Quebec attitude changing — for the better

Posted on December 31, 2012 in Inclusion Debates – opinion
December 30, 2012.    By Chris Barrington-Leigh, Special to the Gazette

Something special has happened in Quebec, and it almost went undetected. Over the last 25 years, Quebec has gone from by far the least happy province in Canada to one of the most content places on the planet. What happened?

To understand which kinds of policy environments lead to happy communities, economists today routinely make use of data on how satisfied people are with life in general.

In 2012, the United Nations issued the first-ever World Happiness Report summarizing what we have learned from such data, and where and why people rate their quality of life highly. We know that in all but the poorest countries, higher ratings of life satisfaction are tied more to the quality of human relationships than they are to average incomes.

The year 2012 was a hard one for Quebec. The economy was struggling, and we have only recently recovered from the nightly student protests of the spring and summer. In Montreal, a seismic shakeup of municipal government is ongoing as the boldness of the influence of organized crime comes to light.

Yet analysis done at McGill University shows that in 2011, when Gallup asked 190,000 people around the world to rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10, the average response in Quebec was higher than in 157 countries. In fact, the satisfaction rate with life in Quebec was higher than that of any country other than Denmark.

In the last 25 years, Quebec has taken its place as a socially supportive democracy with high gender equity; strong support for children, families and culture; a shorter work week than in other provinces; and excellent access to higher education. Quebec also stands out with its secular society and distinct mixture of earlier Catholic and Protestant traditions. The data show that non-francophones in Quebec have probably experienced as much of a rise in life satisfaction as francophones, indicating that any easing in linguistic or nationalistic tensions has benefited everyone at once.

The change in Quebecers’ attitudes in recent decades is remarkable. In 1985, only 32 per cent of Quebecers reported being very satisfied with their life as a whole — 15 per cent less than the next-most-unhappy province in Canada, and a full 20 per cent below other Canadians as a whole.

By 2008, the picture had reversed. When Quebecers were asked by Statistics Canada to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale of 1 to 10, 71 per cent replied 8 or higher. That was between 6 and 8 per cent higher than in the three other largest provinces, and second only to Newfoundland.

The analysis carried out at McGill, using Statistics Canada data, attempts to unravel the causes of our increase in happiness. It shows that the relative rise in happiness in Quebec over the last 25 years is not due to the factors that economists traditionally look for. For instance, incomes in Quebec have remained modest in the Canadian context. It is true that strong income redistribution has kept inequality lower than elsewhere in Canada. But this has not benefited only low-income households, since it is both the rich and the poor who have become more satisfied with life in Quebec.



We should strive to understand what is making people happy here, and we must continue to strengthen those elements. Quebecers should ponder and appreciate what they have built — and the fact that they have built it in the face of the province’s remaining challenges.

What other jurisdictions are in the same ballpark as Quebec, and what do they have in common with us? Other countries (mostly in Scandinavia) that are leading in life satisfaction place a high value on socioeconomic equality and tend to invest heavily in education, child and parent support, social insurance, and the protection of environmental heritage. They also tend to have high levels of trust in their fellow citizens — which by some measures Quebec does not — as well as low levels of corruption, and highly accountable governments.

Do these findings imply that Quebec still has some room to improve on its current trajectory?

Quebec is an important experiment for the world, now more than ever. Our success is still in part a puzzle. But if we arm ourselves with a better understanding, we can continue to enjoy our outstanding quality of life, tailor our policies to strengthen what’s working, and begin to share with the world how we have joined the ranks of the most content people on Earth.

Chris Barrington-Leigh is an economist at McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy. His research on changes in happiness in Quebec will be published in Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de politiques ( in March 2013.

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