Image credit:  Alex Indigo, CC BY 2.0

Justin Trudeau and Canadian Federalism

Published: 27 October 2015

André Lecours, University of Ottawa, discusses how for the first time in decades, there is uncertainty about a new Canadian government's vision of federalism.

The formation of a Liberal government under the premiership of Justin Trudeau will more than likely involve a new approach to the management of the Canadian federation. Stephen Harper’s outgoing Conservative government liked to talk (at least in its early years) of ‘open federalism,’ an approach that saw the federal government keep out of provincial jurisdictions. The Harper government also preferred an extreme minimalist approach to intergovernmental relations, deciding to forgo the traditional First Ministers’ Meetings and generally limiting its contacts with the provinces to ad hoc bilateral meetings. Although Mr. Trudeau said very little during the electoral campaign about how his government would manage the Canadian federation, the workings of intergovernmental relations and the issue of the proper scope of action of each level of government are the two areas where change is the most probable.

Mr. Trudeau has stated his intention to work with provincial premiers. Presumably, this would involve a return to annual First Ministers’ Meetings and other, more regular, multilateral gatherings. This would be a welcome development; indeed, there are important issues facing Canada that could benefit from close collaboration between federal and provincial governments. For example, the implementation of the free-trade agreement signed with the European Union requires provincial involvement and, therefore, some forms of federal-provincial collaboration. Several pipeline projects are also on hold and determining the way forward more than likely involves a role for the federal government. The Harper government was strangely absent from discussions about how to transport Alberta oil to foreign markets, leaving it to the provinces to try to sort it out on their own. Yet, the pipeline projects are fraught with environmental and Aboriginal dimensions where the federal government has important constitutional responsibilities. The trans-provincial nature of the projects also seems to call for the federal government to take part in discussions on oil transport. Mr. Trudeau has reserved judgement on the Energy East pipeline (which would run oil from Alberta to Atlantic Canada) so the government’s position, and intergovernmental strategy, on this controversial project is still to come.

The Harper government’s vision of federalism entailed an almost exclusive focus on areas of constitutional jurisdiction that were the Government of Canada’s. This focus was helped by the fact that the government’s ideology meant its legislative and policy priorities where in such areas (for example, criminal law, macro-economic management, foreign affairs, citizenship). The Harper government believed that staying out of policy fields that were at least in part provincial would contribute positively to national unity by reducing tensions with the Québec government (something that seemed, indeed, to have occurred). The traditional approach of the Liberal Party of Canada is different. The Liberals are ideologically more inclined to develop new programs, especially in social policy, and they have tended to view pan-Canadian initiatives as instrumental to building allegiance to Canada in Québec. In the electoral campaign, Mr. Trudeau did not propose any specific policy that could be seen by the Québec government as ‘intruding’ in its jurisdiction, but he has not presented the type of  ‘watertight’ vision of Canadian federalism favoured by the Harper government either.

For the first time in decades, there is uncertainty about a new Canadian government's vision of federalism. At a time of relative stability in the federation, there is great hope that the federal government can re-engage meaningfully with the provinces while at the same time not attempting to dictate the way ahead.