government of their province should take charge of many of the things the federal government does right now. This is twice as many as the proportion who say that the federal government should take charge of many of the things the government of their province does right now. Almost one in three say that the division of powers should remain as it is now. Alberta, Quebec and Saskatchewan stand out as being more supportive of a shift of power from the federal to the provincial level.

Views on the division of powers are linked to perceptions of how the government and federation are working. Canadians who say their province does not get the respect it deserves, does not have its fair share of influence on national decisions, or does not receive its fair share of federal spending, are more likely to say that the government of their province should take charge of many of the things the federal government does right now.

Leadership: In terms of which order of government should take the lead on various issues, Canadians shy away from putting too many eggs in the same basket. A plurality of Canadians trust both the federal and their provincial or territorial government equally when it comes to promoting economic growth and job creation, addressing climate change, and managing energy resources. On the issue of health care, a plurality (by a small margin) trust their provincial or territorial government more, and on immigration and refugee settlement, a plurality trusts the federal government more.

The views of Quebecers are somewhat distinct. Quebecers are the most likely to say they trust their provincial government more to manage the health care system. They are also more likely to trust their provincial government more on the issues of energy and immigration, compared with a plurality of Canadians outside Quebec who trust both governments equally when it comes to energy, and the federal government more when it comes to immigration. When it comes to managing energy resources, however, residents of Alberta and Saskatchewan are even more likely than Quebecers to trust their provincial governments more.

Asymmetrical federalism: One way in which the federation can accommodate different views on the division of powers is through the practice of asymmetrical federalism, which means provinces that seek more powers can reach individual arrangements with the federal government to that effect. This practice, however, runs counter to most people’s sense of how the federation should work. Three in five Canadians say that the federal government should treat each province the same, so that no province has any more powers than another. Support for the equal treatment of provinces is highest in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Alberta. Support for more asymmetrical arrangements is noticeably higher in Quebec than elsewhere – but even in Quebec, it is the minority position.

Views on whether powers should be distributed equally or asymmetrically among provinces align with other views on federalism in Quebec, but not in the rest of Canada. Only in Quebec are those who are less satisfied with federalism and more favourable to a shift in the division of powers in the province’s favour, also more favourable of asymmetry.

Importance of national policy: The survey also asked Canadians whether, in relation to particular issues, they prefer that the federal government set one national policy for Canada that would be the same for every province and territory, or that each province and territory set its own policy. On none of the five issues mentioned does a majority clearly favour one option over the other.

There are notable variations, however, across different issues and jurisdictions. In the case of pharmacare policy, a plurality or a very thin majority in every province except Quebec favours Ottawa setting one national policy that would be the same across all jurisdictions. In the case of energy policy, such as choosing the best sources of energy to develop, Alberta stands out as the only province in which a majority favours each province and territory making its own policy. In four other provinces (Quebec, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia), the proportion favouring provincial or territorial energy policies is less than 50 per cent, but still outweighs the proportion favouring one national energy policy set by the federal government.

In most provinces, a plurality thinks the federal government should set one national climate change policy (such as choosing whether to place a tax on carbon emissions). The one clear exception is Saskatchewan, where a plurality favours each province and territory setting its own policy. It is notable that having one national policy in this area is the preference of a majority in Quebec and a plurality in British Columbia, even though these provinces are exempt from the new federal carbon tax precisely because they already have their own policies to reduce carbon emissions. It is possible that the fact that current federal policy leaves room for distinct provincial or territorial policies in this area is why Quebecers and British Columbians are more supportive of the idea of having one national climate change policy. It is also possible that they are supportive of federal intervention in other provinces that so far have not imposed their own taxes on carbon.

Federalism and the Territories: The territories have a distinct position in the federation, and one that has continued to evolve over the past decades, with the creation of Nunavut and the progression of devolution arrangements with Ottawa and self-government arrangements with First Nations. But national surveys are rarely large enough to report separately on how Northerners view the federation.

The Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 survey shows that a plurality of residents of the three territories say that their territorial government, rather than the federal government or the government of city or town, is the one that best represents their interests. Indigenous peoples and nonIndigenous peoples in the territories – and in particular, in Yukon and the Northwest Territories – have distinct views on this question: Indigenous peoples are much more likely to say that their territorial government best represents their interests, whereas, among non-Indigenous peoples, the municipal government is the most likely to be mentioned.

Taking the three territories together, the territorial government emerges as the one that is more likely to be trusted to make the right decisions on three of the five issues mentioned in the survey: managing the health care system; promoting economic growth and job creation; and managing energy resources. Both the territorial government and the federal government are equally likely to be trusted to address climate change, and the federal government is more likely to be trusted to manage immigration and refugee settlement.

The pattern, however, differs in each territory. In Nunavut, the territorial government is more likely to be trusted on each of the issues, with the exception of immigration. In the Northwest Territories, the territorial government is much more likely to be trusted on health care, and somewhat more likely to be trusted on energy and climate change. However, the territorial and federal governments are equally likely to be trusted on the economy. In Yukon, the territorial government is trusted more on the economy and energy, but the federal government is trusted more on climate change.

Views in the three territories also differ on the question of whether the federal government should set one national policy on climate change that would be the same across all jurisdictions, or whether the territorial government should set their own policies. A majority in Nunavut supports territorial policies, a majority in Yukon supports one national policy set by Ottawa, and views are evenly split between the two options in the Northwest Territories.

Overall, these results speak to one of the general findings of the Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 survey, which is that the concept of region is not always the most salient one to use to capture patterns of opinions on the federation in Canada. There are significant differences within the North on the questions of which government is the best representative or the most trusted. Residents of each individual territory have distinct perspectives, as do, in some cases, Indigenous peoples in the region, and, among Indigenous peoples, Inuit peoples (related to the distinctiveness of Nunavut).

Making Federalism Work

While majorities in individual provinces and territories may be frustrated with how their jurisdiction is treated within the federation, this second report from the Confederation of Tomorrow 2019 survey finds little evidence that Canadians are turning their backs on each other. A majority remains supportive of sharing the country’s wealth through the existing equalization program, and only a minority thinks that the royalties from natural resource development should only benefit the jurisdiction in which those resources are found. More often than not, Canadians look to both orders of government, rather than only one or the other, to address key issues such as the economy, energy and climate change. While more Canadians lean towards a shift of powers from Ottawa to the provinces than vice versa, there remains considerable support for federal leadership to advance pan-Canadian policies in areas such as pharamacare and climate change. Finally, Canadians are more likely to favour the politics of compromise – wherein their provincial or territorial government seeks to find a balance between their jurisdiction’s interest and the national one – than a zero-sum approach.

Beneath these broad patterns, there remain a number of exceptions, with specific jurisdictions holding distinct views on some, though not necessarily all, of these questions. These exceptions are important to note, as they speak to the underlying diversity and even complexity of the country. These exceptions and differences notwithstanding, the survey results taken as a whole paint a picture of a federation whose citizens continue to prefer collaboration over polarization