In just four months, Canadians will begin a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation. This important milestone will be marked by festivities of various kinds in cities, towns and villages across Canada. Community groups, artists, musicians and many others will help commemorate significant events in our history and reflect on our shared achievements, including the very fact of Confederation – a signature accomplishment in and of itself.

But if Canada’s sesquicentennial is an opportunity to consider the road already travelled, it should also be an opportunity to take stock of today’s Canada and analyze the challenges that appear on the horizon. By almost every meaningful measure, we are not the same country as we were a few decades ago. Our economy is more open to the world, and it draws its strengths from different regions and sectors. Our people are older, more diverse and more urban. The relationships between the provinces and territories have changed, as have those between them and Ottawa.

At the same time, many of our fundamental challenges remain the same. A founding partner in Confederation, Quebec, has yet to sign part of our country’s basic law — the Constitution. We continue to struggle with balancing the aspirations of our regions. Fundamental issues concerning the rights of Indigenous peoples remain unresolved. We should seize the opportunity that 2017 presents to re-imagine our approach to addressing these and other pan-Canadian issues.

The 2014 referendum in Scotland and the British referendum on the European Union earlier this year demonstrate the need to keep a watching brief on trends that have an impact on the ties that bind us together as a country. It’s critical that we understand the underlying issues that affect the political, economic and social links between our country’s communities, regions and nations. This requires solid research on the consequences of a fundamental change or the risk of rupture. Observing events happening abroad and concluding “it could never happen here” is probably not the most prudent way forward.

When the threat of Quebec secession emerged in the 1960s, Canada’s political leaders, academics, interest groups and many others did more than keep a watching brief. They analyzed the dynamics of Canadian federalism, debated and reflected on Canadian unity, and negotiated reforms. Many of these reforms were never enacted, which led some to be frustrated and others to down tools.

In contrast, following the near-death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum on secession, many of our political leaders viewed any discussion of federalism as too risky, opting instead to focus on what they considered to be bigger priorities. Today, not enough policy-oriented research is being done to ensure that we have the data and knowledge we need when debate on, for example, a particular feature of our federal system, or the federation itself, arises.

To help fill this gap, the IRPP has launched a new research program called Canada’s Changing Federal Community.

The term federal community is deliberate. Although the program will incorporate research and public discussion on institutions, intergovernmental relations and fiscal arrangements, it will also focus on key aspects of community – living together with others from different backgrounds based on shared values and a commitment to ongoing adaptation. This sense of community has been and will remain central to the country’s effective governance and development. Canada is an act of will, and the ties that bind us need to be constantly renewed.

The IRPP has launched a new program called Canada’s Changing Federal Community to help fill the gap in policy-oriented research in this area.

Just as the country has changed in the last few decades, so too must our approach to research. Federal and intergovernmental institutions must be a major focus, but Indigenous issues and perspectives, particularly with regard to governance, also warrant particular attention. Moreover, the discussion must be broad enough to include how we might agree on a common approach to energy and climate change, improve fiscal transfers, eliminate internal trade barriers, recognize the specificity of Quebec as a nation within a united Canada, and support the aspirations of all our regions.

The upcoming 150th anniversary celebrations – and the absence of an imminent crisis – make this an ideal time to launch this initiative. Our aim is to spark a broad public debate on the future of what is arguably the world’s most successful country. Complacency born out of past achievement will not solve the real problems we face. And eschewing public discussion on the future of our federal arrangements out of fear of reopening old wounds may give rise to even more risk, as we have seen overseas. It is time to take a fresh look at how the Canadian federal community has evolved in recent decades and examine how the ties that bind us can be modernized and strengthened, so we can better meet the policy challenges of tomorrow.

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Graham Fox
Graham Fox is Managing Principal at Navigator Ltd. and previously served as President and CEO of the IRPP from 2011 to 2021. A frequent media analyst, Graham has appeared regularly on CBC News Network, Radio-Canada, CTV NewsNet, TFO and CFRA. His columns and articles have appeared in The Hill Times, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and Policy Options.
F. Leslie Seidle
Leslie Seidle, a consultant in public policy and governance, is director of the research program Canada’s Changing Federal Community at the IRPP.

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