In Search of True Federalism


In Search of True Federalism

A further article by Mark Wegierski to Commemorate the Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation

It is sometimes maintained that strengthening the provinces and regions in Canada would lead to a more balanced society. While there is no returning to the Old Canada which existed “before the Sixties”, is it possible that this “New Canada” could reach out to incorporate better aspects of the Old Canada – to create a new synthesis – “Canada Three” – rather than continue on the path of ever-intensifying left-liberalism?

What is Canadian identity? There have been at least two, different Canada’s –  the one that existed before the 1960s, and the one that exists today. Traditional Canada was defined by its founding nations – the English (British) and the French (the latter mostly centered in what, in 1867, became the Province of Quebec). These two nations long pre-existed the creation of a Canadian Confederation, the latter with its distinct provinces and with the powers of the federal and provincial governments clearly delineated. Confederation was a marriage of British Parliamentary traditions with the concept of a federation.

The founding document of the Canadian State was the British North America (BNA) Act, which was approved by the British Parliament in 1867. The Aboriginal peoples were included insofar as traditionally they were considered under the special protection of the Crown.

Most Canadians today (living in what could be called “New Canada” or “Canada Two”) have no understanding of what it was like to live in British Canada. They either reject it out of hand or buy into a completely negative view of what pre-1960s Canada was like. The main architects of “New Canada” were the Liberal Prime Ministers Lester Pearson (1963-1968) and Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-1984, except for nine months in 1979-1980). Concerning the latter, some commentators refer to the “Trudeaupia”.

It should be noted, nevertheless, that the term “New Canada” was quirkily deployed by Reform Party leader Preston Manning in his book with this title (Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1992) as the name for the model of Canada which he himself was proposing – basically, a more decentralized federation – in which provincial and local governments would wield greater authority than the centralized federal government – and long-neglected provinces and regions such as Western Canada would be better represented at the federal level (a huge and overbearing federal government being part of Trudeau’s legacy).

The Western Canadian-based Reform Party (which became a country-wide party in 1991) emerged in 1987 as a centre-right alternative to the federal Progressive Conservatives, who despite their majorities in the federal Parliament won in 1984 and 1988, mostly carried out liberal policies.

Manning presumably chose the term “New Canada” to disguise the real conservatism of the Reform Party platform. He took the idea of “reform in order to preserve” very seriously and sometimes argued positions that seemed “radical” for ends that were conservative.

It should also be noted that during the debate over the proposed Meech Lake Accord (1987-1990) and Charlottetown Agreements (1992) – which explicitly recognized Quebec as “a distinct society” – and might have led to a more decentralized federation –  the prominent liberal commentator Richard Gwyn referred contemptuously to the Canada which the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Agreements would bring into being as “Canada Two”. This is not the sense in which I am using this term. (Neither the Meech Lake Accord nor the Charlottetown Agreements ever became the law of the land.)

Among the leading figures critical of current-day Canada are William D. Gairdner (who has brought out a new edition (Toronto: Key Porter, 2010) of his ground-breaking book, The Trouble with Canada: A Citizen Speaks Out (Toronto: Stoddart, 1990): and Ken McDonald, whose best-known book, probably, is His Pride, Our Fall: Recovering from the Trudeau Revolution (Toronto: Key Porter, 1995).

Contemporary Canada is officially defined as a multicultural society. Canada’s identity is presumed by most observers to be constituted out of the “mosaic” or “kaleidoscope” of various heterogeneous cultures.

Since 1988, after the Canadian Supreme Court struck down some residual restrictions, Canada has no laws whatsoever regulating abortion. “Same-sex marriage” has been deeply entrenched since the federal Parliament approved it in 2005. The move toward “same-sex marriage” got underway in 2003 when two provincial courts struck down the traditional definition of marriage. Multicultural and gender politics orthodoxy is policed by various quasi-judicial tribunals, including the so-called Human Rights Commissions (there is one at the federal level, and one in every province) which can sharply punish speech deemed critical of various minorities and of current-day political arrangements. Their operations have been pointedly described in Ezra Levant’s Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009).

There are also in Canada today varieties of separatism. The first, the Quebeçois sovereigntists, arose out of the French/English duality of the two founding peoples of Canada. They view the Canadian State with antipathy. A second movement, also emerging since the 1960s, could be called radical Aboriginal separatism. The idea is that since the land was all “stolen” anyway, so the Canadian State has no inherent legitimacy.

Some Canadian institutions, such as the taxpayer-funded CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), tend to view certain groups as “un-Canadian.” The CBC considers those who hold outlooks that are “reactionary” or “mean-spirited” as not part of “the Canadian Way.” Such outlooks are often characterized as American-inspired, hence “un-Canadian.”

The cultural industries in Canada are also mostly government (i.e., taxpayer) subsidized, especially “CanLit” (Canadian literature). Unfortunately, many of these “public” cultural institutions pride themselves on their total exclusion of anything smacking of traditionalism or conservatism.There are, in fact, multifarious techniques to characterise traditional Canada as repugnant. Today, except for certain residues in political institutions, British Canada has been all but annihilated. Nevertheless, Canada still remains in the penumbra of the WASPs, as many of them – whether in corporate or governmental structures – are amongst the most “progressive,” most politically-correct groups in Canada. As such, they enjoy lives of material comfort and cushy sinecures, even as the New Canada conceptually vitiates all that their ancestors held dear.

Obviously, it is impossible to return to the Old Canada. But might there be a chance for a “post-New Canada” or “Canada Three” that moves in the direction of various scenarios of “provincialization”? The contradictions between the current-day centralized big government in Ottawa, to which huge economic resources are perforce committed and the vapid cultural and spiritual hollowness at the core of the administrative “command” apparatus, will likely become ever more apparent.

Prior to the establishment of the European Union, which has made Europe into a  bureaucratic and nightmare state, a better plan was proposed but ultimately rejected. That idea was the “European Community” which was to be a “union of sovereign states”. This idea could serve as a model for a future Canada, a “Canada Three.” It would be a positive synthesis of the best elements of both the traditional and current-day Canada.

The “Canada Three” scenario could be similar to the “Swiss model” or “cantonization” – where most authority is exercised at the local level, without central government interference – and in which there are a variety of populist mechanisms for expressing the will of the people – such as referenda on major issues.

The hope would be that radical decentralization would allow for various arrangements that would make “Canada Three” a stronger and more “rooted” federation or union in its constituent parts. It would also hopefully strengthen intermediary institutions such as churches, and local associations. True federalism would allow for the expression of divergent views that could ultimately have a unifying effect. Such an “uplifting” synthesis of the Old and New Canada is urgently needed in order that Canada becomes the great country that it was meant to be – “the true North, strong and free.”

[An earlier version of this article appeared at]

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents


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