The media and politicians with a vested interest pit provinces against each other. But a study shows there are lots of differences of opinion within provinces, and geography doesn’t matter much. Here Quebec residents protest against the government’s Bill 21, which bans religious headgear, in April 2019. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Canada: Is it really a country divided?

Is Canada a country divided?

By Loleen Berdahl and Éric Montpetit

Premiers claim equalization is unfair to their provinces.

British Columbia and Alberta fight about pipelines.

English-Canadian critics denounce Québec’s treatment of minorities and its passage of a lawthat bans public servants from wearing religious symbols.

Tensions within our country seem to be running high.

And these are simply the most recent examples of our national conflicts. Since Confederation, premiers and pundits have claimed provincial mistreatment. Our history is rife with inter-provincial tension.

The political strife creates an impression of disunity. Canadians, it might seem, cannot agree on anything. But do Canadian citizens in different regions really have fundamental value differences?

The answer is both yes and no. Canadians’ attitudes towards policy issues are rarely the result of living in one region rather than another, a 2017 study found.

There are some notable regional issues, to be sure. Economic interests matter to policy, and are reflected in the fact that some Alberta and Saskatchewan residents see pipelines and carbon taxes in a different light than do residents of other provinces.

Cultural preservation matters, and fears of cultural heritage erosion may contribute to Québecois attitudes on religious freedom of expression.

Geography matters less

Yet these regional factors have modest effects. In the 2017 study, professors Éric Montpetit, Erick Lachapelle and Simon Kiss found that Canadians’ policy positions reflect a number of different underlying sets of values. Each set of values is found in every region of Canada. There are some variations in value distributions, but regional differences in values, and thus on issues, are modest. Geography matters less than rhetoric suggests.

If Canadians from one region to the next are more similar than different, why do we seem so divided?

Part of the problem is the way that we talk about public attitudes. Commentators often slip into language that conflates “majority opinion” with “provincial opinion.” When majority public support (or opposition) is implied to reflect the entirety of provincial opinion, it is easy to lose sight of the range of attitudes present within a province.

For example, some Québeckers oppose the restriction of religious symbols — just as some residents of other provinces support the same restrictions. Indeed, the study showed that across 18 policy issues —including oil pipelines and religious symbols — there is a similar diversity of opinion within provinces and regions. Policy positions that are popularly associated with a single province actually have support from residents in other provinces too. Canada contains multitudes, to be sure — but so do the provinces.

On top of this, popular debates typically present highly polarized positions. More reasoned positions are ignored in favour of conflictual language.

Such sharply presented policy positions are easily interpreted on a personal level. When an Albertan hears a Québec politician’s hardline opposition to oil pipeline construction, she may assume that no one in Québec cares about her family’s economic fortunes. When an English Canadian critics argues that Québec’s religious symbol policies are intolerant, a francophone Québecker may interpret this as a statement that he himself is intolerant.

Feelings of disrespect

Protesters block traffic as they carry a fake oil pipeline during a protest to highlight environmental and social issues in Montreal in August 2016. But did the protesters represent everyone in the province? Probably not. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Such language contributes to feelings of disrespect across the country. Those feelings aren’t new within Canadian politics. What is new is how social media and fake news exacerbate knee-jerk simplification and demonization.

None of this is helped by the fact that the media and provincial politicians stand to gain from regional divisions.

Playing up regional tensions is a rational strategy that pays off. Media stories about regional friction generate needed attention for a media industry competing for audiences. Provincial politicians benefit from fuelling regional indignation. Premiers and individuals seeking the premiership can make significant political gains by “standing up” for their province, as academic Jared Wesley argued with respect to the 2019 Alberta election.

Overall, then, the differences between provinces are exaggerated in public discourse. Political rhetoric invokes feelings of disrespect, and politicians and the media gain by playing up these sentiments. It is no wonder that intergovernmental tensions are a permanent feature of Canadian politics.

But so what? Does it even matter?

We don’t think so. Sure, provincial conflict often feels uncomfortable. But the reality is that according to various measures, Canada is functioning just fine. Compared to other OECD countries, Canada does relatively well with respect to its economy and several environmental sustainability indicators.

Unlike many other countries, and without denying the difficulties, Canada has had some success protecting cultural and linguistic diversity.

Despite decades of bickering and hand-wringing, Canada continues on. National tensions, in and of themselves, are not leading us to poor policy outcomes. If provincial tensions turn into true separatism, then we have a clear problem. But without that, regional divisions are simply the natural byproduct of a pluralist society within a federal system.

 is a Professor and Head, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan
The Conversation