A razor-thin victory in the October referendum has plunged Canadian federalism into its deepest crisis since Confederation. Politicians and pundits of many viewpoints agree that it is flawed, and that change, particularly some sort of decentralization, is needed. Beyond this, there is little agreement about the specifics, or as to whether decentralization would unite Canada or fragment it further and possibly lead to its breakup. Today we urgently need to understand federalism, and what we can and should expect from a federal structure.
As if to our rescue comes Rethinking Federalism. This ample volume of over twenty full-length articles grew from a recent conference at the University of Toronto called "Federalism and the Nation State". It is not primarily about Canada; instead it brings together leading scholars from Europe, the former Soviet Union, Canada, and the United States, writing on the implications of politics, economics, the law, and definitions of citizenship for our understanding of federalism, and examining the practice of federalism throughout Europe and North America. We might reasonably expect to find much here that will help to guide us.
And we do. Most of the articles are substantial and worth reading (although addressed primarily to an academic audience). Articles by Guy Kirsch on the European Union and Mihailo Markovic on Yugoslavia are particularly relevant to Canada, since they deal with building national and ethnic group representation into a federal structure. They are both committed to increasing local autonomy and regional or ethnic representation, in order to expand participatory democracy. But they give histories of the EU and Yugoslavia that made me wonder whether such representation is not more likely lead to fragmentation (or at least to fail to overcome ethnic nationalism). Richard Simeon excellently describes the different evolutions of federalism in the United States and Canada, and Katherine Swinton has a very interesting analysis of its history within the Canadian constitution and legal system. Each shows how the adaptability of Canadian federalism can be regarded, with some reservations, as its peculiar and important strength. The best article in my view is by Samuel Beer, a leading federalism scholar in the United States, comparing Canada and the United States. He shows how our more confederal federalism and the national federalism of the US originate in the political thought and traditions of each country. Democracy and individual rights conflict with the contract or "states rights" view of government in the United States, while Canada's monarchist and "two nations" origins make the contract theory more attractive. Beer applauds Canada's ability to adapt federalism to changing circumstances. But I would have liked to see a more critical confrontation of the two traditions.
This is only a sampling of the variety in this book; others point to Spain as a model, look at the challenge of aboriginal nations to Canadian federalism, apply economics to the question of decentralization, and examine federal citizenship in the states of the former Soviet Union.
Most disappointing, however, are the articles on federalism in Canada. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would say that most of the authors who write on Canada (Jenson, Chartrand, Howse, Swinton, Simeon, and, to a lesser extent, Hueglin and Cairns) share two general concerns about federalism in Canada, though disagreeing on many important details. First, because the "corporate" or "executive" federal structure of Canada has entrenched political authority in certain groups (primarily provincial, and particularly business) at the expense of local communities and groups that are not territorially based (ethnic minorities, aboriginal peoples, and women), they think that political power should be decentralized through some kind of reworking that redistributes legislative and executive authority, or formally "empowers" the "marginalized", especially the non-territorial ones (with some form of group representation or group rights).
Even Robert Howse, the one skeptic here on a more decentralized federalism, agrees that Canadian democracy must become more inclusive and participatory. He cautions against decentralized federalism precisely because it may not result in a more participatory democracy, and he offers direct decentralization to citizen and community groups as an alternative.
On the other hand, these authors also worry that a federalism expanded along these lines will entrench local, parochial, and non-inclusive interests and further fragment Canadian society. Any new structure should also, then, provide for maintenance of strong national standards, particularly social ones (a "social charter") at the same time that it more broadly distributes political power. Renewed federalism alone will not produce a more democratic nation. At most it offers a formal model for redistributing political authority in a more decentralized and "democratic" way, but one that must be supplemented by some kind of a national commitment (that may or may not have formal consequences) to a more inclusive and democratic society.
Where does this leave us today? Not much further ahead, I'm afraid. The answers to some crucial questions are left quite vague. How much decentralization is necessary? How far should rights and representation for particular groups be legally formalized? How can a broader distribution of real political responsibility be combined with a central government capable of enforcing national standards? Is anything really new about a federalism in which provinces are free to design programs only as long as they do what the federal government wants? Or, if provincial or other jurisdictions have real authority, how will national standards be anything more than unenforceable guidelines? Even more fundamentally, in the light of the accounts of the EU and the former Yugoslavia, would a future of some such kind strengthen democracy and unity in Canada? The chapters on Canada offer only a very qualified outline of what to look or hope for.
The reason why the authors on Canada offer such disappointing guidance (and the reason why this otherwise good book is also ultimately disappointing) is that certain kinds of questions are not raised and addressed, particularly about Canadian federalism. Does it need to be rethought because local communities and minorities must be better represented or "empowered", or because as now structured it already gives too much authority to certain groups (provincially based, to be sure)? None of the authors consider the possibility that the form of Canadian federalism may be responsible for both the precariousness of Canadian unity at present and much of the dissatisfaction of many groups with Canadian democracy. Although the more confederal and parliamentary character of Canadian federalism is observed at some length, might not this be part of the cause of today's crisis? Might not our more confederal federalism, no matter how well it appeared to work in the past, be at odds with the purpose of federalism in a democracy, even a postmodern one?
These questions are not gone into in any depth because the perspective the scholars gathered here take does not allow them to be raised seriously. Except for Beer, they analyse federalism from an institutional, sociological, or historical perspective that primarily understands federalism to be multi-level government where sovereignty, government powers, citizenship, and identity are divided between local (or regional) and national (or international) governmental institutions. From this perspective, the questions are about whether a particular federal structure suits or fits the society, not about its purpose, or about how a federal governing structure in general can help strengthen a democratic society. Federalism, to their minds, is not something that has a coherence of its own, or that is part of a coherent political philosophy that can be examined and understood-it is not about the best way to govern a large country democratically while making its citizens identify with the nation and its democracy as a whole. Rather it is about the distribution of power and representation through an evolving institutional structure within an evolving society.
In so far as the authors view it as a set of ideas, federalism is simply a reflection of the political ideology (reflecting the political power relations) of a particular time and society. There are, here, no better or worse forms of federalism that might be understood in light of a purpose that underlies and informs it as a structure of governing a political society. There are only different institutional structures suited to the different societies out of which they evolved; federalism will and should evolve indefinitely. Indeed, while conceding the uncertainty and potential for turmoil in such a future for Canadian federalism, they see its past evolution-the balancing of the claims of different groups for a share of political power-as a hopeful sign. We cannot clearly see where it is going, and working out its future presents some difficulties, but eventually it will sort itself out. To these authors, "rethinking federalism" does not mean understanding or defining its purpose in a democratic society, but understanding as best we can, and perhaps influencing, its evolution.
Federalism is a curiously eighteenth-century concept to be recommended as a model for governing a postmodern, multicultural nation, but for these writers there is no tension in this because the old form can evolve-be rethought-to fit society's new purposes. But if Canadian federalism is to be really rethought, this tension must be taken seriously. In the older view, federalism was not intended primarily to give voice to ethnic and religious interests in government. Rather it was understood as a way of muting the influence of these in politics, and this was held to be essential for maintaining a healthy democracy, especially in a large and diverse nation. Only if we examine this understanding of the relation of federalism and democracy, and seriously confront Canadian federalism with it, can we critically assess whether our federalism, particularly its confederal character, is at least partly to blame for our current dilemma. This would be a real beginning for the understanding of the dilemma and of possible ways out of it. It would be to really rethink federalism in Canada before we embrace a more decentralized future. Unfortunately, despite many real strengths, Rethinking Federalism does not do this.