James Travers is a senior Ottawa columnist. In August 2005 he wrote that "... Understanding federalism is not a national strength. While gamely picking up all the bills, taxpayers rarely know who is responsible for what in a country that in 1867 divided powers to meet the needs of a world that soon began disappearing."
And, understanding who does what in Canada has become increasingly difficult recently. Provincial premiers have taken to going off on international trade missions, an area that used to be the exclusive preserve of the federal government. Meanwhile, Ottawa has been organizing funding for cities and a national childcare program, both issues that the provinces are supposed to deal with.
What is happening more and more is that Ottawa is designing a program and setting national standards. The provinces are then left to run the program in their own localities in the way in which they see fit.
So, the loose federation that is Canada is becoming looser still. Writing in The Globe and Mail, columnist John Ibbitson says this will please neither those who favour a strong central government nor those who champion strong provinces. Mr. Ibbitson, however, likes the change. "It gives Ottawa an appropriate and meaningful role in establishing and monitoring national standards in areas of vital interest to Canadians, while accepting the limited role the Constitution assigns the federal government in those areas."
It might even reduce the amount of squabbling among the various levels of government that often breaks out.
Two decades earlier Andrew Malcolm spotted this tendency among Canadians to get crabby with each other. Mr. Malcolm had been sent to Canada by his employer, The New York Times. At the end of his spell here, he published a book--The Canadians (ISBN: 0312069219). In it he wrote:
"As Canada's political leaders long ago discovered whenever they tried to fashion a single national policy on any issue from oil to the wording of the national anthem, these varied, sprawling, separate kingdoms have few things in common with each other save their dogged determination to remain separate and their abiding suspicion of each other."
The result is that Canadians have created what the experts call "asymmetrical federalism." To keep provinces and regions happy, deals have been cut to give one part of the country special treatment not available to all.
This has been going on a long time as Quebec's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoit Pelletier pointed out in an open letter in November 2004. He argued that the Fathers of Confederation rejected the idea of a unitary state for Canada in favour of the flexibility of federalism.
In 1867 and in constitutional changes since then, the French language was given special protection in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Manitoba. The English-speaking minority in Quebec was granted similar protection. Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, and Newfoundland were brought into the federation with special transportation guarantees. Quebec is the only province to use a civil law system inherited from France.
So, Mr. Pelletier is right; there's nothing new about flexible federalism in Canada.
"History shows," he wrote, "that, far from undermining national unity ... asymmetrical measures actually reduce tensions and internal resentment and calls for separation ...
"On the other hand, the perpetual conflict between central and local authorities, the restrictions imposed by one order of government over the other, and the unequal distribution of political powers and financial resources, have all too often fostered division and fragmentation."
Mr. Pelletier was trying to answer criticism that Ottawa gave away the store in a health-care agreement a couple of months earlier. Prime Minister Paul Martin and the premiers negotiated the deal in September 2004. Ottawa will put an additional $41 billion into the system over ten years. However, Quebec alone has the right to do what it wishes with the money received; also, it can set its own standards about quality of service and wait times.
Mr. Martin called this a triumph of "asymmetrical federalism."
Not everybody sees this as a success. Quebec Senator Serge Joyal was quoted by the CBC as saying that Mr. Martin has weakened Canada. He talked about a patchwork where Canadians have different rights and services depending upon where they live.
Another patch was added to the quilt a few months later. Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, got a promise from Prime Minister Paul Martin during the 2004 federal election campaigm. Now, he was holding Mr. Martin to his pledge.
Since becoming part of Canada in 1949, Newfoundland has received billions of dollars in support from Ottawa. After decades of hard times, the discoveD7 of oil in the North Atlantic off the coast of the island promised a change of fortune.
As the oil started coming ashore, Newfoundland began to rake in oil royalty revenue. The province was on the way to dropping its "have-not" status. That would mean no more equalization money flowing into Newfoundland from Canada's "have" provinces. Not so, said Mr. Williams. The Prime Minister had promised that the equalization dollars would still be mailed to St. John's after Newfoundland became a have province. This was needed, said the premier, to help the province build up its economy for the day when the wells run dry and the oil money stops coming in. That's going to happen in about 2012.
Danny Williams went to Ottawa in December 2004 to press his claim. He was given the cold shoulder and went back to St. John's spitting nails. That's when he ordered the Canadian flags removed from provincial buildings in protest.
Premier Williams enjoyed huge support among Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans. Prime Minister Paul Martin had to stand by his election promise, and extend the deal to include Nova Scotia.
There have been calls since then for new financial arrangements from Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec, and British Columbia.
So, the die has been cast for a looser federation. Next up, child care. During 2005, Social Development Minister Ken Dryden did the rounds of the provinces selling plans for a national childcare program. Quebec bought in to the program after some hard negotiating that gives the province some special privileges. It gets more money from Ottawa and it doesn't have to spend it on child care. Quebec can, instead use the money for "related objectives for the well-being of families."
The day after that story broke, in October 2005, The Globe and Mail ran the following headline: "East Coast premiers lobby for new deal on daycare dollars."
New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were the only provinces not signed up to the national child-care scheme. Bernard Lord, New Brunswick's premier told the newspaper: "I hope this will create an opening for us. If not, then the federal government will have to explain why one province can get no conditions and New Brunswick has to be dictated to by the federal government."
This is a feature of such flexible arrangements; everybody wants in on the deal. That would probably lead to that patchwork quilt of programs that bothers Senator Serge Joyal.
Federal child-care dollars might be used to pay for group day-care centres in downtown Vancouver.
In Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan they might want to use the money to compensate stay-at-home moms or dads. The government of PEI could choose to put the dollars into training early childhood education staff. While Ontario might put the funding into helping kids with special needs.
In other words, there would be no national child-care system at all. That might work just fine, but it would profoundly change the nature of the Canadian federation.
However, long-time Ottawa columnist Richard Gwyn says the federation has already changed dramatically. In October 2005, Mr. Gwyn wrote in The Toronto Star that "... the federal government no longer represents Canada.
"It's not, that's to say, our national government. It's a government, stuck up there in Ottawa, with certain specific responsibilities (an ever-diminishing number as the provinces take over more and more)."
Mr. Gwyn did not disguise the fact that he thought this was a rotten idea.
1. The voting patterns of the last few federal elections have sere mostly regionally based parties to Ottawa. Conservatives are strong in the West and weak elsewhere: Liberals are strong in Ontario and weak elsewhere: the Bloc Quebecois runs only in Quebec and takes nearly all the seats in that province. Discuss changes to the electoral system that might deliver a more "national" government to power.
2. Many observers say the reason Prime Minister Paul Martin is following the path of a looser federation is because he heads a minority government in Ottawa. The minority status weakens the federal government so that it cannot resist provincial demands for greater powers. Try to reach consensus on whether this is a good or a bad thing for Canada as a whole.
Newfoundland and Labrador Commission on Federalism--http://www.exec.gov.nl.ca/ royalcomm/
Royal Society of Canada (Asymmetrical Federalism)--http://www.rsc.ca/index. php? page=forum_af&lang_id=1 &page_id=196
Until late November 2005, Ottawa sent $800 to Ontario to help settle each immigrant while Quebec received $3,800 per immigrant. Just before the 2006 election call, the feds increased Ontario's transfer to $3,400 per immigrant.
RELATED ARTICLE: Back and forth.
Asymmetrical federalism has waxed and waned in popularity over time. During the years when Lester Pearson was prime minister (1963-68) flexibility was the order of the day. Quebec was given a special deal on taxation, hospital insurance, education, and welfare. Pierre Trudeau (prime minister from 1968-84) was a centralist. He believed in Canada having a strong central government with all provinces treated equally. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984-93) tried to secure special status for Quebec through the Meech Lake Accord and then the Charlottetown Accord. But, these agreements were shot down.
Then, the pendulum began to swing back in favour of flexible federalism. In 1997, provincial premiers signed the Calgary Declaration. This married the "unique character of Quebec society" to the equality of all individual Canadians and provinces. That sounds a bit like having it both ways, but it was a move away from the rigidity of one-size-fits-all federalism.
Under Paul Martin (prime minister since 2003), there has been a strong move towards asymmetrical federalism. This has happened with hardly a squeak of opposition from Canadians.
RELATED ARTICLE: Definition.
Federalism is about the combination of unity and diversity. Federalism scholars have for years used the terms of symmetry and asymmetry to describe institutional arrangements in federations or federal-type political associations, such as the European Union. These arrangements are symmetrical when the entities becoming united or being governed by a federal or central government are treated identically in law or policy. They're asymmetrical when the constituent units of a federation are treated unequally or not identically. From Ronald Watts, "A Comparative Perspective on Asymmetry in Federations," and John McGarry's, "Autonomy, Asymmetry and the Polynational State" unpublished paper, May 2005.