The Federation: Is Canadian Federalism Fit to Meet the Challenges of the Future?

Scott Surphlis

National anniversaries often act as symbolic moments of reflection and reawakening. Indeed, Canada’s 150th anniversary has proven to be no different.

Fifty years ago, centennial euphoria swept the nation. A political awakening would follow, one that would push the federation to confront the divisions that lay below the shimmer of Canada’s colonial veneer.

Fifty years later, Canadian policy finds itself once more at a critical juncture. Seeking to address this transition, opinion leaders from across the country came together at the “Canada’s Policy Transformation” conference.

On a thought-provoking panel entitled “The Federation: Is Canadian federalism fit to meet the challenges of the future?”, Jean Leclair, Jeremy Webber, and Kathryn Harrison provided some illuminating insights into a re-energized federation, but also one that finds itself in the midst of another dramatic shift in history. The speakers noted that federalism, an inescapable fact of Canada’s politics, had been mentioned in almost every topic that had been previously explored at the conference.

Recognized as one of the foremost experts of federalism in Canada, Jean Leclair began by casting a critical eye on the current perceptions of the federation and the constitution.

He noted that by “interpreting the law as a noun, rather than a verb,” Canadians have failed to grasp the relationships at the heart of the constitutional framework. The law cannot be summarized simply as authority, but as a continuous set of actions that form and reform the relationships among Canadians. In turn, for federalism to function, it must be understood as a political system that allows for a “well of connections between governments and citizens.”

Leclair said that federalism and the constitution have severely limited the autonomy of Indigenous peoples over the last fifty years.

A failure to reimagine constitutional law will also have dire repercussions for the environment. To meet these challenges of the future, Leclair noted that Canadians cannot accept a constitutional vision composed of ideological shortcuts and contradictory definitions.

He highlighted the role that the judiciary can play in reshaping traditional constitutional norms; federal judges, he said, can draw out invisible actors and define them. Non-human entities in nature could and should be incorporated as legal entities, for example – a concept that was recently seen in New Zealand’s decision to recognize the Whanganui River as holding legal rights. If artificial entities like companies can recognized by law as a legal person, then why can’t the land be afforded the same treatment?

In closing, Leclair stressed the importance of a renewed approach to constitutional thinking. While a state’s sovereignty may be jurisdictionally defined “as a monopoly to decide” in the conflict between humanity and nature, it will ultimately be nature that has the last word.

Jeremy Webber, Dean of Law at the University of Victoria, then spoke about how a federation’s ability to organize democratic agency at each tier of government is a measure of its health. Dean Webber distinguished the federation as a system of governance that acts a vehicle to promote citizen participation while also facilitating the two-way flow of benefits between governments and citizens.

Webber said that long-term balance in the federation would depend on a combination of healthy democratic engagement, income equality, and the maintenance of a social contract between government and its citizens.

Civic alienation and the erosion of federal allegiance, he said, are largely seen as the result of the federal government failing to allocate benefits and burdens equally. Perceptions of skewed distribution of benefits among provinces, deception within the social contract for economic gain, and undermining principles of basic fairness are all damaging elements that will result in political disengagement. He pointed explicitly to the failure of previous governments to promote strong democratic agency within younger generations and the disenfranchisement of First Nations as symptoms of this erosion of trust.

The tools for ensuring greater equality in Canada, said Dean Webber, largely reside in the federal dimension. In his concluding remarks, he noted how the federal government’s responsibility for the north as well as for both taxation and transfers will be the of utmost importance in maintaining the societal fairness that citizens demand.

As the final presentation for the panel, Kathryn Harrison reflected on the three-way relationship between the Canadian economy, natural resources, and intergovernmental relationships. Dr. Harrison, a political science professor at UBC who also has a degree in chemical engineering, analyzed why natural resources influence intergovernmental relationships and evaluated future policy alternatives.

She stressed the role that natural resources have always played as fundamental components of Canada’s development. In 1967, with oil becoming an economic driver for the nation, Canadians viewed Alberta’s tar sands as the next great land of opportunity.

Since then, intergovernmental conflicts have arisen over provinces’ fight for regional autonomy and the battle over natural resource revenues between both levels of government. The jurisdictional authority that provinces exert over their natural resources has often conflicted with federal taxation and environmental policies.

However, Dr. Harrison noted that the life cycle of Canadian bitumen exports is gradually approaching its end as demand for oil shrinks on the global market and Canada’s trading partners begin to recognize the environmental costs of producing it.

According to Dr. Harrison, the decline of oil exports has some grave implications for both intergovernmental relations and the Canadian economy. When it comes to ambitious carbon reduction efforts at home, interprovincial conflicts are particularly fierce and divisive. As for the future of the Canadian economy, she explained that clean energy is unlikely but that a transition to exporting innovative human resources may be a more realistic possibility.

Since 1967, new social realities and economic developments have worked to inspire distinct, regional identities amongst the backdrop of a national project to reinvent the modern Canadian identity.

Is the federation fit to meet the challenges of the future? Considering the way that federalism permeates virtually all policy areas and requires governments to work together, the panelists demonstrated how it will be at the centre of any transformation in Canadian policymaking.

Overall, they advocated for a new way of thinking about federalism, a flexible approach that can address intergovernmental challenges and allow Canada to succeed for the next 150 years.

Scott Surphlis is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in History and English Literature from Queen’s University. Most recently, he completed his internship at the Ontario Ministry of Finance. A passionate and proud politics nerd, his policy interests include exploring the complexities of intergovernmental affairs, financial regulations, national defence, and the intersection of law and policy.