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Canadian Federalism Threatened Essay, Research Paper

Canadian Federalism Threatened:

The Issues of Quebec Nationalism and Regionalism

Canadian Federalism Threatened:

The Issues of Quebec Nationalism and Regionalism

When it was it first conceived in 1867, Canada was founded as a state that would create a government structure based on federalism. Federalism is defined as: A political system in which legislative power is distributed between a national, central, or federal legislature and a level of state or provincial legislatures. The relationship between the two different governments in Canada is characterized by a National government in Ottawa and 10 Provincial governments across the country. Federalism is also characterized in Canada by the constant problems that plague Canadian federalism. Major problems of Canadian federalism (defining the authority structure, drawing out responsibilities, control over spending and raising revenues, outlining standards, and a growing threat of the country splitting up), are among countless other minor problems. However, these problems are all attributed to the fundamental problem of Canadian federalism: the conflict between central Canada and the peripheral regions.

In order to trace the fundamental problem of Canadian federalism, it is important to first define what is central Canada and to note that the problem of federalism is both regionalist and nationalist in nature. Central Canada is comprised of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, but more specifically always includes the national government in Ottawa and its preference to these two provinces.

The problem of Canadian federalism is regionalist in nature in that it pits the peripheral regions against central Canada: All of the non-central provinces have grievances with Central Canada and its governments in Ottawa, Ontario and Quebec. It is also nationalist in nature in that although Quebec makes up part of Central Canada, Quebec presents the problem of nationalism to Canadian federalism. Throughout Canadian history provincial government power has been used to press both ethnic nationalist and regionalist demands on Ottawa

Before discussing regionalism or the conflict between central Canada and the peripheral regions, it is important to first address the issue of Quebec nationalism and the problem it brings to Canadian federalism, because in the short term, nationalism presents a more pressing issue than regionalism. Robert and Doreen Jackson write:

In the short term, because regionalism does not directly challenge territorial sovereignty, it appears to present less of a threat to the existing state structure than does nationalism. In the long term, however, persistent indifference to regionalist demands by central authorities may result in a serious loss of legitimacy for the state in certain parts of the country.

Defining what is nationalism and how it applies to the people of Quebec, and the issue of Quebec nationalism flaring up from time to time , will be important in shedding light on the conflict between Quebec nationalism and Canadian federalism.

According to Robert and Doreen Jackson, nationalism is defined as the collective action of a politically conscious ethnic group (or nation) in pursuit of increased territorial autonomy or sovereignty. The ethnic majority of French-speaking people in Quebec or the Quebecois are indeed an ethnic group. They speak the same language, enjoy a common culture and rich heritage and most are Roman Catholic. The province of Quebec also ascribes to a different private legal system than the rest of the country, based on French Civil Law. The Quebecois have also seen their historical majority in the early beginnings of the Canadian federation dwindle to an ethnic minority and continued immigration patterns and low birth rates now leave the percentage of francophones in Canada at nearly 25% of the total population. However, in the province of Quebec, the francophone population is the majority with 86% of the total provincial population.

The Quebecois are not just an ethnic group that constitute a majority in the province of Quebec, but are also politically conscious and active in their pursuit of increased territorial autonomy or sovereignty . With such a large majority of francophones centered in one province, the governments elected began a shift of policies aimed at improving and enhancing the francophone majority and to protect the culture.

Since 1960, Quebec underwent a Quiet Revolution, consisting of a dramatic change of values and attitudes, especially towards the state, a new collective self-confidence, and a new brand of nationalism. It was during this time that Quebec became more urbanized and secular, and the provincial government became more involved with education and social programs at the expense of the Church. According to Kenneth McRoberts, The Quiet Revolution represented first and foremost an ideological change, a transformation of mentalities. The people of Quebec began to see themselves in a different light:

With the 1960 s, French-Canadian nationalism was recast into a more explicitly Quebecois nationalism. The greatness of this Quebec nation was to lie not in the past, as represented by traditional French-Canadian nationalism s glorification of the ancien regime, but with the future, as represented by an urban, industrial, and secular society.

The Quiet Revolution had transformed Quebec society and brought social changes with it. In effect, these changes would be the basis of a modern Quebec nationalism oriented towards the Quebec State and a prosperous future through the Quebec State: Responsible to a primarily francophone electorate, the Quebec state was the one institution that could enable the Quebecois to achieve these objectives.

The Quiet Revolution of the 1960 s gave rise to a new political culture in Quebec, which would incorporate the new nationalism into the political arena. Separatist parties emerged with aspirations for the provincial independence of Quebec. This culminated with the election of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in 1976 under Rene Levesque, and subsequent PQ governments. With the election of the first PQ government, the nationalist movement in Quebec had materialized into a direct political challenge to Canadian federalism. Roy Romanow writes, Canadian federalism has been challenged since the mid-1970s with the repeated election in Quebec of governments dedicated to removing Quebec from the federation The PQ governments promised a referendum on the issue of separation, and two referendums took place in 1980 and 1995.

The pursuit of independence for Quebec was drawn up in a referendum question that was voted on by the people of Quebec. The two sides to the referendum were the Yes side, who favoured Quebec independence, and the No side, which wanted to keep Quebec inside the Canadian federal framework. In the 1980 referendum, 60% of Quebec voters voted No and 40% voted Yes. In the 1995 referendum the results were much closer, only 50.6% voted No and 49.4% voted Yes. Quebec nationalism was the inspiration and the driving force behind the separatists and ultimately challenging the Canadian federalist structure.

The change of French-Canadian nationalism into modern Quebec nationalism is a direct threat to Canadian federalism. Canadian federalism works as a system of inter-governmental relations within the context of the Canadian State. Quebec nationalism seeks to be independent of this context and to form its own parameters on which to negotiate equally with the Canadian State and other foreign governments. In short, Quebec nationalism can spell the total demise of Canadian federalism, and change forever the character of Canada.

The other component of the fundamental problem of Canadian federalism is regionalism. Apart from central Canada, the other regions are the West (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and the East or the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland). In order to explore the problem of regionalism to Canadian federalism, it is important to first define what is regionalism, how it applies to the Western and Eastern regions of Canada, and then how this presents a problem to Canadian federalism.

Regionalism is defined as the territorial tensions brought about by certain groups that demand a change in the political, economic and cultural relations between regions and central powers within the existing state. Since cultural relations between a region and the central government have been discussed within the context of Quebec, the economic and political relations of Western and Eastern Canada will be contrasted to Canadian federalism.

In the West, there has been a growing sense of alienation from central Canada in the political culture. Economically, there is a sense that central Canada has been exploiting the resources of the West to further develop the central region of the country. Since the national government is located in central Canada, national economic policies are seen as a direct materialization of this Western discontent. Examples of such policies include: ownership of natural resources by the federal government (1870-1930); tariffs put in place to protect central Canadian manufacturers at the expense of cheaper products for the West, resulting in lowered demands from retaliatory policies of resource importing countries (1879-1989); and increased freight rates for manufactured goods from the West. However, the climax of economic discontent in the West was reached in 1980 with the National Energy Policy introduced by the Trudeau government:

The height of the regional economic conflict occurred in 1980 with the Trudeau government s National Energy Policy (NEP), which imposed new federal taxes, retained a larger share of petroleum revenues for Ottawa, kept the national price below the world level, encouraged frontier largely offshore development, and promoted Canadianization of the industry, all objectives inimical to most Westerners.

Although repealed by the Mulroney government entirely, the NEP had a profound effect on the Western Canadian psyche which resulted in political discontent. Robert McRoberts writes: the West had not been able to impose its own political and institutional vision upon the Canadian federal state despite a nearly unbroken tradition of regional political discontent reaching back 100 years. The regional discontent of the West and the feeling of exploitation by central Canada had found itself in the political arena as the West gained economic prowess. Robert and Doreen Jackson write: Once one of the weak partners of the federal union, the West began to acquire enormous economic development. As this economic wealth was exploited, migration to the West increased, and the region finally found itself capable of challenging what it considered the intolerable domination of central Canada.

The political discontent of the West was manifested in a small but noisy campaign of separating the West from Canada, which found itself in the formation of Western separatist parties known as the western Canadian federation (West-Fed) and the Western Canada Concept (WCC). However, these Western separatist movements died down because unlike the Quebecois separatist movement that was warding off assimilation, the feeling in the West was one of not being integrated into the national scene. Kenneth McRoberts writes:

Unlike the Quebecois, who have sought to ward off assimilation, western Canadians have sought greater integration into the national political, economic and social mainstreams Western alienation captures the frustration that comes from incomplete integration, from the belief that the region has failed to play a role in the nation s life commensurate with its resources, potential, and aspirations.

In 1988, the Reform Party was established under Preston Manning to view the concerns of the West in Parliament, and in 1993 the Reform won 51 seats, mainly in Alberta and British Columbia. In the 1997 election the Reform Party became the Official Opposition in Parliament with 60 seats (all from the West) and continues that role today with 66 seats (except for 2 seats in Ontario, all of their seats are from the West) under the newly named Alliance Party.

Canadian federalism is now fragmented on the national scene with the emergence of the Reform (later the Alliance) Party, and its advancement of Western interests. The inability of the party in power to penetrate the West should be of major concern to the government, and is also a sign that the West is in protest with the federal government. This in turn could lead to a real threat to Canadian federalism and the further division of the country.

In the Eastern or Atlantic region of Canada, there has been some economic and political discontent with central Canada as well. Economically, the Atlantic region has been discontented over historical and recent wrangling between the federal and provincial governments over natural resources, including offshore resources where the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of federal jurisdiction.

Politically, the Atlantic region has less representation in Parliament because of its own declining population and the rise in population and seats in the rest of the country. With a marginal role in the national economy and an eroded political standing, the Atlantic region has not strained the national fabric through regional discontent. Kenneth McRoberts writes:

Economic competition among the Atlantic provinces, a declining share of the national population, widespread dependency on transfer payments from the federal government, and powerful regional spokesmen within the federal cabinet have all served to contain regional discontent.

These factors continue to play a role in keeping Atlantic regional discontent to be voiced through the status quo of the Canadian federal structure and has kept Atlantic Canadians from challenging the basic institutional or constitutional structure of the federal state .

Canadian federalism is in a precarious position challenged by a growing discontent from the peripheral regions of Canada. The Canadian State and its federal structure have been directly challenged twice by Quebec nationalism, and continues to be the most serious threat to Canadian federalism. Although the Atlantic region may not be a direct challenge to Canadian federalism, nonetheless, its concerns must be addressed to keep that region within the federal framework. In the West, alienation from central Canada and a sense of economic exploitation have opened the way for a new national political party to emerge, and regional demands are now on the national scene. Although less threatening to Canadian federalism than Quebec nationalism, if left unchecked, Western regionalist demands could lead to a fragmented federation.


1. Dyck, Rand. Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches, Third Edition. Toronto: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000.

2. Jackson, Robert & Doreen Jackson. Politics in Canada, Fourth Edition. Toronto: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1998.

3. McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politices: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999.

4. McRoberts, Kenneth. Quebec: Province, Nation, or Distinct Society . In Nelson Power Pak. Toronto: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000.

5. McRoberts, Kenneth. Regional Politics . In Nelson Power Pak. Toronto: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000.

6. Romanow, Roy. Reinforcing The Ties That Bind . In IRPP: Policy Options, November 1998.

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