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

This report was produced and published by Environics Institute

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Executive summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented governments in Canada with enormous challenges. While the current priority remains stemming the spread of the virus and accelerating the pace of vaccinations, governments are also looking ahead to the measures needed to shape an economic recovery. In this context, it is striking that Canadians’ views on the role of government – and on how the different governments in the federation work together – generally have not changed that much since the onset of the pandemic. Notably, most Canadians continue to be comfortable with the decentralized nature of the federation. And while there is widespread support for increases in federal transfers to provinces and territories for health care, care for the elderly, and child care, the public is more divided as to whether this funding should be tied to the acceptance of national standards.

The size and impact of government

Canadians’ preferences regarding the size of government have not changed over the past two years. In every province, a plurality favours neither a larger nor a smaller government; while a larger government is the second most favoured option, and smaller government is the least favoured. Canadians living in cities with populations of at least one million are more likely to favour a larger government with more services. Across all sizes of community, however, only about one in five favour smaller governments with fewer services.

At a time of heightened concern about political polarization, it is notable that neither the option of a larger or a smaller government attracts the support of a majority of the supporters of any of the main federal political parties. In each case, roughly one in two party supporters either favour neither option in particular, or have no opinion; while the others are divided between the larger and smaller government options.

There is currently no consensus in Canada as to the impact of governments, with roughly equal proportions saying that governments have a positive and negative impact on most people’s lives. Views on this question, however, have evolved somewhat over the past two years: compared to 2019, fewer Canadians see governments as having a negative impact on most people’s lives.

Residents of the Prairie provinces are the most likely to say that governments negatively impact most people’s lives; while residents of the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and the territories are the least likely to hold this view. Canadians living in cities with populations over 200,000 are more likely to see government’s impact as positive rather than negative; the reverse is true for those living in communities with populations below 200,000.

The division of powers in the federation

The pandemic has not prompted Canadians to rethink their preferences regarding the optimal division of powers in the federation. Most Canadians continue to be comfortable with the decentralized nature of the federation, with relatively few seeing the need to transfer powers from their provincial or territorial government to Ottawa. In fact, despite
the important role that Ottawa has played in providing emergency support during the crisis, the proportion of Canadians seeking a more centralized federation is slightly lower now than before the pandemic began.

As usual, Quebecers are more likely than Canadians outside Quebec to say their provincial government should take charge of many of the things the federal government does right now. However, in both Quebec and the rest of Canada, relatively few favours a transfer of powers to Ottawa.

While, overall, there has been little change in views since 2019, changes are more pronounced in some individual provinces. Specifically, in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, support for more powerful provinces has declined significantly over the past two years. That said, support for decentralization continues to be higher in these two provinces than in any other province other than Quebec.

National programs and standards

While the amount of money transferred by the federal government to provinces and territories is a perpetual source of discussion and friction between the two orders of government, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed urgency to the conversation. Provincial and territorial health systems are under intense pressure. At the same time, the pandemic experience has highlighted weaknesses in the country’s social safety net in areas such as a child care and care for the elderly.

In this context, the Confederation of Tomorrow 2021 Survey of Canadians finds that there is widespread support for the federal government providing more funding to provinces and territories for health care, care for the elderly, and child care. The public is more divided, however, as to whether increased federal funding should come with strings attached. 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 provinces and territories that meet those standards.

As is often the case on such questions, there is a noticeable difference in opinion between Quebecers and residents of the other provinces and territories. In Quebec, support for unconditional funding outweighs support for funding with national standards by about two-to-one. In the rest of Canada, the public is more or less evenly split on the question of whether additional federal funding should be tied to national standards.

There are further differences among provinces and regions outside Quebec – although these differences are not always consistent across the three policy areas mentioned in the survey. In Ontario, in the case of care for the elderly, which has attracted particular attention in the province during the pandemic, opinion leans somewhat more toward having national standards than toward transfers without conditions.

Opinions on this question vary among supporters of the main federal parties, in expected ways. Bloc Québécois supporters are the most favourable to increased federal funding without conditions, followed by supporters of the onservative Party. Only in the case of the Bloc Québécois supporters, however, does a clear majority favour one of the options over the other. With the exception of the Bloc, this is an issue that divides opinion within the main federal political parties as well as between them.

A second issue related to the funding of social programs is whether provinces should be allowed to opt out of any new national program and receive federal funding to set up their own similar program. One in two Canadians agree that provinces should be allowed to opt out in this way; three in ten disagree. While agreement is highest in Quebec, it is almost as high in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The level of agreement is more or less the same as it was when this question was last asked in the early 2000s.

Support for “opting out” is also related to political ideology, but in different ways in the two parts of the country. Outside Quebec, it is the traditional left-right political ideology
that matters. Most Canadians (outside Quebec) who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum agree that provinces should be able to opt-out with compensation; most of those who place themselves on the left do not. In Quebec, however, the left-right political divide has no impact on opinions on this issue. In that province, support for opting out not surprisingly relates strongly to a different ideology entirely, namely support for sovereignty.

Trust in federal and provincial/territorial governments

Overall, the pandemic has not significantly affected which government Canadians trust more to manage the health care system. Opinions continue to be divided, with one in three trusting their provincial or territorial government more, one in four trusting both governments equally, and one in five trusting the federal government more. Opinions about which government is trusted more to make the right decisions in managing the COVID-19 pandemic are similarly divided. In this case, however, there is also considerable variation across the country. The proportion trusting their provincial or territorial government more to manage the pandemic is highest in the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Prince Edward Island; the proportion trusting federal government more is highest in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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This report was produced by Environics Institute