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Canadian Federalism; How Diversity Affects Democracy

Updated on July 26, 2010

Marty Thurston

December 4, 2008

There are three fundamental pillars of Canadian constitutionalism; continuity, consent and mutual recognition. Canada’s multinational democracy has different degrees of diversity including national, ethnocultural, and social groups. “Indeed, Kymlicka concedes that self-government rights for national minorities pose a theoretical problem for liberal citizenship, as opposed to what he considers the more straightforward task, within a liberal framework, of recognizing culture as a primary good for citizens.” (339) The aim here is to reconcile diversity and citizenship. Canada is a multinational democracy and an ideal case for watching diversity take place in differing scenarios.

“National identity was depicted as an outdated loyalty, which narrowed interests and undermined the progression of civilization. Quebec neo-nationalism was deemed to constitute a threat to progressive politics and certain to lead to a cycle of never-ending conflicts that would hinder reconciliation and unity.” (339) Not surprisingly this seems to be the case today, as national identity has just been dealt a low-blow with the proposed coalition government. Equally not surprising is the fact that Quebec neo-nationalism is a front-and-centre actor, holding the balance of power for the mythical coalition.

G&I explain that recognition is not to be taken too literally. It is not the fact of opening your eyes and recognizing something, but rather, “recognition is an outcome of participation. It is the result of contributing to the development of a common public culture and to larger consensual bases of allegiance and identification, without rejecting the established symbolic order offered by Quebec society as it has evolved historically.”(343) This is the idea that a model of citizenship is not a physical reality but rather a process of give-and-take. Shared values alone do not constitute citizenship but it is the ongoing stream of public debate, and the citizens' ability to interact with ongoing issues.

Ultimately, G&I argue that federalism is not just a national institution that we have taken on. “Rather than being threatened by the political conflicts spawned by diverging visions, Canada has been shaped and indeed defined the negotiation of distinct visions over time.” (348)

One of the realities of Canadian federalism is that regardless of principle, the provinces are still treated very much as junior partners in the federalism relationship. While Harper’s notion of ‘open federalism’ is a step for G&I’s multinational democracy, but it is one of many. Mega-constitutional reform would require a huge commitment on behalf of the federal government, and as of recently, my perception of national unity has been weakened. Federalism has its back against the wall; and as soon as certain people come to their senses, it will go back to being a secondary priority. Now is not the right time for mega-constitutional reform. I think the last thing anyone will want to do is drag this issue out. I think there’s a lot of support for the argument that government ought to get back to work instead of bickering over the identity crisis. If the economy keeps taking a backseat to partisan tomfoolery, then it really doesn’t matter who is running the circus.

Back to G&I. Another significant problem with implementing the idea of multinational democracy is that for all intents and purposes, Quebec will never be satisfied. That is to say Quebec discontent is a product of Ottawa’s centralizing agenda, which is a deep vein Canadian federalism. Until this issue is addressed, Canada will be in a state of perpetual tension with Quebec nationalism. Asymmetrical federalism, which Milne (2005) would describe as, “differences within a federation among the units may arise from geography, history, demographics, economic and fiscal responsibilities, population characteristics, culture, or other key characteristics specific to particular units. (Kent, 144) Asymmetries in administrative process are much easier to work with than asymmetries of a constitutional nature and therefore this is usually the quick-fix.

The argument from the Quebec nationalist perspective sounds familiar. In fact, you can almost feel it pulsating down the Red Mile in Calgary. “Why be satisfied with piecemeal powers when Quebec (or Alberta) could have a single state capable of administering all of its responsibilities? (350) One could claim that unlike Alberta, Quebec has been in a pursuit of self-determination since the beginning. “Multinational democracies must live with the prospect of potential secession because of the imperative of self-government rights (self-determination), the dictates of popular sovereignty and democracy, and the fact that citizens are entitled to debate the boundaries of their political communities.” (351) The key lesson for multinational democracy is that citizens must be engaged willing participants; if they are not treated in this manner, there will always be the prospect of secession and discontent.

Bakvis and Skogstad, Chapter 16 (Gagnon and Iacovino), “Canadian Federalism and Multinational Democracy (334-54)

Reading # 16 – Kathy L. Brock (2008), “The Politics of Asymmetrical Federalism”, Canadian Public Policy XXXIV:2 (June), 143-61.


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    • mthurston profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Thanks very much

    • profile image


      6 years ago from New York, New York

      interesting and informative article! great work...!


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