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Rationality and Sovereignty Support in Quebec*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 November 2009

Paul Howe
University of British Columbia


Recent research has identified three factors as significant determinants of sovereignty support in Quebec: national identity, assessments of the likely impact of sovereignty on Quebec's economy and perceptions of the impact of sovereignty on the French language in Quebec. Drawing on data from the 1992–1993 Canadian Referendum and Election Survey, the article suggests that the latter two factors may not be genuine causes of sovereignty support, but rather rationalizations of other, deeply embedded sentiments. National identity and sovereignty support itself, it is argued, are important determinants of people's expectations concerning the economic and linguistic impacts of sovereignty. However, this may not be equally true across the board. Instead, the influence of economic and language considerations seems to be differentially distributed across the spectrum of national identity. Thus, the rational evaluation of economic and linguistic considerations probably has less leverage over sovereignty support than is usually assumed, and its influence, such as it is, is concentrated in certain sections of the population only.


Les travaux récents ont identifié trois facteurs contribuant fortement à l'appui à la souveraineté au Québec: l'identité nationale, les jugements sur l'impact probable de la souveraineté sur l'économie du Québec et l'impact perçu de la Souveraineté sur la langue française au Québec. Cet article, qui utilise les données du « 1992–1993 Canadian Referendum and Election Survey », suggère que les deux derniers facteurs ne sont pas de véritable facteurs pouvant expliquer l'appui à la souverainet´, mais constituent plutôt la rationalisation d'autres sentiments bien implantés. L'identité nationale et l'appui à la souveraineté elle-même, affirme-t-on, sont des déterminants importants en ce qui a trait aux attentes de l'impact économique et linguistique de la souveraineté. Cependant, ce n'est pas le cas également pour tous. L'influence des considérations économiques et linguistiques est plutôt inégalement distribuée à travers la gamme de l'identité nationale. Il est donc probable que l'évaluation rationnelle des considérations économiques et linguistiques ait moins d'impact sur l'appui à la souveraineté qu'on ne le suppose habituellement, et cette influence, pour ce qu'elle vaut, est concentrée dans quelques parties de la population seulement.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Political Science Association (l'Association canadienne de science politique) and/et la Société québécoise de science politique 1998

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1 Survey-based analysis along these lines can be found in Blais, André and Nadeau, Richard, “To Be or Not to Be Sovereigntist: Quebeckers' Perennial Dilemma,” Canadian Public Policy 28 (1992), 89103CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin, Pierre, “Générations politiques, rationalité économique et appui à la souveraineté au Québec,” this Journal 27 (1994), 345359Google Scholar; Nadeau, Richard and Fleury, Christopher J., “Gains linguistiques anticipés et appui à la souveraineté du Québec,” this Journal 28 (1995), 3550Google Scholar; Blais, André, Martin, Pierre and Nadeau, Richard, “Attentes économiques et linguistiques et appui à la souveraineté du Québec: une analyse prospective et comparative,” this Journal 28 (1995), 637657Google Scholar; and Johnston, Richard, Blais, André, Gidengil, Elisabeth and Nevitte, Neil, The Challenge of Direct Democracy: The 1992 Canadian Referendum (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996), 195201Google Scholar. Other works, which do not draw on survey evidence, but which employ a similar analytical framework, include Meadwell, Hudson, “The Politics of Nationalism in Quebec,” World Politics 45 (1993), 203241CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dion, Stéphane, “Explaining Quebec Nationalism,” in Weaver, R. Kent, ed., The Collapse of Canada? (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1992)Google Scholar; and Dion, Stéphane, “Why Is Secession Difficult in Well-Established Democracies? Lessons from Quebec,” British Journal of Political Science 26 (1996), 269283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 This implication is spelled out in Nadeau and Fleury, “Gains linguistiques,” 50, and in Martin, “Générations politiques, rationalité économique et appui à la Souveraineté au Quebec,” 358.

3 Data from the 1992–1993 Canadian Referendum and Election Survey were provided by the Institute for Social Research, York University. The survey was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC), grant numbers 411–92–0019 and 421–92– 0026, and was completed for Richard Johnston, André Blais, Henry Brady, Elisabeth Gidengil and Neil Nevitte. The current author alone is responsible for the analyses and interpretations presented here.

4 The 1,091 francophone respondents from Quebec used in the analysis include 784 from the pre-referendum survey and 307 from the campaign-period survey. The two groups were combined in order to maximize the sample size. A large sample size is particularly important when measuring interaction effects, as discussed below in this article. For the campaign-period respondents, data for the national identity variable are taken from the “post-election survey,” a follow-up that took place very shortly after the election; this is because the relevant questions were not asked in the campaign-period survey. It is for this reason that pre-referendum data have been used in preference to campaign-period data, where both are available for a particular respondent. For full details of the CRES design, see Northrup, David A. and Owram, Anne E., The 1993 Canadian Election Study, Incorporating the 1992 Referendum Survey on the Charlottetown Accord: Technical Documentation (Toronto: Institute for Social Research, York University, 1994).Google Scholar

5 For an analysis of differences of opinion among Yes voters in the 1980 Quebec referendum, see Hamilton, Richard and Pinard, Maurice, “Les Québécois votent NON: le sens et la portée du vote,” in Crête, Jean, ed., Comportement électoral au Québec (Chicoutimi: Gaëtan Morin, 1984)Google Scholar. Hamilton and Pinard estimate that two fifths of Yes voters were hoping, first and foremost, to set in motion negotiations for a renewed federalism. Large numbers of Yes voters were also, they suggest, ill-informed, believing that Quebec would remain a province of Canada under sovereignty-association (361). Such misperceptions are still widespread today. For example, according to a 1994 poll, many Quebeckers think that in a “sovereign” Quebec they will continue to pay Canadian taxes (26%), send MPs to Ottawa (27%) and “be part of Canada” (42%) (see The Globe and Mail [Toronto], July 15, 1994, A4). These figures indicate that some sovereignty supporters actually want greater powers and an enhanced status for Quebec, rather than independence proper.

6 As part of a question wording experiment by the designers of the 1992–1993 CRES, half of the respondents in the pre-referendum survey, selected at random, were asked a soft version of the sovereignty question, which omitted the phrase “that is, Quebec is no longer a part of Canada.” Among this group, mean support for sovereignty was markedly higher (0.56 versus 0.46 for those asked the question with the phrase included). In order to see if this variation in question wording was important, the analysis conducted for this study was carried out separately for three different subgroups: the two groups of pre-referendum respondents and the campaign-period respondents (who were also asked the hard version of the sovereignty question). No differences relevant to the results reported here were observed.

7 The data in this and all subsequent tables are based on ordinary least-square regression. Weights have been applied in all analyses to compensate for differences in the probability of being selected as a respondent in households of varying size. Though such household weights are provided in the CRES data file, new ones were required for the present analysis because of the particular mix of respondents used. These were calculated in the manner described in Northrup and Owram, The 1993 Canadian Election Study, 9–11.

8 The precise question wording: “In your opinion, is the French language threatened in Quebec?”

9 The precise question wording: “If Quebec separates from Canada, do you think your standard of living will get better, get worse, or stay about the same as now?” Respondents answering “get better” were then asked, “A lot better or only a little better?” Respondents answering “get worse” were asked, “A lot worse or only a little worse?” Those who answered “don't know” to these follow-up questions were coded as “a little better” and “a little worse.”

10 The “get better” and “stay the same” categories are collapsed into one because there is relatively little difference in sovereignty support between the two. As others have argued and demonstrated, it is fear of economic loss more than anticipation of economic gain that seems to affect support for sovereignty in Quebec. See Martin, “Générations politiques, rationalité économique et appui à la souveraineté au Quebec,” 354–55.

11 The precise wording for the two questions is, “How do you feel about Quebec [Canada]?” with a feeling thermometer, running from 0 to 100, used to measure responses.

12 For example, a CROP survey from September 1993 asked “Si le Québec se sé- pare du Canada, pensez-vous que la situation du fran¸ais au Québec s'amé- liorera, restera la même ou se détériorera?” Multivariate analysis, incorporating identity and economic expectations, found a difference of 0.21 (where the dependent variable was coded 0 and 1) between those who thought the situation of the French language would deteriorate in a separate Quebec and those who thought it would improve. With the same controls in place, it also found a coefficient of 0.08 for a variable based on the same question as that used in the current analysis. See Nadeau and Fleury, “Gains linguistiques,” 42–43.

13 See, for example, Kinder, Donald R. and Kiewet, D. Roderick, “Sociotropic Politics: The American Case,” British Journal of Political Science 11 (1981), 129161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Ibid., 157.

15 See Sanders, David, Marsh, David and Ward, Hugh, “The Electoral Impact of Press Coverage of the British Economy, 1979–87,” British Journal of Political Science 23 (1993), 191CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Clarke, Harold D. and Stewart, Marianne C., “Economic Evaluations, Prime Ministerial Approval and Governing Party Support: Rival Models Reconsidered,” British Journal of Political Science 25 (1995), 147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 See, for example, Lewis-Beck, Michael S., “Comparative Economic Voting: Britain, France, Germany, Italy,” American Journal of Political Science 30 (1986), 315346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Nadeau and Fleury, “Gains linguistiques,” Table 2, 43.

18 Martin, “Générations politiques, rationalité economique et appui à la souveraineté au Québec,” Table 1, 354.

19 Compare, for example, the bivariate and multivariate results presented in Blais and Nadeau, “To Be or Not to Be Sovereigntist”; Nadeau and Fleury, “Gains linguistiques”; and Blais et al., “Attentes économiques et linguistiques et appui à la souveraineté du Québec.”

20 It is also possible that the causation runs the other way. A sense that one's standard of living would improve in an independent Quebec might tend to make people feel more Québécois (if this were so, the significant decrease in the coefficient associated with the economics variable would indicate that economic perceptions, in part, influence sovereignty support only to the extent they alter national identity). The assumption here is that the formation of national identity is likely to be causally prior to assessments of the tangible consequences of sovereignty. This interpretation seems consistent with common sense. National identity is something that people feel from a relatively early age (childhood or adolescence), whereas evaluation of technical questions like the economic impact ofsovereignty is something people would typically start to reflect on at a later stage of life (early adulthood and on, say). This is, however, an area that merits further investigation. Survey research might play its part by asking respondents retrospective questions about these matters. For example: When did you first become aware of your Québécois identity? Did you support sovereignty at that point? Did economic factors play a role in your decision to support sovereignty?

21 The number of campaign-period respondents in Table 3 is larger than reported above. This is because those who participated in both the pre-referendum and campaign-period surveys, previously classified as pre-referendum respondents, are now classified as campaign-period respondents.

22 Others also emphasize the comparative element in the reasoning that underwrites support for sovereignty. Stéphane Dion, for example, points to the confidence and fear components of such reasoning, by which he means “the fear of being weakened within the union, and the confidence of increasing the group's well being outside the union” (“Why Is Secession Difficult in Well-Established Democracies?” 273). People, in other words, compare the independence scenario to their current (and future) situation as part of the larger union.

23 Kinder and Kiewet, “Sociotropic Politics: The American Case,” 139. Others, however, report significant correlations between the two types of evaluation; see Clarke and Stewart, “Economic Evaluations, Prime Ministerial Approval and Governing Party Support,” 148.

24 For simplicity's sake, perceptions concerning the situation of the French language are excluded from the model.

25 This, of course, is a gross simplification of a complex process on which further research might shed light. It seems likely that public opinion on the economic impact of Quebec sovereignty is elite-led, given the complexity of the issue. It also seems clear that elite opinion on the matter is divided on partisan lines. The question then becomes: are these partisan viewpoints re-produced in public opinion, and if so, how? The answer to such questions might be found by examining potential biases in the reporting and analysis of different media outlets on the sovereignty issue (through content analysis, for example) and investigating patterns of exposure to those media outlets (through survey analysis). Do supporters of Quebec sovereignty, for example, primarily read newspapers that largely report positive prognostications concerning the economic impact of sovereignty? An example of this type of analysis, which addresses the influence of media coverage on the formation of personal economic expectations in the British public, can be found in Sanders et al., “The Electoral Impact of Press Coverage of the British Economy,” 175–210.

26 Peffley, Mark, Feldman, Stanley and Sigelman, Lee, “Economic Conditions and Party Competence: Processes of Belief Revision,” The Journal of Politics 49 (1987), 100121CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Conover, Pamela Johnston, Feldman, Stanley and Knight, Kathleen, “The Personal and Political Underpinnings of Economic Forecasts,” American Journal of Political Science 31 (1987), 559583CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Bowler, Shaun, “Comparative Economic Assessments and the Endogeneity of Left/Right Self-Placement: A Research Note,” European Journal of Political Research 17 (1989), 3549CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On methods of measuring respondent uncertainty in survey research, see Alvarez, R. Michael and Franklin, Charles H., “Uncertainty and Political Perceptions,” The Journal of Politics 56 (1994), 671688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Conover et al., “The Personal and Political Underpinnings of Economic Forecasts,” 565; Peffley et al., “Economic Conditions and Party Competence,” 106.

28 This assumes, of course, that voting choices depend, at least partly, on retrospective evaluations. Some would contend that prospective assessments are dominant. See, for example, Nadeau, Richard, Niemi, Richard G. and Amato, Timothy, “Prospective and Comparative or Retrospective and Individual? Party Leaders and Party Support in Great Britain,” British Journal of Political Science 26 (1996), 245258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 Bowler, for example, looks at what is presumably a relatively intractable opinion, people's self-placement on a left-right ideological scale (“Comparative Economic Assessments and the Endogeneity of Left/Right Self-Placement”).

30 In some cases, researchers have examined partisanship (that is, party identification), a more deeply entrenched attitude, to see whether it causes, or is caused by, issue evaluations. Views on the matter vary: see, for example, Fiorina, Morris P., Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 6583Google Scholar; and Whiteley, Paul F., “The Causal Relationships between Issues, Candidate Evaluations, Party Identification, and Vote Choice—The View from ‘Rolling Thunder,’The Journal of Politics 50 (1988), 961984.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 Easton, David, A System Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965)Google Scholar; and Easton, David, “A Re-Assessment of the Concept of Political Support,” British Journal of Political Science 5 (1975), 435457CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an application of Easton's model to the Quebec political system, see Pammett, Jon H., Jenson, Jane, Clarke, Harold D. and Leduc, Lawrence, “Soutien politique et comportement électoral lors du référendum québécois,” in Crête, , ed., Comportement électoral au Québec, 387419.Google Scholar

32 Just as Easton suggests that diffuse support for the political community is generally more stable than specific support for a governing authority (“A Re-Assessment of the Concept of Political Support,” 444).

33 Nadeau, Richard, “Le virage souverainiste des québécois, 1980–1990,” Recherches sociographiques 33 (1992), 1516CrossRefGoogle Scholar. An analysis tracing support for Quebec “separation” within different birth cohorts, from 1962 to 1994, can be found in Paul Howe, ”Radicals, Moderates and the Rise of Quebec Nationalism,“ paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Montreal, 1995, Table 1, 24; see also 11–14. The latter results suggest that birth cohort effects have been very pronounced. There was a jump in support for separation across all cohorts around the time of the Meech Lake Accord, but this proved to be ephemeral, as birth cohort effects were readily apparent again by 1994.

34 If the procedure were feasible, the next step would be to use the regression results of Table 4 to generate predicted values of people's standard of living expectations. These predicted values would represent the exogenously determined component of that variable. These predicted values would then be regressed on sovereignty support, to estimate the impact of the exogenously determined component of people's standard of living expectations on the dependent variable. Any potential reverse causation would thereby be removed, and a better estimate would be generated of the extent to which economic expectations are a cause rather than an effect of sovereignty support. For more technical discussions of the two-stage least-squares regression technique, see Achen, Christopher H., The Statistical Analysis of Quasi-Experiments (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), chap. 3Google Scholar; and Norusis, Marija J., SPSS Professional Statistics, 6.1 (Chicago: SPSS, 1994)Google Scholar, chap. 9. An example of the technique can be found in Brady, Henry E., Verba, Sidney and Schlozman, Kay Lehman, “Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Mobilization,” American Political Science Review 89 (1995), 271294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 The caveat should be added that these coefficients may be overestimates, if there is reverse causation at work. This caveat applies to all that follows in this analysis of interaction effects.

36 It would be interesting to know what these identity interaction effects might be for variables that tap into prospective and comparative evaluations of the condition of the French language. As noted above, other analyses have shown that the effects for such variables are considerably larger than those typically found for the type of language variable used in this analysis. Though I suspect that the shape of the distribution for other language variables would be similar (a mound shape across the identity spectrum), its peak might well lie elsewhere.

37 It should be reiterated that the interaction coefficients will vary if different numeric values are assigned to the sovereignty response categories. The interaction coefficients for the uppermost identity category, for example, hinge almost exclusively on the percentage of respondents falling into the “somewhat favourable” and “very favourable” categories; if the gap between these two response categories were made larger, the interaction coefficients would increase. However, in order for these coefficients to approach those for the other identity categories, it would be necessary to increase the somewhat favourable/very favourable gap by a large amount. It also would be necessary to provide some justification for believing that there is a greater shift in the intensity of sovereignty support in moving from “somewhat favourable” to “very favourable” than there is in moving between the other sovereignty response categories. My sense is that, if anything, it is the somewhat opposed/somewhat favourable gap that should be increased. But this is a matter of opinion. The ideal solution to this problem might be to conduct a similar analysis based on more neutral sovereignty response categories (for example, asking people to indicate their level of support for sovereignty on a 0 to 100 scale).

38 This is the case, for example, in the graphics presented by Blais, Martin and Nadeau, showing the impact of economic and language variables in different identity categories (“Attentes économiques et linguistiques et appui à la souveraineté du Québec,” 652). Although the effect of these variables appears to vary by identity category, this is simply a by-product of the use of logistic regression to model the data (the effect on probability scores of a given change in logit value always varies across the spectrum of probability values). This is why the constant effect, in logit terms, of the economics and language variables in the model, translates into differing probability effects across the various identity categories. Such modeling should not be seen as capturing interaction effects (though, of course, there are other reasons for choosing to use the logistic regression model).

39 If sovereignty support were measured on a 0 to 100 scale, stronger effects might be seen for the substantive considerations within the final identity category. A sovereignty thermometer of this sort might reveal significant variation within the group who “strongly favour” sovereignty, and this variation might be partly explained by economic and linguistic considerations.