Young Quebec Sovereignists and Attitudes about Canadian Federalism

Article excerpt

Much is known about the propensity for sovereignty support among young Quebecers. This is especially true of young francophone Quebecers, whose support for sovereignty is consistently and visibly high. Indeed, a common sight on Quebec campuses is knapsacks that adorn the Fleur-de-lys and a pin that proudly espouses: "Ma generation est souverainiste." As noted by Drouilly, the near victory of the YES side in the 1995 referendum was due in part to the youth.

It is no wonder the basis of support for sovereignty among Quebec's youth has drawn considerable attention (see, for example, Belanger and Perrella; Martin and Nadeau; Martinez; Pinard; Piroth). Yet, attitudes that young sovereignists hold about Canada are less explored. In particular, what exactly do they know--and dislike--about the Canadian federation? This is far less known, but nonetheless critical in gaining a more complete understanding of the formation of political attitudes regarding the perennial "Quebec question".

Our aim is to contribute greater understanding of this phenomenon using data from a survey of Quebec youth conducted in early 2006. The survey contained an open-ended question that asked respondents to speak freely about what they regard as the biggest disadvantage of Canadian federalism. As will be elaborated in this paper, the attitudinal orientation that young Quebec sovereignists have about federalism is completely counterintuitive. Respondents volunteered a wide range of answers, which could mean one of two things: either they see federalism as so severely flawed that when asked to provide a reason, they are bound to cite many; or, young sovereignists do not normally think a lot about federalism, and thus when asked to point out its flaws, are more likely to display randomness.

The evidence reported here leans towards the second interpretation. Young sovereignists, whom many portray as the vanguard of the sovereignty movement, lack consistency and structure in what they regard as the main disadvantage of federalism. This is particularly true of those who are less likely to have been exposed to a wider range of attributes about both sides of the issue, sovereignist and federalist. In contrast, those who exhibit slightly more coherent and constrained sets of reasons about what is wrong with federalism are more likely to have given federalism some more thought.

Plausibility for such a pattern is widely established. As Delli Carpini and Keeter point out, three factors contribute to the acquisition of political knowledge: ability, motivation, and opportunity. Of the three, motivation and opportunity are of particular interest here. Ability pertains to level of civic education, which, as noted by Delli Carpini and Keeter, has fallen short in the last generation. Given the generational context of this factor, a study of the youth does not easily allow for the determination of how changes in public school pedagogy affect overall attitudes and understanding of something like federalism. Motivation and opportunity, however, can vary more widely among youths. Some are more motivated to gain a better understanding of federalism, and some are exposed to greater opportunities for this type of learning. Overall, we would expect motivation and opportunity to affect the level of awareness of federalism. In particular, the more a group of individuals is motivated or has been given the opportunity to engage with both sides of this debate, the less random their views.

Environmental factors also explain the ability of people to display opinion coherence. These include the "intensity" of the messages surrounding an issue, and elite opinion (Zaller). Therefore, a respondent's answer to an open-ended question depends on whatever considerations are made salient. Respondents who "tune out" of the discourse would therefore exhibit more randomness, since the disengaged are less likely to hold organized views of such considerations. …