André PratteIn Québec, the word “federalism” carries a negative connotation. Even though, as public-opinion surveys suggest, sixty percent of Quebecers would vote NO in a referendum on sovereignty, few of them would openly describe themselves as “federalist.” Federalism is associated by many with a centralist federal government, and with the disappointment produced by painful episodes in our political history, with the sponsorship scandal, and so on.

People end up forgetting that federalism is founded on noble values and principles. As with independence, federalism is an ideal. Its concrete realization is obviously fraught with imperfections. Federalism may be unsuccessful in its work where the coexistence of distinct communities is concerned (think of Belgium), but that does not necessarily disqualify it as a project. And it continues to cast its spell: the United Kingdom and Italy have adopted a number of characteristics of federal governance in recent years.

It was with that ideal in mind that fifty people got together yesterday morning in Montreal to found L’Idée fédérale / The Federal Idea, a Québec think tank on federalism. (The author of these lines is one of the initiators of the project.)

The Federal Idea is a non-partisan network bringing together people from different backgrounds and allegiances who believe in the principles of federalism, notably as a system of government in Canada. The group will endeavour to stimulate discussion and exchanges among these people, in among other ways by publishing studies and by organizing lectures.

The network has unveiled the results of a CROP survey on Quebecers’ perception of federalism. Carried out last April, the poll reveals that Quebecers have a favourable perception of certain aspects of the federal principle and of its implementation in Canada. For example:

Sixty percent (60%) of respondents agree with the following statement in which “in a federation, the existence of two levels of government – federal and provincial – enables citizens…to benefit from competition between the two levels”;

Sixty-seven percent (67%) of Quebecers surveyed feel that “federalism enables Quebecers to benefit from the advantages of belonging to a greater whole while at the same time preserving their cultural uniqueness.”

On the other hand, in certain respects their vision of the federal system has things in common with that of the sovereigntists. Thus:

Three-quarters of participants think that “in a federation, the existence of two levels of government gives rise to inefficiencies and redundancies”;

Forty-eight percent (48%) of Quebecers are convinced that the government of Canada is “above all there to serve English Canadians.”

Those who believe that Québec will be better able to develop within the Canadian federation can therefore not afford to rest on their laurels. Even though a majority of Quebecers are opposed to independence, Québec’s membership in the Canadian federation would nonetheless appear to be fragile.

The discussion will of course continue at the political level; the The Federal Idea network will remain far removed from those partisan struggles. Nevertheless, it hopes to prove to be a useful tool by offering Québec federalists a site for the discussion of the principles, the evolution and the challenges of federalism, in Canada and in the world.

Editorial, La Presse, June 6 2009.