Canadian federalism and its future are undeniably a frequent and important
topic of debate. Many people have their own opinions on the topic but they
rarely have the opportunity to discuss it with fellow Canadians, experts
and politicians in a setting conducive to learning and debate. With this
in mind, three small citizens' assemblies on the future of federalism in
Canada were held in the spring of 2008, two in Montreal and one in Kingston.
For over four hours, participants had the opportunity to learn about and
discuss topics relating to federalism with experts, politicians and other
Canadians. The qualitative and quantitative data collected throughout these
meetings provide a clearer picture of Canadians' perceptions and preferences
regarding the future of their country and their province. The initial results
show a wide range of knowledge, attitudes and opinions among participants
at a single meeting and from one meeting to the next. There is no clear
profile of a federal citizen but rather a multitude of profiles, sometimes
very diverse. For comparison purposes, two more citizens' assemblies will
be held in Belgium to compare French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgians'
perceptions and preferences regarding federalism.
Three small citizens' assemblies on the future of federalism in Canada
were held on March 15, June 14 and June 19, 2008, in Montreal and Kingston.
At each of these half-day meetings, the participants discussed Canadian
federalism and its future with experts, politicians and fellow Canadians.
The purpose of these meetings was first to allow participants to express
their perceptions on this important topic and secondly to better understand
the relationships between their perceptions and preferences regarding federalism.1
For comparison purposes, two further citizens' assemblies will be held
in Belgium to examine French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgians' perceptions
and preferences regarding federalism.
For each meeting, fifteen or so individuals gathered for a morning of discussion.
Participants were recruited in various ways: invitations placed in mailboxes
in several neighbourhoods, emails sent to associations or groups, whether
involved in politics or not (political parties and other political movements,
student associations, local social and cultural associations etc.), notices
in the print and electronic media, mailing lists and word of mouth. An
invitation would have reached between 2,000 and 4,000 individuals for each
assembly, in one form or another. Participation was voluntary and each
participant received a nominal sum of $10. The sample was therefore neither
statistically random nor representative. There was however great diversity
in each sample. Participants included both young and old, some were interested
in politics and others not, some were university graduates, the individuals
held dramatically different political beliefs. A total of 16 participants
met in Kingston and 24 at two meetings in Montreal.
Each meeting began with participants completing a questionnaire of 50 or
so questions. Some of them covered political knowledge, perception of the
legitimacy of the federal political system and governments, identities
and sense of belonging, perception of others and finally preferences
regarding federalism and questions to determine political leanings and
Four series of indicators were used to measure participants' perceptions.
First, the political knowledge questions did not serve merely to test their
knowledge but rather to determine how the participants understand the political
system. Secondly, the perceived legitimacy of the federal system was evaluated
through questions such as Does the federal system work well? and What
is the greatest asset of the federal system in Canada today? Thirdly,
apart from the classic self-identification question with various choices,
the questionnaire included questions to determine participants' sense of
belonging, including their attachment to Canada and their province. Fourth
were questions about their perception of others, which could mean the
other provinces and their residents or the rest of Canada for Quebeckers.
Preferences were measures by participants' response to various statements:
preserve the current federal system, strengthen the powers of the federal
government or strengthen provincial powers. Three further statements were
added to the preferences listed in Quebec: change to constitutionally recognize
Quebec as a nation, become a sovereign nation with a partnership with Canada
or become a sovereign nation with no partnership with Canada. Finally,
the classic political (interest in politics, party allegiance) and socio-demographic
questions (age, gender, place of residence, level of education and occupation)
rounded out the questionnaire.
Once the questionnaire was completed, the meeting comprised small-group
discussions and plenary sessions with experts and politicians. Like focus
groups, each group had between five and eight participants led by a facilitator
who directed the discussion by leading or moderating, and an observer noting
all comments by participants for the purposes of data analysis. Right after
they completed the questionnaire, the participants were divided into groups
and began a one-hour discussion of their perceptions on Canadian federalism
(knowledge, legitimacy, sense of belonging and perception of others).
The facilitator directed the discussion according to a common protocol
used for all meetings to provide some consistency in data gathering. This
first discussion session served to capture participants' perceptions on
the spot, before any kind of learning.
Two plenary sessions followed. During the first, the participants had the
opportunity to listen to two experts and to ask them questions. The experts
each gave a 20-minute presentation. For example, at the citizens' assembly
in Montreal, Alain Noël, a political science professor at the Université
de Montréal, spoke about Quebec's position in the Canadian federation,
while Paul-André Comeau, a former journalist and guest lecturer at the
École d'administration publique, presented a different perspective on the
future of Canada and Quebec. In Kingston, Peter Leslie and Kathy Brock,
both political science professors at Queen's University, made up the expert
panel and spoke about the Canadian federation and the challenges facing
the federation and the federal government respectively. After these two
presentations, there was a question and answer session with both experts.
The first plenary session was intended primarily to inform participants,
more or less objectively, in order to help them better understand Canadian
federalism and the issues relating to its future.
The structure of the second plenary session was different. This time, the
participants met politicians. The two politicians spoke in turn about their
preferences regarding federalism before fielding questions from the audience.
This session was not a political debate strictly speaking but instead gave
participants the opportunity to hear two different points of view on the
future of Canadian federalism. In Montreal, Marlene Jennings (Liberal Party
of Canada) and Réal Ménard (Bloc Québécois) presented their vision of federalism
and responded to participants' many comments and questions. Topics such
as corruption, immigration, foreign policy, Canada-US relations, and Prime
Minister Stephen Harper's political choices were discussed as regards the
Canadian federal system in general and the role of the federal and provincial
governments in particular.
After listening to the experts and politicians, the participants returned
to their discussion groups to discuss their respective federal preferences.
Once again, this was not a debate where one participant tried to influence
others. They discussed their hopes for the future of Canadian federalism
and the reasons for them. Each participant had the opportunity to state
his or her preferences and to listen to others do the same. These discussions
were informed by ideas that might have emerged from the discussions with
the experts, politicians or fellow citizens.
The participants discussed and pondered topics relating to federalism for
a total of over four hours. The dynamics of these small citizens' assemblies
depended on alternating between discussion in small groups and meetings
with experts and politicians. Finally, a questionnaire nearly identical
to the initial one was distributed at the end of the meeting.
The purpose of these meetings was to allow participants to learn about
and reflect on Canadian federalism and specifically its future. The intent
was not to influence participants to change their opinions-although it
would certainly be interesting to study potential changes in perceptions
and preferences-nor to reach a consensus among participants. It was an
individual experience although it occurred in a group setting to stimulate
discussion. The data gathered during the meeting is both quantitative,
based on the replies to the two questionnaires, and qualitative, based
on the group discussions which were recorded and coded. These two types
of data are complementary since each participant is given a code (V1 or
Z7, for example), making it possible to track each participant's comments
throughout the morning and their replies to the two questionnaires. The
combination of qualitative and quantitative data provides a better understanding
of participants' perceptions and preferences regarding federalism.
The participants' political knowledge was the first topic of discussion
at the citizens' assemblies. One aspect was especially striking from the
outset: nearly half of participants at the meetings in Montreal regarded
Canada's political system as a confederation. Some of them added that the
system became federal under Pierre Trudeau but that Canada is officially
a confederation. This perception that the political system is essentially
a confederation is based on the two founding nations concept shared by
many Quebeckers. After discussions with experts and in groups however the
vast majority of participants answered this question correctly. In Kingston,
the confederation/federation debate was hardly an issue at all. Only a
few people who regarded Canada as a confederation at the beginning of the
meeting changed their opinion following the discussions.
In both Kingston and Montreal, all participants agreed that the Prime Minister
had been more often a Quebecker since 1980, which was an important factor
in the country's federal political dynamics. Finally, participants knew
little about the representation of their province in the House of Commons:
less than half the participants in Kingston and Montreal respectively knew
that Ontario has 107 seats in the House and that Quebec has 75 seats. Above
all, a wide range in participants' level of political knowledge was noted,
as some could correctly answer all the questions while others could only
answer a few.
The topic of knowledge of the political system was a roundabout way of
identifying participants' perceptions of it. When participants were asked
more directly about the legitimacy of the federal political system, not
surprisingly Kingstonians differed from Montrealers. While Kingstonians
were generally satisfied or very satisfied with the way Canada's federal
system works, the Montrealers regarded it either as relatively satisfactory
or were somewhat or very dissatisfied with it. Exploring this further through
discussion with the participants, opposing perceptions among the different
groups quickly become apparent.
Aside from the general satisfaction with Canada's political system expressed
in discussions in Kingston, the participants were divided on a number of
issues. Some thought that federalism protects Ontario's interests, does
not give too much power to the federal government and is economically advantageous
to the province. Others had a much less positive or even a negative view,
saying not only that Canadian federalism is not favourable to the interests
of their province but also that the federal government also has too much
power. Others advocated a more limited role for government, whether federal
or provincial, and also considered both of these levels of government ineffective.
In Montreal, a wide range of perceptions also emerged in discussions in
the small groups, with experts and with politicians. First of all, the
classic division between federalists and sovereigntists was soon evident.
These two groups disagreed about whether Canadian federalism protects Quebec's
interests or whether the federal government has too much power. Yet even
those participants who were more or less critical of the Canadian federal
system acknowledged the economic benefits to their province. Conversely,
some participants who viewed Canadian federalism favourably did not consider
it advantageous to Quebec's economy. Participants can therefore not be
divided into two groups with opposing views on Canadian federalism.
Moreover, a number of participants made a clear distinction between their
perception of Canadian federalism and that of the federal government. Some
viewed Canadian federalism negatively but felt that the federal government
should have more power or vice versa. In this regard, the fact that the
federal government is currently head up by a Prime Minister from Alberta
led some avowed separatist participants to be more forgiving of political
life in Ottawa and the decisions made there. Some participants thought
that the poor showing of the sovereigntist movement at present can also
explain this more favourable opinion of the federal government headed up
by a Conservative. Finally, the intensity of positive or negative opinions
regarding the Canadian federal system and the federal government varied
widely among participants.
A third indicator of perceptions was participants' sense of belonging and
identity or identities. Here too there were great differences between and
within the meetings. In Montreal, three identity profiles emerged from
the qualitative and quantitative data. One group of participants defined
themselves first and foremost as Quebeckers. A second group identified
themselves first as Quebeckers and then as Canadian. Being a Quebecker
was an important and sometimes the only aspect of belonging for some participants.
Yet a number of participants indicated a more or less strong attachment
to Canada while still being attached to Quebec. This was the case for one
Anglophone Quebecker who had always lived in Montreal.
In Kingston, there was less variation in the identity profiles since most
participants identified themselves first and foremost as Canadian. None
felt exclusively Ontarian but some were attached or strongly attached to
their province, while also being attached to Canada. The strength of participants'
sense of belonging in these two very different identity settings sheds
light on their complementary or exclusive identities, as the case may be,
and the varying intensity of identities. Not surprisingly, tension regarding
identity was strongest in Quebec, as was the greatest range of identity
profiles, with some participants having various allegiances of equal or
different intensity or a single predominant identity.
The fourth aspect of perceptions was participants' perception of others.
With regard to the future of federalism, others meant primarily Anglophones
to participants in Montreal and Quebeckers to participants in Kingston.2
The issue of whether the media of one community propagates clichés about
the other community was indirectly related to political relationships.
The discussions revealed three different attitudes. The first is characterized
by mistrust of the media, whether English-language or French-language,
and the belief that the media propagates all kinds of clichés. The second
attitude points instead to a lack of knowledge about what the English-language
and French-language media, as the case may be, say about their community.
Those participants preferred not to answer this question. Finally the third
attitude was especially evident in Montreal, where the English-language
media propagates clichés about Francophones and Quebeckers in particular
while the French-language media are not inclined or less inclined to engage
in this. These participants referred to Quebec bashing.
One specific aspect of the Canadian federal system is Quebec's place in
the federation and in particular the potential recognition of Quebec as
a separate nation. While many Quebeckers, both sovereigntists and federalists,
regard Quebec as a separate nation from Canada, the participants in Kingston
disagreed on this. Some agreed that Quebec is a distinct nation, some disagreed
and some were strongly opposed, such as one woman who said, We are all
Canadians, period. The discussions at the meetings did however change
the perception of some participants since for instance three of the five
people in Kingston who initially refused to recognize Quebec as a separate
nation from the rest of Canada did later accept this, although they did
not feel that Quebec deserved any special privileges as a result.
Having examined the perceptions of meeting participants, we can now turn
to their preferences for the future of federalism. The results of the meeting
in Kingston and the meetings in Montreal differ considerably as might be
expected given the different political context in Ontario and Quebec. In
Kingston, the main dichotomy was between advocates of greater federal powers
and those in favour of the current federal system. By contrast, beyond
the classic division between federalists and sovereigntists, the participants
in Montreal can be divided into a number of groups based on their preferences
for the future of Quebec. There are two main groups: those who wanted Quebec
to remain a province in the Canadian federation with greater powers for
provincial governments and those who wanted it to become a separate country
with a partnership with Canada. Other participants would like Quebec to
become a sovereign country with no partnership with Canada, while others
still wanted the Canadian federation to stay as it is.
More striking however are each participant's individual preferences. This
more detailed analysis rounds out the division of participants into the
four groups mentioned above. First of all, few of the participants indicated
a single preference although this was the profile of hardline sovereigntists
who seek one sole outcome: Quebec sovereignty with no partnership of any
kind with Canada. A number of participants indicated that they had several
preferences without necessarily being able to rank them. Among the participants
in Kingston, a large majority said they were in favour of the current federal
system and increasing the federal government's powers. Moreover, while
some could rank their preferences, others did not wish to. Finally, strengthening
the powers of provincial governments was not discussed and was not advocated
by a single participant. Many participants regarded the federal government
as the "real" government.
The status and future of the provinces was by contrast at the centre of
discussion at the assemblies in Montreal. None of the participants advocated
stronger powers for the federal government and few wanted to preserve the
federal system as it is, even among avowed federalists. The focal point
was therefore the future of Quebec rather than the future of Canadian federalism
itself. Participants were not exclusive in their views on the issue of
remaining a Canadian province or becoming a sovereign country, as the initial
results of the citizens' assemblies in Montreal showed. Those in favour
of strengthening provincial powers in general categorically opposed Quebec
sovereignty without partnership with Canada but might also be interested
in constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation; some even agreed,
often hesitantly, to Quebec sovereignty as long as there is a partnership
with Canada. Conversely and more logically, participants in favour of Quebec
sovereignty, with a partnership, were in favour of any solution that strengthens
provincial powers even though these intermediate options did not satisfy
them entirely. One participant recalled, as the saying goes, that a bird
in the hand is better than two in the bush. Moreover, the conditions of
Quebec sovereignty influenced participants' preferences, especially those
of sovereigntists. On the one hand, a number of participants were in favour
of sovereignty as long as there was some partnership with Canada, while
others, hardline sovereigntists, rejected all options other than full sovereignty
without any partnership, although they admitted that this scenario is unlikely.
In addition to shedding light on perceptions and political preferences,
the citizens' assemblies provided a snapshot of the general political mood
of a group of people. In Montreal, the debate about the future of Quebec
was not as heated as it might have been in the past although participants
did state their position, albeit less rigidly in some cases. A number of
participants sought to liven up the discussion by referring to the open
federalism advocated by Stephen Harper and the growing power of the Western
provinces. At the assembly in Kingston, the future of federalism was not
a key issue and was less important than defending Canada's sovereignty,
especially its economic sovereignty, US relations and Canada's place in
Federalism and its future are important issues for Canada. At the three
mini citizens' assemblies held on the subject, participants in Kingston
and Montreal discussed the topic with experts, politicians and fellow citizens.
The discussions revealed a wide range of opinions and attitudes not immediately
apparent at first glance, highlighting the importance and benefit of giving
people the opportunity to express their perceptions after allowing them
to learn about the topic. Moreover, the generally positive feedback from
the 40 participants suggests that these meetings served a need for members
of the public to learn about and discuss important political topics, even
those who said they had little interest in politics. Without trying to
create a microcosm of an ideal debate that would be completely inconsistent
with the participants' real lives, citizens' assemblies, whether large
or small, can be useful opportunities for learning and debate for members
of the public and for democratic life in general.
1. Preferences regarding federalism pertain to the future evolution of
Canada's federal system, potentially moving toward different political
structures. The desire to preserve the current federal system, to give
more power to the federal government or to see Quebec become a separate
country are examples of preferences regarding federalism.
2. Some participants thought that greater importance should be given to
Aboriginal peoples in the federal system. Others also cited the importance
of having ethnic and visible minorities represented in political circles.