In the coming weeks the Canadian calendar is filled with days of celebration. On June 21, Canadians are invited to honour the contributions to Canada of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples on National Aboriginal Day. June 24 is Saint-Jean Baptiste Day, a national holiday for Quebecers and French-Canadians across the country. These festivities will be followed on July 1 by the celebration of the country’s sesquicentennial.

As Canadians prepare to fête the past, we think it’s a good moment to reflect on Canada’s future.

In his 2015 campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to advance reconciliation in partnership with Indigenous peoples, provinces and territories. In a statement following his swearing-in, Trudeau declared: “We will further strengthen our great country with a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on a recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.”

But what implications do the Prime Minister’s bold commitments to reconciliation have for the future of Canadian federalism? To better understand Trudeau’s proposed vision of Canadian federalism, it is useful to reflect on the theory and history of federalism.

Since the renowned reflections of James Madison in The Federalist Papers at the end of the 18th century, federalism has been viewed as a system of government, or as a mode of organization of political life. Presented as an institutional tool to preserve individual and collective liberties, federalism divides sovereignty and establishes zones of tension as well as spaces of autonomy and interdependence between various orders of government. In his widely read chapter from the book by Michael Burgess and Alain Gagnon, entitled “The Political Uses of Federalism,” Alain-G. Gagnon adds a sociological perspective to the institutional one to describe federalism as a safeguard for the autonomy of minorities that ensures a substantial form of unity between constituent units in the pursuit of peace and harmony. This dual perspective, institutional and sociological, combined with the search for a balance (albeit precarious) between the exigencies of diversity and unity, was at the forefront of concerns in the moments that led to and followed Confederation.

The founders of Canada were not the first to turn to federalism as a mode of political organization. Federalism was notably used during the union of the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Onondaga nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy at the end of the 16th century, which the Tuscaroras eventually joined. According to Haudenosaunee legend, these nations were convinced to work together by the Peacemaker, who showed them that a single arrow is more easily broken than a bundle of arrows put together. In agreeing to participate in a political union, the partners of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy chose peace over conflict, collective strength over individual power. For these nations, as for many others, federalism contributed to collective harmony while preserving the autonomy of partners in confederation.

Beyond securing the autonomy of partners, federalism broadens the avenues for political participation, fosters deliberation and multiplies sites of decision-making. It also encourages emulation, innovation and competition in various fields of public policy, and it invites citizens to share and redistribute amongst equals. Tensions will inevitably emerge. We can expect, however, that these tensions will have positive effects as long as unity is pursued in a spirit of respect for difference. It is also reasonable to expect that by convening their respective forces, a key federal practice, partners — be they nations or provinces — will increase their sphere of influence and accomplish goals that would have remained otherwise unattainable.

Since Confederation, the exigencies of diversity and unity have led political leaders to espouse different doctrines of federalism. As each of Canada’s 23 prime ministers sought to overcome national, linguistic, provincial and regional cleavages in the interest of unity, Canadian federalism has oscillated between the centralized mode of organization adopted at Confederation and a province-centred classical form of federalism.

In his 1967 book Federalism and the French Canadians, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau wrote at length about the search for a balance between diversity and unity. As a recently minted minister of justice in Lester B. Pearson’s cabinet, Trudeau saw federalism as the political solution that would simultaneously foster national unity and maintain linguistic difference. As he launched himself in the leadership race that saw him replace Pearson at the helm of the country in June 1968, Trudeau viewed efforts to foster nationalism at the federal level as futile, for he thought these efforts would be unsuccessful in the task of placating nationalism in Quebec. He would change his mind in 1981-82, when he decided to embark on the journey to patriation.

Queen Elizabeth II signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ron Poling

Praising the discourse of open federalism, Stephen Harper advocated the return of classical federalism. With promises to reduce the size of the federal government and accommodate regional interests, Harper vowed to withdraw the federal government’s intrusion in areas of provincial or shared jurisdiction such as health care and education. His defeat in the 2015 election won by Justin Trudeau left memories of a rigid and implacable government in its relations with federal partners.

Distancing himself from Harper’s approach to federalism, Trudeau committed to work with the provinces through consultation, co-management and coordination as part of his campaign promise for “real change.” This is evident in his response to the Premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard, during the 2015 federal campaign, in which he pledged to govern in accordance with the federal spirit, to work together with partners and to respect differences in the pursuit of common objectives. In a study for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Christopher Dunn aptly shows that the vocabulary of dialogue, collaboration and partnership runs through the documents and speeches of Trudeau’s 2015 campaign, and has persisted since he came into office.

Trudeau and leaders of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Chief Dwight Dorey, Native Women’s Association President Dawn Lavell Harvard, Metis National Council National President Clement Chartier, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed on December 16, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

In addition to his commitment on the night of his 2015 electoral triumph to make cooperation with the provinces a key principle, Trudeau has placed Indigenous partners first amongst those collaborators. As he has repeatedly stated, “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.” This declaration, affirmed during his swearing-in ceremony and again in the mandate letters to cabinet ministers, was also repeated in the Throne Speech of December 4, 2015. In this speech, his government pledged to work co-operatively to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and to collaborate with First Nations. The message emerging from the Prime Minister’s Office is that reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is a top priority.

From the campaign trail to Parliament Hill, Trudeau has advanced a vision of federalism that not only encourages dialogue, collaboration and partnership, but also recognizes the sovereignty of provincial and Indigenous partners. We use the term “reconciliatory federalism” to capture both elements of Trudeau’s vision of federalism.

While the discourse of the Prime Minister reveals a vision of reconciliatory federalism, how this vision translates into practice is more difficult to ascertain.

The closing news conference at the First Ministers Meeting in Ottawa, Friday December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Since the beginning of his term, Trudeau has taken a different approach to cooperating with partners depending on the issue at hand. In the case of climate change, Trudeau participated directly in getting (most) provinces to agree to national greenhouse gas reduction targets, after holding three formal meetings with the premiers and leaders of the territories. By contrast, in the case of health accords, he delegated bureaucrats to negotiate with individual provinces. Both approaches involve cooperation with provinces. The federal arrangements used to achieve cooperation are however different.

The first, a form of executive-driven cooperative federalism, invites the provinces to work together towards a common (albeit, federally determined) goal. The second, a form of province-driven cooperative federalism, involves bilateral negotiations with the provinces. Trudeau blended these approaches in the case of early education and child care services with the announcement last week of a national framework on child care, which is to be followed by bilateral agreements with provinces in the coming months.

While Trudeau has adopted various federal arrangements to achieve common objectives with provinces, it is not yet clear what type of federal arrangements Trudeau has in mind to cooperate with Canada’s other federal partners, Indigenous peoples. Last week, the Prime Minister signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work collaboratively with the Assembly of First Nations through regular meetings — a commitment that was also made to the Métis National Council in April 2017. Despite a deepening of the political relationship between Canada and Indigenous leaders, when it comes to decision-making, it is not clear whether the Prime Minister is committed to working alongside Indigenous partners across policy sectors. This was evident in the government’s treatment of Indigenous communities as stakeholders, rather than partners, in the decision to approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

As he enters the second half of his mandate, the the Prime Minister’s actions suggest that the federal arrangements to bring about cooperation will vary across policy sectors, and that he is more likely to take direct action to bring about cooperation among the provinces in sectors that he has identified as “top priorities,” such as the environment. Like the prime ministers who preceded him, Justin Trudeau will have to choose his priorities and decide how to bring about cooperation amongst all partners in the federation.

In the absence of cooperation among Indigenous, federal and provincial partners, Canadians are likely to witness an exacerbation of the fragmented approach to reconciliation currently unfolding across the country. In a new policy that asserts Quebec’s character as an intercultural nation, Couillard has called on the provinces, Indigenous peoples and others to engage in a renewed federal founding that respects the diversity of partners. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced $250 million in programs and actions to support the objectives of reconciliation outlined in her government’s 2017 policy, The Journey Together. While other provinces have vowed to advance reconciliation, two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 Calls to Action, there is little evidence to suggest a united vision or coordinated action on reconciliation in Canada.

Over the last 150 years, Canadian federalism has evolved in stages characterized by colonization, compartmentalization, cooperation, competition and collaboration. Trudeau’s vision of reconciliatory federalism holds the promise of a new type of cooperative federalism that respects the sovereignty of the provinces and Indigenous peoples. But the noble tone of Justin Trudeau’s discourse on reconciliatory federalism carries grand expectations. His treatment of Indigenous nations as stakeholders rather than partners in policy decisions, just like his terse reaction to Quebec’s new approach without engaging with its core ideas, suggest that the discourse of reconciliation is not being accompanied by coherent actions. Without a vision for reconciliation, and concrete actions toward that goal that are shared by the federal, provincial and Indigenous partners, Canadians will have little cause to celebrate.

This article is part of the Public Policy toward 2067 special feature.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde participates in the signing of the Assembly of First Nations-Canada Memorandum of Understanding on Joint Priorities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Guy Laforest
Guy Laforest est professeur au Département de science politique de l’Université Laval. Ses principaux champs d’enseignement et de recherche sont la pensée politique, l’histoire intellectuelle au Québec et au Canada, la politique constitutionnelle au Canada, et les théories du fédéralisme et du nationalisme.
Janique Dubois
Janique Dubois is an assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her interdisciplinary research looks at the governance practices of Indigenous and linguistic minorities in Canada.

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