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 and 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 January 25 and February 17; and online and by telephone in the territories between January 25 and March 1.

This report was produced and published by Environics Institute

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Executive Summary

One of the main objectives of the Confederation of Tomorrow survey project is to track the regular ups and downs of federal-provincial and inter-regional tensions in Canada. The most recent survey, conducted in February 2021, had an additional goal, however: to assess whether the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped Canadians’ attitudes toward federalism. Did the federal, provincial and territorial responses to the crisis alleviate or exacerbate public discontent with how federalism works in Canada?

The 2021 survey finds much more consistency than change in Canadians’ attitudes toward federalism. For instance, there has been little change overall to opinions on how the economy should be managed within the federation, on the advantages of federalism for one’s province or territory, or on Canadians’ ability to resolve their differences. One modest exception to this pattern is that, in many provinces, the proportions saying their province receives less than its fair share of federal spending have declined.

In cases where changes in attitudes are evident, these generally continue longer-term trends that cannot be linked directly to the response to the pandemic. This is the case, for instance, with concerns about the French language in Quebec, or with declining support for some of the positions of the provincial governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Respect and influence

Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Saskatchewan continue to register some of the highest levels of discontent with their province’s treatment within the federation, but in each case, the extent of this discontent has abated somewhat since 2019. Assessments of their province’s treatment in the federation are also improving in the Maritime provinces; notably, for the first time since the question was first asked in the early 2000s, Nova Scotians are more likely to say their province is treated with the respect it deserves than they are to say it is not. While views in British Columbia on the province’s place in the federation have changed very little over the past year, the longer-term trend toward a remarkable improvement continues. The proportion of British Columbians saying their province is not treated with the respect it deserves is only half as large today as it was 20 years ago.

Looking beyond these longer-term trends, one shorter-term change is evident: in a majority of provinces, the proportions saying they receive less than their fair share of federal spending have declined. This may be a result of the emergency spending measures introduced by Ottawa in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fairness in the federation

Canadians are more than twice as likely to say that the current federal government favours one province over the others than they are to say that it treats all provinces in Canada equally. Nonetheless, the proportion saying that the federal government favours one province over the others has been steadily declining since 2005.

Overwhelmingly, most of those who say the federal government favours one province over others identify one of the two central Canadian provinces as the one that is favoured. While there has been little change in opinions on this question since 2019, changes are more noticeable when the current results are compared to 2014 – prior to the change in federal government that resulted from the 2015 election. In 2014, among those saying the federal government favours one province over others, Alberta was more likely than Quebec to be identified as the province that is favoured. Today, the reverse is true.

Among those outside of Quebec, views as to which province is favoured differ remarkably by age. Younger Canadians (roughly those under the age of 40) are much more likely than older Canadians to say that Ontario is favoured over other provinces by the federal government. Older Canadians (roughly those age 50 and older) are much more likely to say Quebec is favoured. It is possible that this pattern is a lingering effect of the Constitutional debates of the 1980s and 1990s, marked in part by the first and second Quebec referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995, respectively. The focus on Quebec’s constitutional status in these earlier decades may have created a lasting impression in the minds of those old enough to remember.

Support for equalization

Despite recent criticisms, a majority of Canadians continue to support the equalization program, with little change over the past two years. The program is supported by majorities in every province, including Alberta and Saskatchewan. But, while there has been little change in overall support since 2019, there has been some noticeable change in Alberta, and to a lesser extent in Saskatchewan: in both those provinces, support for equalization has grown. Notably, support for equalization in Alberta has grown among supporters of both the governing and opposition parties in the province.

Focus on the West

Two in five Westerners agree that their region gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own – a proportion that has edged upwards since last year. Agreement has increased in each of the four western provinces: almost one in two in Alberta and Saskatchewan currently agree. In each of the Prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba), agreement in 2021 that “Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own” is much higher than in 2010, when the federal government was led by a prime minister from Western Canada.

Only one in five Westerners currently agree that the centre of power is shifting away from Central Canada toward the West. Agreement with this proposition within the region is lower than it was two decades ago, particularly in Alberta.

Focus on Quebec

Only a minority of Quebecers identify either as mainly federalist or mainly sovereigntist, as many prefer to say that they are in between the two options, or identify with neither. But the proportion “choosing sides” (whether federalist or sovereigntist) has increased since 2020, suggesting that opinions in Quebec on the question of sovereignty have polarized somewhat over the past year. Francophone Quebecers under the age of 40 are more likely to say they are mainly federalist than mainly sovereigntist, but even among this group, the most favoured option is “in between the two.”

One in two francophone Quebecers agree that Quebec sovereignty is an idea whose time has passed, but more than one in three disagree. The level of agreement has not changed noticeably over the past 20 years. But, among Quebec francophones, the sense that the French language in the province is threatened is much higher than 20 years ago, and is edging upwards. Currently, three in four Quebec francophones agree that the French language is threatened in Quebec – the highest level of concern yet recorded.

Support for independence

More than one in four Quebecers say their province should separate from Canada and form an independent country, as do one in five Albertans. Support for independence is lowest in the Maritime provinces and in Ontario. Support for independence in Quebec is slightly higher in 2021 than in the early 2000s, while in Alberta there has been little change.

Older residents are more likely than their younger counterparts to favour independence in each of the three Prairie provinces, but not in B.C. In fact, younger residents in B.C. are about twice as likely as their younger counterparts in the Prairies to support this option.

Trust in federal and provincial governments

Canadians continue to be much more likely to say that their provincial or territorial government best represents their interests, rather than the federal government or their municipal government. In fact, this pattern holds in 12 of 13 provinces and territories – the exception being Alberta, where a plurality of residents say that no government best represents their interests. The three jurisdictions where residents are most likely to say their provincial or territorial government best represents their interests (Northwest Territories, Quebec and Prince Edward Island) are also among those with the highest proportions saying they trust their provincial or territorial government more to manage the pandemic.

While there have been only minor changes in opinions overall since the onset of pandemic, the average disguises bigger changes within individual jurisdictions. In the Northwest Territories, PEI and New Brunswick, the proportions saying that their provincial or territorial government best represents their interests have increased significantly. In four jurisdictions, the trend goes the other way: residents of Nunavut, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are all slightly less likely than in 2020 to say their provincial or territorial government best represents their interests.

Despite the economic shock triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been little change overall to Canadians’ views on how the economy should be managed within the federation. Opinions remain fairly divided, with one in three trusting both the federal and their provincial or territorial government equally, and almost as many trusting their provincial or territorial government more.

Saskatchewan and Alberta are exceptions to the relative stability in views at the national level: in those provinces, the proportions trusting the federal government more to promote economic growth and create jobs have increased significantly. These changes have unfolded since 2019, and not only in the past year – indicating that they are related to factors that go beyond the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attitudes toward federalism

The experience of the pandemic does not seem to have significantly affected Canadians’ opinions on the advantages of federalism. The proportion agreeing that federalism has more advantages than disadvantages for their province or territory is up very slightly – but, overall, responses to this question are similar to those seen in both 2020 and 2019. There has also been considerable stability in opinions on two related questions: that of whether a federal system of government is the best one for Canada, because we are a country made up of different peoples and nations; and that of whether Canadians will be able to resolve their internal differences.

It is striking that federalism is more strongly supported by “new Canadians” – who are less likely than those who have been here for several generations to be of either British or French background (the two peoples the Canadian federation was originally intended to accommodate). The proportion agreeing that “a federal system of government is the best one for Canada, because we are a country made up of different peoples and nations” is noticeably higher among first-generation immigrants, racialized Canadians and allophones. The same pattern holds in the case of questions about the advantages of Canadian federalism, and about our ability to resolve our internal differences.

This report was produced by Environics Institute