Quebecers Support Patriation Of Constitution, Charter Of Rights And Freedoms In New Poll

Canadian Constitution Trudeau

First Posted: 10/12/11 01:17 PM ET Updated: 12/12/11 05:12 AM ET

MONTREAL - An overwhelming majority of respondents to a Quebec poll say the patriation of the Constitution 30 years ago was a good thing, in a wide-ranging survey that examines opinions on the province's place in Canada.

The online poll was commissioned by a pro-federalist think tank, The Federal Idea, with the patriation anniversary approaching.

Respondents were told that the Constitution had, until patriation three decades ago, "been tied to the British Parliament" and they were asked for an opinion on it.

Eighty per cent of respondents to the CROP poll said it was a "good" or "very good" thing, while 88 per cent expressed the same opinion of the inclusion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Poll respondents also expressed pride in being both Quebecers and Canadians, hope that constitutional changes might come eventually, desire for a moratorium on constitutional talks for now, and exhaustion with the longstanding debate on independence.

Some of the findings fly in the face of entrenched political narratives in the province, especially those surrounding the controversial patriation of the Constitution.

In Quebec the event is commonly portrayed as a betrayal, the product of an all-night negotiating session in November 1981 that is referred to ominously as the "Night of the Long Knives."

"There is a narrative that is unique to the sovereigntist camp, which is that these things were extremely negative and that there was a tragedy that needed to be repaired," said Martin Coiteux, the think tank's research director.

"What we realize 30 years later is that a majority of Quebecers don't have this dramatic reading of the events."

In 1981, the Trudeau government reached a deal with nine provinces to add to the 19th century British North America Act a new constitution that included a Charter of Rights.

The clash between federal and provincial interests set in motion years of constitutional wrangling that nearly resulted in Quebec leaving Canada in a 1995 sovereignty referendum.

The agreement only came after overnight talks between then-justice minister Jean Chretien and his provincial counterparts.

Rene Levesque, the independantiste founder of the Parti Quebecois and Quebec's premier at the time, was excluded from those negotiations.

After striking the deal without Quebec, Pierre Trudeau's government was confident it could find allies in the province and isolate the PQ.

Federal cabinet minutes from the period, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, indicate the government was counting on the support of its provincial counterparts.

Trudeau's point man on federal-provincial relations told colleagues in a meeting on Nov. 6, 1981, that his read of the mood in the province was that the Quebec Liberals would back Ottawa.

"The Liberal Party of Quebec would not be associating itself with Premier Levesque," Lalonde is recorded telling the meeting, held the day after the controversial negotiations.

"(The party) considered that the constitutional accord represented a 'last chance' for the Parti Quebecois in terms of its independence goals."

That proved an unwise assumption.

Quebec's provincial Liberal leader, Claude Ryan, ended up supporting the Quebec legislature's rebuke of the Constitution, even though his caucus was deeply divided over the issue.

To this day, opinion remains divided over whether Trudeau made the right choice in pressing ahead without Quebec's participation.

Thirty-two per cent of respondents agreed the federal government was right to leave Quebec out, while 41 per cent disagreed and 27 per cent did not answer.

But while sketching out attitudes about such a seminal piece of political history, the survey also revealed that respondents may have only a hazy grasp of what actually happened in 1981-82.

Given a choice of four options, only 40 per cent were able to correctly identify the patriation ceremony as the "important event" that occurred in 1982; others incorrectly identified the Meech Lake Accord, the Official Languages Act, and the adoption of the Canadian flag.

CROP surveyed 1,000 people over the Internet in September, drawn from the company's bank of regular poll respondents. Internet polls do not have margins of error.

Jocelyn Coulon, a former federal Liberal candidate who now heads The Federal Idea, says the findings suggest most Quebecers have come to accept Canadian federalism.

"There has been a rejection of the sovereigntist identity while the federalist identity is being consolidated, if not strengthened," he said at news conference in Montreal on Wednesday.

"That tells me that Quebecers are more and more comfortable with this double identity of being a Quebecer and a Canadian, and believe that federalism brings more advantages than disadvantages."

While Canadian federalists will no doubt take pleasure in many of the survey's findings the results actually paint a complex portrait of varying opinions. The survey also said:

— Thirty-one per cent of respondents said Quebec was correct to oppose the new Constitution, while 34 per cent disagreed.

— Fifty-nine per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that Quebec's famous language law, Bill 101, should comply with the Charter of Rights. Only 41 per cent agreed that Bill 101 should take precedence.

— A huge majority — 91 per cent — said they were happy the deal protected francophone rights outside Quebec and 78 per cent were pleased that it protected English rights within Quebec.

— A strong majority of those surveyed, 69 per cent, said the Constitution should be reopened eventually to include Quebec and 73 per cent said they hoped to see it recognize Quebec as a nation and grant the province more autonomy.

— However, 77 per cent also said they want a moratorium of the constitutional debate.

— Seventy-one per cent called the sovereignty debate outdated.

— Seventy-six per cent expressed pride in being Canadian, while 83 per cent expressed pride in being a Quebecer. Sixty-three per cent expressed pride in being both.

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Filed by Michael Bolen  |