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Is it time for a new decentralism in Canada?

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 1, 2016

The problem of center-periphery relations in a society, and of how a geographically extensive country extending beyond the confines of a city-state, is to be effectively governed, are some of the most pressing problems in political theory.

One of the failures of the Ancient Greeks was that they found it difficult to extend their political units beyond the city-state. One of the reasons for the prominence of Athens was that the surrounding area, Attica, had been forged into a quite unified entity, a solid home base for the empire. However, the Athenian Empire did not meet the challenge of governing divergent cities beyond Attica, successfully. Some political thinkers have believed that democracy outside of a small city of tens of thousands of citizens, was virtually impossible, and mostly meaningless. Certainly the ancient empires ruled geographically extensive areas through various kinds of governors, with little popular consultation.

As more republican as well as (eventually) democratic societies arose in the West, representative rather than direct democracy became more widely practiced. With the establishment of what eventually became continent-wide polities such as the United States of America, and the Dominion of Canada, there arose the necessity of federalism. Such continent-wide polities have had to balance the interests of the various states or provinces, against the general national interest, not always successfully. Indeed, the fratricidal American Civil War/War Between the States arose out of many factors, not the least of which were different conceptions of the balance between federal and states' interests. The Dominion of Canada arose in the wake of the American Civil War, and its Constitution (the British North America Act) (1867) consciously sought to avoid some of the constitutional problems which were seen to have led to the American Civil War.

Ironically, the two polities may have moved in somewhat divergent directions in subsequent decades. While America, which was founded with a largely decentralist focus, could be seen to have moved towards a powerful federal government, Canada, which had been founded with a somewhat centralizing focus, moved towards a polity with relatively powerful provinces. In the BNA Act, the federal and provincial powers have been very explicitly separated and listed, thus allowing for less ambiguity between what are "properly" the federal or provincial spheres.

The fact that most of the Canadian provinces are territorially far larger than most U.S. states, and hold a much larger share of the population than most U.S. states in relation to the American polity, means that they would constitute something like "regions" in America. This has meant greater power for the provinces. Indeed, one province, Quebec, may be something close to a "nation" itself.

However, the Canadian Constitution also had the effect of allowing a successful Prime Minister to become a virtual "dictator". One of the reasons for this is that executive and legislative powers are conjoined in the Canadian system, in the House of Commons. Also, if a Prime Minister were able to win continuous majorities in the federal Parliament over several elections, his power would far exceed that of an American President. (There are no term limits in the Canadian constitutional system.)

The highly determined Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980), was able to impose his highly transformational vision on Canada to a remarkable extent. Indeed, he capped his career with the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) into the Canadian constitutional structure, which essentially enshrined virtually his entire agenda as the highest law of the land. The Charter was characterized by both its supporters and opponents as a virtual coup d'état.

Indeed, the decades after 1984 could be seen as little more than a "mopping up" of any "small-c conservative" opposition. In Canada, the term "small-c conservative" is usually meant to refer to "ideological" conservatives. The "big-C Conservative" Party – actually officially called (since 1942) the Progressive Conservative party -- was, ironically, often dominated by "small-l liberals". "Small-c conservatives" were sometimes pejoratively called "cashew conservatives" (i.e., "nuts") within the ostensibly "big-C Conservative" party of Brian Mulroney (Prime Minister from 1984-1993). Indeed, Mulroney once snidely declared that all the ideological conservatives in Canada could easily fit into a telephone booth.

Thoroughly alienated "small-c conservatives" and Western Canadians  founded the Reform Party of Canada in 1987, under the leadership of Preston Manning – in opposition to the federal Progressive Conservative  party.  In 1993, the Liberals won a majority under Jean Chretien, a protégé of Trudeau (while the Reform Party won 52 seats, and the P.C.s, 2). The Liberals won the 1997 election against the Reform Party, and the 2000 election against the Canadian Alliance (which had been at attempt to broaden the Reform Party). The long awaited merger of the Canadian Alliance and the federal Progressive Conservatives occurred in December 2003 – and the "progressive" adjective was dropped from the name of the new unified Conservative party. The Liberals were reduced to a minority government (a plurality of seats in the House of Commons) in 2004; the Conservatives won a minority government in 2006 and 2008 – and were finally able to win a majority in 2011. However, the years since 2011 have been profoundly disappointing to "small-c conservatives" – there simply wasn't even the whiff of transformational politics in a different direction. And now, Canada has delivered itself, as a result of the October 19, 2015 federal election, to a roaring tide of "progressive" change under Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

If Stephen Harper could be perceived to have failed in "reforming the system" while holding a majority government at the federal level, perhaps this could be an impetus for various regionalist, decentralizing tendencies at the provincial level, particularly in the Western Canadian provinces.

It could be argued that in Canada, large, centralized federal bureaucracies and the juridical apparatus, have for far too long stifled voices of popular dissent, especially those emanating from Western Canada. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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