Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Canada as a Social Experiment

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Canada as a Social Experiment

Article excerpt

This poll [Maclean's/CBC 1995 year end poll] has forced me to conclude that there is no way we will be able to maintain those attributes of Canada that we hold most dear short of accepting that some form of sovereignty-association is inevitable.... Only something as radical in design or as fundamental in scope, I believe, will prevent us from sleepwalking into a future even less acceptable than the rather pathetic one Canadians are anticipating today. (Allan Gregg)

Canadian society prides itself on being distinct from the United States, even though some of our claims in this respect have to be cut to size when our differences are examined on a broad comparative scale (see, for instance, Clement and Myles, 1994). Still, Canada has been a social experiment of sorts in North America, with its relatively extensive state intervention and social security net and its own constitutional arrangements--that is, with its own style of trying to accommodate the constituent parts of the federation. This social experiment came within 30,000 votes of being interrupted, or at least profoundly altered, on October 30, 1995, the day of Quebec's referendum on sovereignty/partnership. I will review here, first, what has happened, then what has not (yet) happened in the wake of that crisis, and finally what could happen in the future; under this last heading, I will examine the dark side of things, an uncompromising geo-political strategy that could very well lead to violence, and the brighter side of things, a renewed, admittedly somewhat utopian social experiment that could further the development and well being of Canada and Quebec.

What has happened

There is hardly any question about the numbers and their democratic meaning. 94% of people voted, including the supposedly politically disinterested younger generation. Fraud was almost negligible, thanks in large part to Quebec's tough electoral law (this was one of the first accomplishments of Rene Levesque's government in 1976) and a highly respected Director General of elections. A few hotheads did suggest that only francophones should be allowed to vote, but they were rapidly called to order by responsible political leaders. The very prevalent opinion was that a democratic verdict could only be reached if all citizens could express their opinion and vote freely; as a result, nobody even pretends to have felt threatened in the exercise of their rights. Finally, surveys accurately reflected opinion, and no manipulation has even been hinted at.

49.4% of the nearly five million voters answered yes. Where do these votes come from, and what do they mean for the future? The answer is that the trend is deep, and will probably lead to a clear win for the sovereigntists in the next referendum, which is likely to take place a few short years down the road.

It must first be pointed out that the ratio of support was quite formidable among francophones (more than 6 to 4); they were just about the only ones to vote yes, but they moved very far away from their half-and-half split in the referendum of 1980.

Second, electoral demography plays itself out in the direction of an increased support for sovereignty: ceteris paribus, a clear majority in favour of this option is just 3 or 4 years away, according to political scientist Richard Nadeau, and demographers Norbert Robitaille and Christine Noel (La Presse, November 25, 1995). They have established that, with respect to this question, cohort effects largely dominate age effects: as cohorts come of age, they are socialized into the ideas of the period, and they keep these ideas as they age; since older cohorts are opposed to sovereignty, and younger ones are more favorable, the passing of time means decreasing numbers of opponents and increasing numbers of supporters.

Finally, one may ask whether the result reflects to a significant extent the personal popularity of Lucien Bouchard, a man whose charisma is bound to erode as he is forced to make tough decisions as prime minister of Quebec. …

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