03/26/2012 12:42 EDT | Updated 05/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Separatism: Appetite For Independence Endures In Quebec, According To Poll

MONTREAL - Quebecers still have an appetite for independence if they don't get constitutional reform, suggests a new survey that could surprise people who consider the sovereignty issue dormant.

Given a choice of three options, independence was the most popular selection among poll respondents when asked what they would want if the Constitution isn't revised.

The Leger Marketing survey, released Monday, was commissioned by a group of academics just before the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Constitution.

As the backbone of Canada's governing system and its framework for legal rights, the new Constitution was endorsed by every province except Quebec when it came into effect in 1982. Later attempts to reopen the discussion resulted in spectacular failure, dividing the country.

The survey unveiled Monday found that 44.5 per cent of Quebecers would support separating from Canada if the Constitution could not be changed enough to satisfy the majority of the province.

Only 39 per cent said the province should stay in the federation even if no amendments are made to the Constitution; 16.8 per cent were undecided.

The survey, conducted online between March 5 and 12, also found that nearly 71 per cent of Quebecers believed the Quebec government should take the first step to propose changes be made to the Constitution.

"That question of constitutional reform of Canadian federalism is still alive — this is still a preoccupation for many Quebecers, and I would even say for most Quebecers," said Benoit Pelletier, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister who is now a constitutional scholar at the University of Ottawa.

"We have taken for granted, in the past in Quebec, that (the Constitution) was a question that did not interest Quebecers anymore."

It's unclear whether an opening move from Quebec would bear any fruit.

The survey's results from elsewhere in Canada suggest there's almost no desire outside Quebec to change the Constitution to grant the province more power. Just 9.2 per cent of respondents from outside Quebec were in favour of such a measure.

The poll surveyed more than 2,039 people this month across Canada, 1,002 of whom live in Quebec. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Pelletier now sits on the board of the Association internationale des etudes quebecoises, the group of academics that commissioned the study. The ex-intergovernmental affairs minister in Premier Jean Charest's government has long advocated for the constitutional issue to be re-examined by politicians.

Pelletier, who is a federalist, said he doesn't see a constitutional crisis on the horizon because Quebecers have not set a deadline on reform.

But even though he believes the provincial government doesn't have to make an immediate push for amendments, Pelletier thinks a society should always be interested in the state of its constitution.

Pelletier said he was surprised by how many Quebecers indicated that they wanted the provincial government to act.

He isn't the only one who might be surprised by some of the survey's results.

Its numbers on Quebec independence could also come as an eye-opener to politicians hoping that sovereignty is a dying issue — including newly minted NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

In his first news conference after becoming party leader, the Montreal MP said Quebecers are now focusing more on economic and social issues than constitutional questions.

Mulcair also said that's he's barely heard any politicians utter the word "sovereignty" in recent years, and said the provincial Parti Quebecois has worked to obscure its position on independence.

However, the PQ now sits atop opinion polls and could win the next election, expected anytime between this spring and late 2013. Its members have, in recent weeks, repeatedly cited independence as the only escape hatch available to Quebecers unhappy with "Stephen Harper's Canada."

The subject of constitutional reform has been a controversial topic since the document's patriation three decades ago.

In November 1981, Pierre Elliott Trudeau's government reached a deal with nine provinces to add a new constitution, including a charter of rights, to the 1867 British North America Act.

The event is commonly portrayed as a betrayal in Quebec — the result of an all-night negotiating session referred to as the "Night of the Long Knives."

After the subsequent failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the demise of the old Progressive Conservative party, the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois, and the knife's-edge result in the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, politicians have steadfastly avoided the topic.

The Meech Lake treaty called for Quebec to be recognized as a "distinct society" in the Constitution, and would have granted some new powers to that province and others. The distinct-society proviso, in particular, prompted a backlash that led to the agreement's 1990 demise.

Since the 1990s, Quebec's sovereigntist politicians have frequently prodded their pro-Canada rivals to pick up the conversation again, to no avail.

Charest's current intergovernmental affairs minister steered clear of the subject Monday. A spokeswoman for Yvon Vallieres said he was not available to comment on the poll results.

The poll also suggested stark geographic differences on Ottawa's decision to patriate the Constitution without Quebec's approval.

It found that just 21.7 per cent of Quebecers thought the federal government had a reason to proceed without Quebec; 54.1 said Ottawa did not have a good reason and 24.3 were undecided.

In the rest of Canada, 51.2 per cent of respondents said the federal government had a reason to patriate the Constitution without Quebec; 18.1 said it did not have a good reason and 30.6 were undecided.

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