Re­view by Ge­off Norquay Ri­vals for Power: Ottawa and the Prov­inces

Policy - - In This Issue - by Ed Whit­comb

Ed Whit­comb

Ri­vals for Power: Ottawa and the Prov­inces. Toronto, Lorimer & Com­pany, 2017

Ed Whit­comb is a re­tired fed­eral pub­lic ser­vant whose for­eign ser­vice ca­reer ex­posed him to four dif­fer­ent fed­eral states around the world: Yu­goslavia, In­done­sia, In­dia and, of course, Canada. In a sub­se­quent ca­reer, he was the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s se­nior in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst for Afghanistan, Pak­istan, In­dia and Sri Lanka, all of which “suf­fered from se­ri­ous re­gional, re­li­gious, and eth­nic di­vi­sions that cried out for de­cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment.”

Clearly, Whit­comb is em­i­nently qual­i­fied to write a his­tory of Canadian fed­er­al­ism, and he has done a fine job. Ri­vals for Power is a metic­u­lously re­searched book that be­gins with a quick in­tro­duc­tion to the the­o­ries of fed­er­al­ism.

As Whit­comb notes, aca­demics have used at least 15 ad­jec­tives to de­scribe Canadian fed­er­al­ism over the years: “asym­met­ri­cal, au­then­tic, clas­si­cal, col­lab­o­ra­tive, com­pet­i­tive, con­fed­eral, con­fronta­tional, con­sti­tu­tional, co-op­er­a­tive, flex­i­ble, gen­uine, mixed, open, quasi-, sub­or­di­nate, sym­met­ri­cal, and uni­lat­eral.” Thank­fully for the reader, Whit­comb does not get bogged down in th­ese def­i­ni­tions, and lets the his­tory tell the story, which he de­scribes in com­pletely ac­ces­si­ble lan­guage. Much later in the text, he does ar­rive at a work­ing def­i­ni­tion of the re­al­i­ties of fed­er­al­ism as prac­tised in Canada: “Fed­er­al­ism is char­ac­ter­ized by com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the cen­tre and the prov­inces as each regime strives to main­tain or in­crease its power, en­sure its re-elec­tion, and sat­isfy the needs and de­mands of its con­stituents.” That’s a pretty ac­cu­rate sum­ma­tion! After sev­eral chap­ters that de­scribe the cre­ation of con­fed­er­a­tion, Canada’s fed­eral state and the Con­sti­tu­tion, he plots the tor­tu­ous process through which the next three prov­inces— Man­i­toba, Bri­tish Columbia and Prince Ed­ward Is­land—joined Canada, and the gov­ern­ments of Sir. John A. Mac­don­ald and Sir Wil­frid Lau­rier, which be­gan the task of defin­ing how con­fed­er­a­tion would work.

If there is a cen­tral theme to this book, it is a fa­mil­iar one—the im­bal­ance cre­ated in 1867 be­tween the re­spec­tive rev­enues and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the prov­inces. In Mac­don­ald’s and Lau­rier’s time, the fights be­tween Ottawa and the prov­inces were all over fed­eral sub­si­dies to make up for the fis­cal dif­fer­ence, but in 1927, the mod­ern era of fed­er­al­ism be­gan with Ottawa’s cre­ation of the Old Age Se­cu­rity pro­gram.

The re­sponse of the prov­inces to the fed­eral use of its spend­ing power to en­ter pro­vin­cial ju­ris­dic­tion was pre­dictable: some op­posed it, oth­ers de­ferred and Québec ar­gued the new pro­gram was un­con­sti­tu­tional, but all ul­ti­mately joined on “be­cause they could not re­main aloof.” As Whit­comb sum­ma­rizes, “Ex­clu­sive’ pro­vin­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity for wel­fare ceased to ex­ist and the most sig­nif­i­cant prece­dent for chang­ing the con­sti­tu­tion had been es­tab­lished, but the spend­ing power was never le­git­imized by a for­mal amend­ment to the BNA Act.” The im­bal­ance be­tween fis­cal re­sources and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties was hugely ex­ac­er­bated by the Sec­ond World War: “To help fi­nance the war, the prov­inces al­lowed Ottawa to col­lect their taxes and re­turn a fixed amount to cover their ex­penses, which were ba­si­cally frozen. Dur­ing the war, Ottawa’s rev­enue and spend­ing vastly in­creased, cre­at­ing an enor­mous shift in the bal­ance be­tween the bud­gets and the power of the prov­inces and Ottawa,” writes Whit­comb. Through the rosy lens of his­tory, to­day we tend to see the 1960s as a golden age of fed­eral-pro­vin­cial re­la­tions, as a time of tremen­dous cre­ativ­ity when the ar­chi­tec­ture of the mod­ern wel­fare state was put in place: the Canada and Que­bec Pen­sion Plans, hos­pi­tal in­sur­ance and ul­ti­mately Medi­care, and the Canada As­sis­tance Plan. As Whit­comb de­scribes it, the process was halt­ing, ac­ri­mo­nious and painful to watch. In some sit­u­a­tions, the pol­icy ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the prov­inces ex­ceeded those of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and Ottawa was forced to yield. At the same time, while the Med­i­cal Care Act was passed by Par­lia­ment in De­cem­ber 1966, sev­eral prov­inces had to be dragged kick­ing and scream­ing to adopt Medi­care, and it took un­til 1971 for all to join the pro­gram that has be­come the hall­mark of Canadian ci­ti­zen­ship. As Whit­comb notes, Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau did much to please the prov­inces when he re­leased them from the straight-jacket of shared cost pro­grams in 1976-77 by mov­ing to a new fi­nanc­ing formula based on “a com­bi­na­tion of 50 per cent grants and 50 per cent tax abate­ments. The money still had to be spent on the three shared cost pro­grams, but in ef­fect the prov­inces could spend the half that came from tax abate­ments al­most any way they chose….The new sys­tem gave all the prov­inces greater flex­i­bil­ity and met many of their con­cerns.”

By the time Pierre Trudeau took of­fice, the so­cial pol­icy re­form era was largely over and the Con­sti­tu­tion and nat­u­ral re­source is­sues took cen­tre stage in fed­eral-pro­vin­cial dis­cus­sions for the next 25 years. While fight­ing a pitched bat­tle over Al­berta’s oil rev­enues, Trudeau suc­cess­fully repa­tri­ated the Con­sti­tu­tion, al­beit with­out the con­sent of Que­bec. That fail­ure led di­rectly to

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