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Territorial Tensions in the Canadian Federation

Published: 20 August 2019

Ahead of Canada's federal elections, André Lecours of the University of Ottawa assesses the prospects of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party, in the face of electoral instability.

The formation of the Justin Trudeau federal Liberal government in 2015 marked a sharp departure from the preceding Conservative government led by the rather taciturn Stephen Harper. Having seemingly inherited some of the charisma of his famous father, the new Prime Minister promised ‘sunny ways’ and a progressive agenda centered around strong climate change policy, reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples, and unwavering support for diversity and multiculturalism. At the time of the 2015 federal election, the landscape of the country showed a multitude of provinces governed by like-minded progressive parties, which facilitated the governance of the federation. Four years later, the political situation has changed in many provinces, including in the key provinces of Ontario, Québec, and Alberta, thereby bringing significant challenges to the federal Liberal government as it is preparing for an election in the fall of 2019.  

On June 7 2018, the Liberal Ontario government of Kathleen Wynne, a close ally of Prime Minister Trudeau, was soundly defeated by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party led by Doug Ford. The new Premier had been critical of the Prime Minister before the provincial election. At the broadest level, they are very different politicians. Many have called Doug Ford (the brother of the late infamous mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, who had made international news for his crack smoking) a populist for his anti-establishment discourse and some head-scratching political promises (such as the buck-a-beer idea). Justin Trudeau, of course, is the son of (arguably) Canada’s most famous Prime Minister. Most importantly, the new Ontario government came to power opposing a centerpiece of the federal Liberal government’s policy agenda: the carbon tax, that is, a tax levied on greenhouse gas emissions. The Trudeau government had promised to implement a federal carbon tax in provinces that did not already have their own. That tax came into force on April 1 2019 in Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Doug Ford ran in the Ontario election fiercely opposing the federal carbon tax. The Ford government challenged the constitutionality of the federal carbon tax in court, arguing this legislation was beyond the powers of the federal Parliament. After the Ontario Court of Appeal sided with the federal government in the summer of 2019, Premier Ford vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada unless the fall federal elections lead to a change in government (Conservative leader Andrew Sheer has promised to eliminate the carbon tax if his party takes power).

On October 1 2018, the Québec election yielded, for the first time in almost 50 years, a government formed by another party than the Liberals or the Parti québécois (PQ). The new government of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a self-described autonomist nationalist party, has presented some new challenges to the Trudeau government. Although the CAQ is not (contrary to the PQ) a secessionist party, it has more actively sought increased autonomy than its predecessor government formed by the Québec Liberal party (for example, asking for a single- Québec- tax return instead of the two tax returns Quebeckers now file). The CAQ campaigned on a reduction of immigration, which has led to some difficult conversations with the federal government (immigration is a shared field). The biggest source of tension with the federal government has been the CAQ government’s laïcité (secularism) legislation, which forbids state employees to wear religious garb or symbols when at work. Prime Minister Trudeau has condemned the legislation, feeling it undermines the rights of Canadians living in Québec. One question that remains is if the federal government will join the court challenge against the legislation, as many opponents of the law wish. Doing so would certainly ratchet up tensions with the Québec government.

On April 16 2019, the United Conservative Party of Alberta won a parliamentary majority, signalling a return to a difficult relationship with Ottawa. The campaign of Alberta Conservative leader Jason Kenney (a former federal Conservative Minister) featured several diatribes against the federal government for its failure to support the expansion of pipelines for the purpose of bringing Alberta oil westward and/or eastward to Asian and European markets respectively. Premier Kenney has argued that the federal (and many provincial) governments’ lack of cooperation on pipelines is unfair since Alberta oil is a major source of wealth for the whole of the country. Kenney has also threatened to hold a referendum in his province on equalization (a federal program that brings poorer provinces to an average fiscal capacity), presumably to generate leverage against the federal government. The pipeline issue is arguably the most delicate in Canadian politics; the federal Liberal government’s commitment to a strong climate change policy seems antithetical to the expansion of pipelines, yet refusal to deliver on such expansion stokes the fire of Western alienation in Alberta (as well as in Saskatchewan).

Parties are not integrated across levels of government in Canada, and Canadian have been known to support different parties at federal and provincial elections. Should the Liberal Party of Canada form another government, the governance of the federation promises to be particularly challenging in the coming years considering the presence of unfriendly governments in key provinces.  

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