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When it comes to COVID-19, Quebec’s francophones aren’t worrying

A man wears a face mask as he walks along Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal, on Aug. 16, 2020.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

When the pollster David Coletto made a visit to Sherbrooke in July, he was taken aback.

Living in Ottawa during the pandemic, he had grown used to an atmosphere of intense lockdown: empty shops, quiet streets, anxious people.

But in the mid-sized Quebec city a two-hour drive east of Montreal, he found a different scene altogether: busy restaurants, shoppers bustling through malls, an air of relative calm. It felt, he said, like he had travelled between “two different worlds.”

Mr. Coletto’s own research would later confirm what he saw that day. When it comes to feelings about COVID-19, Quebec and the rest of Canada are worlds apart. In fact, despite having one of the world’s highest death rates from the virus, Quebeckers feel far less anxiety about the contagion and feel more optimistic about how it will play out in the future than almost anywhere else in North America.

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In a survey by Mr. Coletto’s Abacus Data in early September, fully a quarter of Quebec respondents said they thought the worst of the crisis was behind them, more than in any other province. A similar questionnaire by the polling firm Léger put the figure as high as 45 per cent.

The apparent paradox of Canada’s hardest-hit province being its most laid-back is driven by attitudes among francophones in the province; since spring, polls have shown they are less worried about COVID-19 than Quebec anglophones as a group.

Just 46 per cent of francophone Quebeckers personally fear contracting the virus, compared with 74 per cent of anglophones, according to an August survey by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies, a Montreal think tank.

The question is why. It has prompted soul-searching and awkward conversations across apartment balconies, on social media and even in the National Assembly. Premier François Legault responded to a question about the divide in August by saying that English-speakers in the province had been spooked by watching American news on CNN and reading the reports of Montreal Gazette health journalist Aaron Derfel.

But fretful anglos are not an anomaly, argued Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies. Concentrated in Montreal, they report levels of fear roughly in line with those in other North American cities. It’s the lack of angst among the province’s French-speaking majority that is more notable, he said.

“The francophones are the outliers.”

That is not necessarily a bad thing. The composure of Quebeckers has hardly made them lax in following public health guidelines. Surveys in the spring and summer found residents of the province about as likely to wear masks and keep physical distance as other Canadians.

In any case, the severity of Quebec’s pandemic can’t be chalked up to a laissez-faire attitude among ordinary people. The province’s death toll has been devastating – 5,774 lives lost to the virus – but its concentration in long-term care homes is the result of policy failures rather than day-to-day carelessness, Mr. Jedwab noted.

“They’re not as scared of getting COVID-19, but they’re following the guidance,” he said.

One theory about why francophones are more carefree is that they are more likely to live in rural areas, which have been less affected than the big cities. But that doesn’t hold water, according to Mr. Jedwab’s numbers. Even francophones in Montreal, ground zero of Canada’s pandemic, report far less fear of contagion than English-speakers in the city.

A more important factor seems to be divergent levels of trust in the current provincial government, pollsters and political scientists say. A Léger survey at the beginning of September found that 80 per cent of francophones approved of how the Legault government has managed the pandemic, compared with 62 per cent of non-francophones. That lines up with the nationalist Mr. Legault’s higher level of support among French speakers in general.

But his high approval rating across the board also speaks to a skilful communications strategy that built confidence through an emphasis on the greater danger faced by elderly people and the lower risk to younger Quebeckers who follow public health rules, said François Rocher, a professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa.

“He’s been reassuring … I think it was an effective approach.”

The Legault government, and the provincial psyche, have also benefited from the tendency toward positive thinking generally among francophone Quebeckers, said Jean-Marc Léger, the pollster and veteran Quebec-watcher. That has translated into an optimistic approach to the COVID-19 crisis exemplified by the popular slogan “ça va bien aller,” or “It’ll be all right,” often seen on window signs.

“The Québécois are naturally optimistic,” Mr. Léger said. “It’s true in politics, it’s true in marketing, it’s true in all spheres.”

For his 2016 book, Cracking the Quebec Code, he found that “joie de vivre” is ranked as the most important value in Quebec, but only fourth most-important in English Canada – and, indeed, notes that the English language simply imported the French concept wholesale.

He also found that nearly three-quarters of francophone Quebeckers said “living in the present moment” was more important than “preparing for the future” – compared with less than half of anglophones in the rest of Canada.

“The most important cultural gap between francophones and anglophones in Canada is that gap between the focus on the present moment versus planning for the future,” Mr. Léger said.

If a combination of partisan politics and deep-seated values helps explain why Quebec is dwelling less on the dangers of the pandemic than its neighbours, the difference is most clear in back-to-school plans.

The Legault government is rolling out arguably Canada’s most aggressive approach, with mandatory in-person attendance except for rare medical exceptions and no mask-wearing in classrooms. Most of the province approves. About three-quarters of Quebeckers think children should go back to school in-person, with francophones being especially supportive, compared with 52 per cent nationally, according to another poll released by the Association for Canadian Studies.

Amid widespread fears that September will ignite a punishing second wave of infections, even as many businesses teeter on the brink because of lockdown measures, it remains to be seen whether aggression or caution will pay off. But in the meantime, Quebec has clearly shown where it stands – and how it stands apart.

“This thing is drawing out our predispositions,” Mr. Jedwab said. “It’s as though it’s a part of our distinct society.”

For the Association for Canadian Studies and Léger surveys, no margin of error can be associated with this type of web panel, however a telephone poll of comparable size to the ACS studies would have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.52 per cent, 19 times out of 20. For the Léger surveys, a telephone poll of comparable size would have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.09 per cent, 19 times out of 20. For the Abacus Data survey, the comparable margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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