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Shared government: federalism is a method of governing seen as providing harmony among peoples with ethnic, cultural, or religious differences but who want to live under the same political system.

There are two basic ways of organizing the governing of democratic nations. Unitary states have a single, central government that is all-powerful. There will also likely be local governments, but they exist only under the control of the central authority. In a unitary state, any local units can be created or abolished, and have their powers changed, by the central government. China and France are two of the many countries governed under the unitary system.

Federal states are those where power and authority is shared among a central, national government and one or more regional governments. Sovereignty is split between the two levels so that units at each level have final authority and can act independently of the others in some areas. Overarching both levels is a national constitution. There also needs to be a strong and independent judiciary whose job is to settle the disputes over powers that are almost guaranteed to break out between levels.

Federal government tends to be used in those countries that are very large geographically--Canada, Russia, the United States. Another factor that makes federal government practical is diversity. Where there are a number of distinct geographic and cultural regions a federation is a good system for accommodating those differences.

Many federal states have elements of unitary states built into their systems. Canada is federal, but the provinces are unitary. Municipalities are creatures of the provincial governments; if they run into serious trouble municipal councils can be fired and the local government run by the province. However, provinces cannot bc shut down and ruled directly by the federal government.

And, just to make everything even more confusing, there are confederations. Today's experts in government usually agree that a confederation is an association of sovereign states.

The European Union is a confederation in which the sub-units (countries such as Portugal, Italy, Poland, etc.) have a great deal of authority. For example, member states can quit the confederation if they wish and the central government only has authority in areas the sub-units grant to it.

Government in Canada is built upon the Constitution. The Constitution Act of 1982 came into force on 17 April of that year. This Act was itself an addition to the British North America (BNA) Act of 1867, the legal instrument that created Canada.

In the drafting of the BNA, the Fathers of Confederation wanted to create a country with a strong central government. They also wanted the provinces to be able to protect themselves from domination by one another. Prior to 1867, there had been decades of tension between the English and French communities. The idea was that a federation could maintain the identity, the distinct culture, and the special institutions of each of the federating provinces or colonies.

At the same time, by joining together as a nation they would be stronger and more able to resist the growing power of the United States.

So, Ottawa was given exclusive power over national defence, international trade, the currency, citizenship, Native people, and matters involving other countries.

The provinces have sole jurisdiction over natural resources, hospitals, education, marriage, property and civil rights within the province, and municipal institutions.

The provinces and federal government share control of agriculture, pensions, immigration, and some other areas. Justice and criminal courts also fall into both jurisdictions depending on the nature of the offence.

No provincial legislature can take over powers belonging to the Parliament of Canada. Nor can any provincial legislature pass an Act taking the province out of Canada without consultation with the rest of the country. This works both ways; Ottawa cannot take over any power of a provincial legislature.

The provinces are also protected from bullying by the federal government through the Senate. Seats in the Senate are assigned to ensure representation by the provinces. However, the fact that Senators are appointed rather than elected weakens their authority.

Anything not specifically spelled out in the Constitution is the responsibility of the federal government. In the jargon of constitutional experts these are called "residual powers." In addition to Canada, only India and Nigeria follow this practice; all other federations assign residual powers to the provinces or states.

On the surface, it looks as though these residual powers give Ottawa a lot of clout over the provinces. That's only on the surface.

Over the years, the courts have tended to support provincial authority. For example, provincial power over "property and civil rights" covers all labour law except for a few industries (banking, telephones, shipping, etc.) that are federal. Social security (except Employment Insurance and the shared control of pensions) is also provincial.

However, the national government has elbowed its way into some provincial areas of responsibility. Health care is an example. Ottawa makes financial grants to the provinces to help pay for running hospitals and training and hiring nurses and doctors. The provinces are happy to accept the federal money but, in return, they are supposed to meet certain national standards of delivering health care that have been set by Ottawa.

Other federally constituted countries organize themselves in a variety of ways.

Australia followed a similar path to Canada's. It began as a number of self-governing British colonies, uniting under a federal constitution in 1901. Today, the federation has six states, two mainland territories, and several offshore territories.

The founders of the Australian federation rejected the Canadian model of a centralized distribution of powers. Instead, they chose to give residual powers to the states. However, Australia has evolved into a more centralized state, especially with respect to financial powers.

At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided between East and West. In 1990, the two parts were reunited under a single constitution, called the Basic Law. Germany's upper house, known as the Bundesrat, has more influence than Canada's Senate. Its members are Premiers or senior cabinet ministers from the states, called Lander. This means that the states have a direct role in federal decision-making.

Belgium, as a sovereign state, has existed only since 1830, when it was split from the Netherlands. For most of its history it was a unitary state. It is a multilingual society, composed of large Dutch- and French-speaking populations who don't get along. The feuds between the two groups got so bad that the country has moved to a federal system. The switch was achieved in stages starting in 1970. While the country of Belgium still exists on paper, it is really two separate states. As Lysiane Gagnon of La Presse has noted: "The Belgian model promotes division and endless nurturing of old resentments."

However, there is hope for Belgium and all other federal states. The system lends itself to tinkering. If one way of doing things doesn't work out, it can be changed. The federal method of governing is not carved in stone.


John Ibbitson wrote in The Globe and Mail in November 2004 that: "In the 1950s and '60s, Ottawa repeatedly interfered infields of provincial jurisdiction: in health care, in welfare, in higher education, in housing, in transportation. In each case, federal politicians, backed by high-minded newspaper editorialists, proclaimed the need for this national program or that. Invariably, the federal government negotiated a shared-cost program with the provinces based on national standards of delivery.

But then the 1970s arrived, and the oil shocks, and suddenly Ottawa had less money and new priorities. The conditional grants were rolled into a single transfer, and then that transfer was cut, year after year, until, by the late 19904 the federal contribution to social programs bordered on insignificant, even though the federal restrictions remained."

Mr. Ibbitson wrote these comments in connection with the federal child-care program then being touted by Social Development Minister Ken Do,den. The columnist warned provincial governments not to sign on to the plan: "You'd be fools to let Ottawa dupe you once again," he wrote.

Discuss this view of federal provincial relations.


Council of the Federation--http://www. Forum of Federations-- default.asp?lang=en Federations of the World-- aia/default.asp? Language=E&page= federationworld&sub= federationsmapsandfactsh


The unitary system of government is used by 88 percent of the world's nations.


The German political theorist Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) is given credit as the father of modern federalism.

RELATED ARTICLE: Same old, same old?

Every summer, Canada's provincial and territorial premiers have been getting together for a two-day meeting. The gathering has usually descended into a session of Ottawa-bashing, with leaders complaining about not getting enough money from the reds.

An attempt has been made to overcome the annual squabbling. In 2003, the premiers set up The Council of the Federation, designed by Quebec's Premier Jean Charest. He wanted it to be a place for "the continuous dialogue and cooperation between the provinces and the federal government that would make it possible to redefine our economic and social relations."

In 2004, the focus was on improving health care. The Council says its efforts pulled another $2 billion in health funding out of Ottawa. In 2005, the Council has made the "fiscal imbalance" the centre of its attention. It has appointed a five-person panel to "look at ways to ensure that provinces and territories have the resources to provide services that are vital to the well-being and prosperity of Canadians."

It goes on to say "The term 'fiscal imbalance' has two aspects:

* "Vertical fiscal imbalance refers to a gap between revenue sources and spending responsibilities between orders of government. It means that one order of government collects more tax dollars than it needs to support its responsibilities, crowding out the ability of the other order of government to raise the revenue it needs to fund its responsibilities;

* "Horizontal fiscal imbalance refers to the differences in the ability of provinces/territories to raise revenues to meet the needs of their citizens. It means there is some disparity in the ability of individual provinces and territories to deliver comparable, high quality services."

RELATED ARTICLE: Holding together.

Federations frequently develop as a way of stopping separatist threats from geographically clustered minorities. Belgium is one such federation in which Walloons (French speaking) and Flemings (Dutch speaking) live together in a single nation. Spain is a federation that has had to find room for many minorities--Catalans, Galicians, Castilians, and others. The Spanish have found it convenient to give power in unequal measures to some regions; the experts call this asymmetrical federalism. Canada too uses asymmetrical federalism as a way of keeping Quebec separatism at bay. Sometimes, arrangements such as these are called "Holding together" federations.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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