Mini Citizens' Assemblies on the Future of Canadian Federalism

By Reuchamps, Min | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Mini Citizens' Assemblies on the Future of Canadian Federalism


Reuchamps, Min, Canadian Parliamentary Review


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.

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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 sociodemographic characteristics.

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. …

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