UPDATED: Those tough-on-crime Quebecers

(The UPDATE at the bottom of this post goes out, with all my love, to everyone who said I was extrapolating too much from one poll. – pw)

ITQ has already told you in a separate post about the election-related results of the new Ekos poll (hint: not breathtaking) and the CBC is going with the old ask-a-technical-question-to-a-general-audience angle, but I was struck by the results Ekos got when they went fishing on another issue area, crime. (Full poll results are under “Related” on this page.)

Crime’s not really the issue area that normally turns my policy-wonk crank, but in late June, Colleague Deux Maudits Anglais (Toronto Branch) noted some pretty lurid direct-mail pieces the Conservatives were sending to Bloc ridings accusing the Bloc of being the only party to vote against “minimal sentences for criminals who go after children.” “I guess the Conservatives figure they can’t do much worse in Quebec so they might as well go whole-hog on the gutter politics,” Colleague DMA (TB) wrote. “There’s already a chasm between the Tories and Quebecers when it comes to all this “tough on crime” nonsense.”

Let’s go to the Ekos poll. Some of it supports the idea that Quebec is a — what’s a novel way to put this? — distinct society when it comes to perception of crime. Quebecers are more likely than in any other region to perceive crime levels as decreasing over the past decade (30.1% in Quebec vs. a 26.1% national average) and less likely (38.8% vs. 47.7%) to believe crime is increasing. (Saskatchewan and Manitoba, polled as one region, are the anti-Quebec on this axis: least likely to believe crime is decreasing and most likely to believe it’s increasing.)

But what should governments do about crime? Ekos asked respondents what they feel is “the best way to adress violent crime in Canada,” and gave four options: Longer jail terms, more cops, more emphasis on rehabilitation, and greater emphasis on programs to prevent crime and deal with its social  causes. Bloc voters — both those who say they voted Bloc in 2008 and the slightly different sample who expect to vote Bloc in the next election — are more likely than the average voter to support longer jail terms (36.4% vs. 33.1%). So were Quebecers generally (37.9% vs. 33.1%). Quebec respondents were also less likely to support crime prevention and social-causes approaches (29.3% vs. 32.6%).

In fact, Quebec leads the country in support for longer jail terms, and Quebec respondents’ view of prevention and social work more closely resembles the view of respondents in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta than the far more prevention-oriented respondents in Ontario and British Columbia. This attitude seems to be led by Quebecers outside Montreal, although Montreal respondents were less likely than Ottawans, Torontonians and Vancouverites to support a social approach to crime and more likely than Ottawans and Torontonians to support longer jail terms.

Finally, Ekos analyzed these results by the language respondents chose to take the poll questions. French-speaking respondents were markedly likelier to support longer jail terms (38.1% vs. 31.6%) and markedly less likely to support a social response (29.4% vs. 33.5%) than English-speaking respondents.

I have never seen a poll on public attitudes toward crime that did not produce similar results in Quebec, and I have been following the polling data on attitudes toward crime for more than a decade, beginning when Allan Rock was the justice minister and he was trying to resist a panicky get-tough attitude by the Bloc Québécois during the worst of the Quebec biker wars. You’ll note that when Colleague Phil wanted to demonstrate a “chasm between Tories and Quebecers” on crime in the post I link above, he linked to an article from last autumn’s election that quotes only Quebecers who teach criminology at universities or write editorials for newspapers. Polling data consistently demonstrates that on perceptions of the appropriate response to crime, the most easily demonstrable chasm is between Quebecers who write editorials for a living and Quebecers who don’t.

What’s it all mean? The Conservatives still have a tough row to hoe in Quebec. I would discourage them from counting on major seat gains there in the next election, although I suspect they don’t need me to tell them that.

But the last Ekos poll before they started letter-bombing Bloc ridings with their mailers was released on June 18. It showed the Conservatives at 14.8% in Quebec, the Liberals at 31.2%, the NDP at 9.6% and the Bloc at 35.6%. Today’s Ekos shows the Conservatives up 4.6 points at 19.4%, the Liberals steady at 31.0%, the NDP up 4.4 points at 14.0%, and the Bloc down 5.7 points at 29.9%. That puts the Conservatives back close to the score that allowed them to hold 10 Quebec seats last October, after months of truly dismal support. It also puts the Bloc well below the lowest level of support they have received in any federal election since 1993.


From L’actualité, March 2005: “Some questions traditionally assciated with the right in Europe, the United States and the rest of Canada — including security and immigration — are nevertheless almost absent from the political discourse in Quebec. On the right as on the left, preference is given to rehabilitation of criminals, especially young offenders, rather than coercion. And immigration is believed to be necessary to counteract the effects of an aging population and low birthrate.

“Yet these two themes preoccupy Quebecers. According to the CROP-l’Actualité poll, 83% support heavier criminal penalties; 75% want more rigorous controls over immigration. … ‘This could also be a reflection of a profound gap between the official discourse and what people think in their households,’ suggests Jean-Herman Guay, professor of political science at l’Université de Sherbrooke.”

From Le Devoir, November 2007: (After noting that Conservative environmental policy and the Afghanistan war were hurting the party’s support in Quebec) “The Conservatives nevertheless receive the support of a majority of Quebecers on two other files. In fact, 62% of respondents approve the recognition of the Québécois nation… the crime bill is also supported by Quebecers in a proportion of 46% against 36% who say they are dissatisfied by it.”

Léger Marketing poll, March 2002 (.pdf): “More than Eight Canadians out of Ten Find that the Judicial System is not Strict Enough When it Comes to Crimes of a Sexual Nature
“84% of Canadians believe that the judicial system is not strict enough in cases of rape and
crimes of a sexual nature, while 10% find it strict enough and 1% find it too strict.
“Moreover, 83% of the population feels that the judicial system also is not strict enough when it
comes to cases of pedophilia, while 10% find it just strict enough and 1% too strict.
“When it comes to both of these types of sexual crimes, it is mostly in Quebec that the judicial
system is deemed not strict enough with 91% and 90% respectively holding this view….
“Question: In your view, is the justice system TOO STRICT, JUST STRICT ENOUGH or NOT STRICT ENOUGH
in cases of…

“…rape and sexual crimes? (Canadian average, 84% reply ‘not strict enough;’ highest provincial average response is Quebec, 91%)

“… acts of pedophilia? (Canadian average, 83% reply ‘not strict enough;’ highest provincial average response is Quebec, 93%)”

(This Léger poll also showed support was higher in Quebec than in any other region for abolishing parole for violent offenders; abolishing parole, period; systematically castrating pedophiles; systematically castrating sexual offenders in general; and making prisoners pay the cost of their incarceration. The only such extraordinarily harsh measure that was not supported more strongly by Quebec respondents than by respondents in other regions was for the death penalty for murders where the victim was a police officer. – pw)

And one final word.

On just about all of these questions, I prefer prevention and social approaches that make crime a less attractive behaviour in general, instead of harsher penalties. I am, and have been for a long time, very nearly as soft as soft can be on crime matters. I am, for instance, an advocate of giving judges plenty of latitude to decide sentences, because judges know the particulars of each case in a way legislators can’t.

I am, however, unable to ignore or blithely argue away the inconvenient evidence that a hell of a lot of people disagree with me. There’s a gap between what I wish were true, and what is. Shrinking that gap is the very stuff of politics; ignoring it would be some other stuff entirely.

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