Book Review: Challenges To Canadian Federalism

Challenges To Canadian Federalism, edited by Martin Westmacott and Hugh Mellon

There are a few essential problems with Canadian federalism.  One of them is that it was done in stark contrast to American federalism and that the effort lacked the sort of popular legitimacy that has made the American republic more enduring (if not without conflict itself).  Another problem, and it is one that appears often in this particular book from a variety of different writers, is that the Canadian constitution has failed to present a way to harmonize the very conflicting goals of the different provinces and territories, namely the desire of Quebec to be seen as the equal of the rest of Canada, smaller provinces to have a Senate where they have an equal voice, and the goal of Western Canadian provinces to reduce the influence of Quebec to a tolerable level while also allowing the opportunity for their growth to increase their power relative to Ontario and Quebec.  As a result Canada has seen repeated efforts at Constitutional reform that have continued to fail because of an inability to make compromises that can satisfy all of the parties involved.  The result has been a sense of malaise within Canada and the near secession of Quebec on two occasions.

This book is about 200 pages long and it is divided into six parts and numerous essays with a wide variety of writers, some of whom have been involved in the politics of attempting to secure a constitutional peace between the different provinces and all of which have been, so far at least, unsuccessful.  The book begins with an introduction that provides a roadmap to the world of federalism from one of the book’s editors (1).  After that there are three papers that discuss federalism and political culture by contrasting Canada and the United States, look at federalism as an aspect of fraternity by (strangely) using the French Revolution, and then look at regional alienation from the federal government (2).  After that there are two essays that look at political institutions under Canadian federalism like political parties and the justice system (3).  This leads to a look at the constitutional politics of attempts at direct democracy as well as the unsuccessful Charlottetown accord as well as the 1995 referendum on Quebec secession that was very narrowly defeated (4).  Three authors then take a look at federalism and public policy including broadcasting, social policy, and the GST (5).  The last section of the book then contains three essays that look at challenges and future directions, including the role of Quebec, a retrospective look at the failed Meech Lake Accord and reflecting on the possibility of a world without Canada (6).

Admittedly, there are few people outside of Canada who are interested in questions of Canadian identity and politics [1].  But for those people who are interested in the difficulties one has in making constitutional deals after the fact that are designed to lower tensions and find it hard to impossible to come up with terms that will be at least minimally acceptable to everyone, this book demonstrates some of the challenges that have been faced with regards to Canadian federalism.  In attempting to create a system that would not have America’s own constitutional flaws and struggles they failed to account for some of the divisive tendencies within their own nation, whether one looks at the conflict between small and large provinces, or the issue of French desires to have its culture protected and honored, or the irritation that non-French Canadians have with French desires for special treatment within the federation.  Federalist solutions exist for a reason, and it is very difficult to change them and re-balance them after having made initial deals and compromises.  Canada is certainly a case study in such difficulties.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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