Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Québec and the Workings of Canadian Federalism

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With the election of a pro-sovereignty party in Québec last September, the questions about Québec’s future within the Canadian federation have once again surfaced.  While there is no referendum about Québec’s future on the horizon—in part because the ruling Parti Québécois made only a vague commitment in last year’s election campaign to conduct such an exercise, and in part because the Parti Québécois forms a minority government in the National Assembly—it is appropriate to look at the workings of Canadian federalism and see how Québec has accommodated itself within the system.

It is useful to remember that all three countries in North America are federations: Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.  All three federalist systems operate differently.  There is not a “one size fits all” brand of federalism.  In the last 50 years, all three federations have had their challenges.  Regional tensions, jurisdictional battles and the aspirations of federated states like Québec have contributed to changes in how these federations operate.  Of the three North American federations, Canada is the most decentralized—in fact, it is one of the most decentralized countries in the world.

Canada’s federation has a defined distribution of powers, some exclusive to each order of government—either federal or provincial—and some shared between the two.  Economics, culture, immigration, and the environment are shared jurisdictions.  All powers not enumerated in Canada’s federal constitution are relegated to the central government through what is called the residual clause. 

Despite this more decentralized federation, disputes have periodically surfaced within Canada when central government policies affect provincial jurisdictions through federal spending power or the development of new programs.  Since Canada’s creation as a federation in 1867, we have undergone periods of centralizing federal policies as well as periods of greater provincial autonomy. In Canada as in other federations, the Supreme Court has often been called to adjudicate these disputes.  The federated state of Québec has been at the center of these conflicts more than any other, always arguing to protect existing powers or add new jurisdictions.Over the years, we have seen individual provinces assert themselves very effectively, especially in economic areas, contributing to the overall prosperity of the country.  Ontario was originally the manufacturing and industrial heartland of Canada, Alberta has become the oil and gas capital of the country, and Québec has emerged as the principal producer of hydroelectric energy in North America.  In recent years, some of the poorer provinces, such as Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, have transformed into richer provinces because of a strong demand for their natural resources (oil, gas, potash).

While the politics surrounding Canadian federalism has its detractors, it has largely served the purpose of the founding fathers.  Through a vibrant democracy, Canada’s federalist framework has kept the country united while embracing its growing diversity and pluralism.  Canada today has a constitutionally-protected official languages policy (French and English), provincial ownership of natural resources (codified in the constitution), a policy of multiculturalism, a national health care program administered fully by the provinces, a Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees political and civil rights, a decentralized immigration policy that gives Canada’s only French-speaking majority province greater authority in selecting and integrating immigrants, and a federal parliament that has formally recognized Québec as a nation within the Canadian federation.

To better comprehend the current state of Canadian federalism, one can look at how Québec—with its French-speaking majority population and its unique French character—has functioned within the federation.  While successive Québec governments have constantly pushed for reform of the federation and have not always been successful in obtaining constitutional change, they have maximized the use of Québec’s provincial jurisdictions and shared powers to make Québec an enviable society in terms of social programs, economic development, cultural programs, energy, and environmental progress—all while affirming Québec on the international stage.  Asymmetrical federalism, a constitutionally-guaranteed program of financial equalization, natural resources development, and the creation of the Council of the Federation (a forum of 10 provinces and territorial governments) all represent some of the means used by Québec governments to develop within the Canadian federation.

In 1982, however—after years of trying to amend the Canadian constitution to provide successive Québec governments with more autonomy and power—the federal government of the day and nine provinces were unable to secure Québec’s approval for constitutional reform. Québec believed that the Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms was encroaching on some of its jurisdictions and refused to sign.  Subsequent efforts to obtain Québec’s signature between 1986 and 1992 failed to be ratified.  This remains an outstanding issue affecting the stability of the Canadian federation.

This being said, has Québec’s refusal to sign the 1982 Constitutional Accord prevented it from affirming its French language character and its priorities for the well-being of its citizens?  The answer will largely depend on whether you are a federalist or a sovereignist.

This much is certain: Québec is able to defend (and promote) its French character through legislation and cultural policies; it has developed the  most extensive social safety net in Canada, including the largest network of public daycare facilities; it has been able to sign binding agreements with the federal government in manpower training and immigration; it has the jurisdiction to develop its natural resources—its future in oil and shale gas looks promising despite environmental concerns—and its provincial partners represent the largest market for Québec products outside of the United States.  Finally, Québec has raised its international profile as no other federated state in the world has done by promoting its own jurisdictions and its shared ones.  It is not perfect, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good when it comes to Québec and the workings of Canadian federalism.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

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