Centralism Masquerading as Federalism

Worth A Look, Equalization, Frontier Centre

Earlier this month Martha Hall Findlay opened a series of National Post guest columns by Liberal leadership candidates. In her article, she swam briefly into the deep end of the pool by tackling the meaning of federalism. Her performance, however, was less than athletic.

To Findlay, federalism means Ottawa setting the social, economic and cultural priorities of the country, and making provinces deliver them to Ottawa’s satisfaction. She calls for a “strong central government,” which sets “minimum standards” in health, education, human rights, quality of life, preschool care and development of our national soul. It doesn’t matter, she says, whether or not the provinces (which have exclusive constitutional jurisdiction in most of these areas) agree.

This is to her the meaning of federalism—and not only to her, but to the Liberal Party of Canada going all the way back through Pearson to Mackenzie King. In fact, this isn’t “federalism” at all, but centralism, and it’s not what the founders of our country wanted. Nor is it working particularly well.

Has it united us? No, we are far more regionally resentful than before it began.

Has it made us more prosperous? No, it’s clear that all regions would be more productive, prosperous and self-reliant without it.

Has it served the cause of “responsible government,” so dear to our founders? No, it has created an executive arm at both levels beyond effective control of our elected assemblies—the same tyranny it took our ancestors in the 1800s three generations to defeat.

Our constitutional train-wreck came in two stages. First came the aggressive social centralization of power after the Depression, with the establishment in the 1950s of federal UI, baby bonuses, old age security and equalization. These were plainly contrary to the terms and logic of our 1867 federal union, which (for good reason, as it turns out) assigned all responsibility for social and economic development to each province individually. Not just to administer it — to pay for it.

As this new social centralization expanded in the 1960s into federal medicare, pensions, welfare, post-secondary education and urban and economic development, there was (literally) an explosive reaction in Québec. It was exactly what Québec had always feared—a raw usurpation of provincial rights by Canada’s English majority.

To its credit, French Québec fought back. Unfortunately, it produced a secession movement—the first potent one since the rebellion of the Patriotes against the English colonial ruling class in 1837.

The only answer Ottawa could invent was the pernicious but plausible untruth that federalism is not a limited union of 10 provinces, but an unlimited sovereign merging in Ottawa of two “founding nations.” It was an end-run against the federal principle of provincial rights and responsibility that built our country. All three national parties adopted this new myth, because it was the only way they could rationalize centralizing provincial powers in Ottawa while dealing with the vehement response it provoked in Québec.

Québecers didn’t mind that this new national regime was socialist. They objected that it was centralist and beyond their control. Nor have they ever been reassured by the arbitrary and ridiculous side-deals by which Ottawa must forever assuage them.

In short, we have worked into our constitution an impossible contradiction between the responsibilities and rights of provinces on one hand and Ottawa on the other. To borrow a famous phrase, we have become two opposing doctrines—federalism versus centralism—warring in the bosom of a single constitution.

As a country, we must choose. Will we be the bicultural country recently contrived by Pearson and Trudeau, or the one that provinces voluntarily confederated 139 years ago? We can’t be both.

Link Byfield, the chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy and an Alberta senator-elect, can be reached at contact@ccfd.ca. This article originally appeared in theNational Post, May 16, 2006.