By BILL TIERNEY - Should we be worried about the fact that 31 per cent of recently polled Quebec residents defined themselves as "exclusively" Quebecers?
Or, rather, should we be relieved that 39 per cent identified themselves as "Quebecers first" but "also Canadians?"
Now, in case we take some federalist comfort from that second statistic, the journalist I read reminds us that these results mean that more than 60 per cent of Quebec residents define themselves as "Quebecers first or exclusively." We are told that this represents an increase since January 2009, when only 54 per cent of Quebecers identified themselves as "Quebecers first or only."
Is your head aching yet?
Yes, and why not when you get a blast of percentages. Do the math! Imagine a whopping 6-per-cent increase in the number of un-Canadian Quebecers.
Just as challenging, but this time for the anti-federalist strategists who also read polls for a living, are the 20 per cent of Quebec francophone respondents who define themselves as "equally Quebecers and Canadians." You can guess which side of the
nationalist equation they are likely to be on. And what of the 7 per cent who are "primarily Canadian?" They are no doubt beyond redemption. They'll probably all have Canadian flags on their balconies. As for the 1 per cent who are "only Canadian," Yes organizers have never met them and never will.
Of course, we all know that the only percentages that really matter are the results of the 1980 and 1995 referendums. In 1980, 40.44 per cent (and not 49.44 per cent, which I read to my astonishment on a recent visit to Wikipedia!) voted Yes. In 1995, with a more serpentine strategy and a less convoluted question, the Yes side got up to 49.42 per cent support. Close call for Canada and Quebec, equally and not exclusively.
So what is the big anxiety behind the news of the latest identity poll?
It raises the question: Would those 60 per cent of Quebec residents defining themselves as "Quebecers first or only" push the Yes side up over the 50-per-cent mark in a referendum?
It also raises that other more pragmatic question which surfaced in our June 2004 de-merger referendum process: Is 50-percent-plus-one of voters enough to disrupt a level of government?
Jean Charest's answer is no, not when you're trying to save Mega-Montreal from a complete washout.
Trying to read this modern equivalent of tea leaves is not an easy task. Luckily, there's Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, ready to have a go. I don't know Jedwab, but I always admire his courage. On this occasion he observes that there is now "a not insignificant minority of Quebecers who feel a really strong detachment from Canada."
Presumably this "not insignificant minority" of Quebecers might at some future date (in another referendum, for example) produce a "not insignificant majority" for the Yes side, especially as the government of Canada under Stephen Harper has been busy empowering the Quebec "nation within a united Canada" and Canada has been transforming itself into becoming the "confederation of shopping centres" that Pierre Trudeau so despised.
The idea of identity is really complex. Take my distant Montreal Irish cousin, Kevin Tierney of Bon Cop, Bad Cop fame. He is working on a new comic movie about identity in Quebec. Will he get himself into trouble? Probably. Will he get hauled up on Tout le Monde en parole? I hope so.
And what is cousin Kevin's identity? Kevin is a thoroughly grounded Montrealer, an N.D.G. er, in fact, who now keeps his Irish passport handy for countries like Chile where they charge a retaliatory $90 for Canadian passports. Kevin is Irish, a Montrealer, Quebecer, certainly with a fine range of popular Quebec speech patterns, and, no doubt, a typical but untypical Canadian.
Would he be "equally Quebecer and Canadian" or would he try to squeeze in a bit of "Irish?"
Easier than that, ask any teenager who is grappling with identity. Ask any immigrant anywhere.
So why should identity in Canada be a simple issue? In a country feeding its future with immigrants from all over the world, modern life is bound to be complex.
In its recent municipal election Toronto supplied telephone-based interpretation in 200 languages. The ballots were published in more than 20 languages. Can you imagine how complex identity is in downtown Toronto where a majority was born outside Canada?
Bill Tierney is the former mayor of Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Billtierney Q86 videotron.ca