Centralization: Canada’s Cure – or Problem?

It is a common complaint, although not one heard in Quebec or Alberta, that federal Conservatives want to turn the federal government into a waiter in attendance at the provinces’ table.

Andrew Coyne, in an article published in the National Post on December 23, 2005 is dismayed that none of the political parties defends the supposed ever-decaying prerogatives of the federal government. It is unsurprising that letters to the editor supporting Coyne’s centralism all came from Toronto. The stereotypical Torontonian sees the rest of Canada as groping its way ineffectually towards Toronto’s values and standards. However, Coyne goes too far in suggesting that a centralized federation is our historical (as well as desirable) status.

Both our history, until the 1960s, and constitution reflect a decentralized confederation. The minor provincial (i.e., Quebec) incursions into external affairs are minuscule compared with federal invasion of provincial powers, notably in education and health care.

The federal government moved into education in the 1960s, with matching capital grants for new vocational facilities. The unintended effect was to subsidize the rich provinces – they could afford their half of the cost. Centralization was greatly accelerated in Pierre Trudeau’s time in a number of ways. The constitutional changes, notably the Charter and its empowerment of a permanently liberal Supreme Court, initially headed by a chief justice who shared Trudeau’s political philosophy, provided a continuing barrier to regional and local autonomy. Inevitably, it became increasingly possible for the Court, in effect, to legislate – for example, by making alleged oral history compelling evidence in cases affecting native peoples and, most recently, by legalization of participation in sex clubs, extending a new Charter right to those adolescents of an age to agree to consensual sex. Regardless of one’s opinion of sex clubs, it is surely strange for the Supreme Court to be dealing with a problem better left to municipal authority. Montreal and Vancouver may well welcome them, but it is unlikely that they will be equally applauded in Langley, Woodstock (NB) and Wolfville.

However, the federal government does not depend solely on the courts to centralize power. Federally funded French immersion programs became popular in the 70s and 80s. The result? Most young anglophones and allophones in Quebec are bilingual. Competence in French peters out by the end of high school outside Quebec (and Ottawa). The top jobs in government therefore go to those educated in Quebec. The Liberal government’s day care proposals (including a hoped-for public monopoly) constituted a major new incursion into provincial (as well as private and domestic) territory. Giving them the name of early childhood education centres just rubs salt in the wound. Ironically, Quebec accepted the Liberal’s program, or, more precisely, the money that accompanied the program, as both sides agreed to the fiction that Quebec’s current day care program (a bargain for the middle classes) is a model for the country, just as it accepted federal health care money, without agreeing to the attachment of any strings.

At the same time as Trudeau set the path to power for the centre, he unintentionally encouraged division, by alienating both Quebec, not a party to the repatriation agreement, and (perhaps with a shrug rather than regret) Alberta, economically debilitated by the National Energy Program. There does indeed remain a fiscal imbalance today, despite the claim by centralizers that provinces can raise as much money as they want. The reality is that the closer one is to the taxpayer the harder it is to raise or add new taxes. Just ask Dalton McGuinty. The federal government’s high taxes afford profligate and careless spending in both its own and the provinces’ areas of jurisdiction, at the same time as it claims surprise at its large surpluses (which permit even more abusive federal spending), while the provinces are more frugal and more prone to deficits. As for the municipalities, with the exception of the big cities, their spending, even though sometimes inefficient, rarely escapes the eagle eye of the local taxpayer. In Canada, the delivery of water and the removal of snow are more effectively handled than the delivery of health care and the removal of criminal, illegal immigrants.

A strong case can be made for a loose confederation in a country as regionalized and pluralist as Canada. While some centralized federations, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, have been torn apart, decentralized and multilingual Switzerland has been a model of stability for nine hundred years of voluntary geographical expansion. Switzerland’s federal government manages to execute its federal responsibilities well – compare Switzerland’s integrated transport system or its highly effective military with Canada’s. From a practical point of view, were an anglophone prime minister from outside Quebec to attempt strong, genuine centralization (binding all provinces), the result would be an immediate departure by Quebec.

Canadians do have a choice, but it is not between a strong federation and a decentralized confederation, it is between decentralization and separation. Health care, with the latitude given to Quebec to develop its own system, illustrates the impossibility of more centralization. Even if Quebec chooses to separate, it is highly unlikely that the rest of Canada will then choose to be ruled by Toronto. Even the most obsequious politicians in have-not provinces, addicted to the federal teat as may be, have more sense than to agree to that.

Mark Holmes has degrees from the Universities of Cambridge, New Brunswick and Chicago. His most recent book, The Reformation of Canada’s Schools, was a runner-up Donner prize winner for the best book on public policy for 1998-99.