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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Canuckophile Writes...

Below is the article I wrote for the Viewsletter of Devolve! back in January and has just been published. I've been made part of the editorial team and so have to supply articles as often as possible. Anyhow, I hope the piece below is of interest and/or use...

Canadian lessons for English Regionalism?

There are two main impulses behind me writing this article. First, I am a Canuckophile. I have been to Canada (in particular, Vancouver) several times in recent years, and on the whole I like Canada and the Canadians.

Second, I think Canada’s political system should be of interest to English regionalists, in that it combines a British system of government with a federal system. One problem English regionalists have had in recent years is rebutting the claim that regionalism is “unEnglish” or “unBritish” (when it is really only anti-Norman!). Rebutting such claims have not been helped by a tendency to put forward models for a federal/regionalist England/Britain based upon European federal models, most notably Germany and Spain. Consequently, it is easy for anti-regionalists to condemn regionalists as being part of a “Euro-plot” to break up Blighty (where’s my cheque from Brussels then?). However, much of the sting could be drawn from such accusations if regionalists could show that a British style system of government is compatible with federalism/regionalism. Hence, the importance of Canada.

This article barely touches the surface of Canadian politics. I have left out a lot. I will briefly discuss the evolution of Canada’s system of government, followed by some suggestions about the applicability of Canada’s system to us.

The Canadian System of Government: An Overview

The preamble to the 1867 British North America Act (BNA) that created the modern Canadian state stated that Canada was to have a “Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom.” In many ways Canada’s system of government is still very similar to that we live under. The British Monarch is head of state, represented by the Governor-General. The Canadian Parliament consists of a House of Commons, with MPs elected by the first-past-the-post electoral system, and an appointed Senate. Canada’s supreme judicial body is the Supreme Court.

However, Canada is also a federal state. The 1867 BNA created a union of four British colonies (the present day provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec) to make a “Dominion of Canada”. Canada was legislated into existence by Westminster at the request of Canada’s colonial legislatures, fearing that they would be swallowed up by a resurgent, post-Civil War USA. Since then Canada has come to incorporate the provinces of Manitoba (1870), British Columbia, Prince Edward Island (both 1871), Alberta, Saskatchewan (both 1905) & Newfoundland (1949), while incorporating three territories run by the Federal government: Northwest Territories (1870) Yukon (1898) and Nunavut (1999). Each province has its own single chamber parliament and supreme court.

How much power do the provinces have in relation to central government? The BNA is different from most other federal constitutions in that it listed the powers allocated to the provinces and left the rest to the centre. The BNA created a federal system in which the central government had a clear preponderance of power over the provinces. This was deliberate. Canada was meant to be a highly centralised federal union, as the American Civil War was seen as a consequence of having a too decentralised federal system. With foreign and defence policy decided in London, central government was left with exclusive jurisdiction over trade, commerce and criminal law; the right to any form of tax; and anything not specifically reserved to the provinces was to be part of a general federal power to legislate for the “peace, order and good government of Canada.” Furthermore, Section 56 of the BNA gave the central government the “power of disallowance”; enabling it to annul provincial legislation it disapproved of.

In contrast, provincial governments had jurisdiction over “all matters of a strictly local or private nature in the province”: hospitals, charities, local works, property and civil rights and municipal institutions. Hence, from the very beginning, local government in Canada has been the creature of provincial, not national, government. As for revenue creation, under the BNA provincial governments had the power to raise direct taxation and to use “shop, saloon, tavern, auctioneers and other licences.”

Despite the best intentions of the BNA’s architects, Canada now has one of the most decentralised federal unions in the world. This has occurred despite there being no mechanism in the BNA to amend the relationship between the provinces and the centre. The move towards a decentralised federal system began in 1892 when the British Privy Council, which was Canada’s Supreme Court until 1949, explicitly repudiated the notion that provincial governments were subordinates of central government. Furthermore, in 1895 the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee ruled that the central government could only exercise its residuary powers in wartime. Since 1867 there have been a number of decentralising and centralising forces within Canada. Pushing Canada towards greater decentralisation has been varying patterns across the provinces of economic development; a lack of a strong Canadian identity; and the presence of largely French-speaking Quebec. The increase in provincial governments’ powers since 1867 has also been helped by the increasing importance of healthcare and direct taxation.

Moves to establish a more centralised federal system have been aided by efforts over the years to establish national standards in social services and civil rights, as well as a desire to protect Canada’s economy and culture from US domination. In 1941 central government obtained exclusive rights to raise both income and corporation tax. After 1945 tax-sharing arrangements were made with the provinces, which included complex equalisation arrangements for the poorer provinces. The exception was Quebec, with the central government obliged eventually to agree an abatement of central income tax in order to allow Quebec to raise its own taxes.

After much wrangling, and rejection by Quebec, the 1982 Canada Act came into existence, containing a complex amending formula which works on the principle that the provinces and central government must agree on changes to the division of powers between the centre and the provinces. The modern Canadian system can be seen as a contract between two levels of government, with neither level being able to change the terms of the contract on its own. However, with Quebec rejecting the Canada Act, more years of tortuous negotiations between the centre and the provinces followed, to try and find a way of addressing Quebec’s concerns. However, too many Canadians rejected the so-called “Meech Lake” and “Charlottestown” Accords in the late 1980s and early 1990s for these proposals to be viable and the narrow rejection of Quebec independence in the 1995 Referendum means that the future of centre-province relations in Canada is very much in cold storage.

In the meantime, relations between provincial and local governments have hardly been harmonious. As mentioned previously, under both the BNA and the 1982 Canada Act, sub-provincial government in Canada is the creature of the provinces. There are over 4,600 municipalities in Canada, responsible for policing, fire protection, roads, public transport, water supply and sewerage, land use, economic development, parks, recreation, libraries and other cultural facilities. However, the evolution of provincial-local relations has meant mostly increasing provincial supervision, influence and control. For instance, in Ontario in the 1990s almost 400 municipalities, around 45% of the total number on the province, were abolished. In response, since the early 1990s municipal associations in a number of provinces have pushed for provincial charters that would force provincial governments to recognise the existence of a separate level of local government. Combined with grass roots opposition to the merger/abolition of municipalities [i.e. “In spite of Quebec Liberal Party rigging the vote (a 35% hurdle required) 15 former towns voted on June 20 to de-merge from their respective megapoli after being forced to merge contrary to the wishes of their citizens.” ANY TIME NOW #20 Summer 2004. A Canadian evolutionary anarchist magazine at] there has been limited success is stopping the provinces overwhelming local government beneath them, but this has been very much against a centralising grain.

Lessons for English Regionalism?

At the moment, just to get people aware that it is possible to reconcile a British style political system with federalism is possibly enough. This brief overview of Canada should be supplemented with information about other English-speaking countries with federal systems. What about Australia, New Zealand etc? However, at some point professional anti-regionalists will start to pull holes in any federal model even from places that have the Queen’s head on its currency!

I think that Canada’s applicability rests a certain deal on whether we want a Federal Britain or a Federal England. Quebec is a distinct society in a way that Scotland and Wales are. However, even quite enlightened Canadians I’ve met both over there and elsewhere seem bored senseless with the debates over Quebec’s future. If people here see a Federal Britain as being like a Federal Canada, with endless debate over Scotland and Wales’ place (if any) within it, I think a lot of people will plump for the status quo. On the other hand, if we want a Federal England, such problems would disappear. There are differences between the different parts of Canada ie “Western alienation”, particularly in Alberta, and there are various separatist groups, but I think the primary identity in Canada outside of Quebec is definitely Canadian.

The best aspect of Canada’s federal system is that it recognises that the Provinces cannot have their powers limited or extended by central government without the mutual consent of both sides. If we had a constitutional model like Canada’s it would have been impossible to abolish the GLC and Metropolitan County Councils in the 1980s.

The worst aspect is that that the provinces are able to interfere in local government with impunity. One of the factors that led to the “No” vote against a regional assembly in the North East in November 2004 was the fear that the assembly would take powers away from local councils. With Canada’s model the possibility of the provinces taking away all the powers of local government is enshrined in the Constitution. Despite the considerable leeway for the Provinces under the Canadian system, it can quite legitimately seen as a very “top-down” model of federalism, reflecting the centralist impulses contained in the original constitution. Like its British parent, the Canadian system of government still has no place for direct democracy (referendums occur when national or provincial governments want them to happen) and hangs onto a first-past-the-post electoral system despite having four main parties (Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois).

To conclude, I think the Canadian example of federal government is good for English Regionalists, simply because it shows that a federal system is compatible with “the British model of democracy”. However, unless the Canadians tackle the gaping “democratic deficit” soon, which appears unlikely for now, English Regionalists will have to draw upon other models and their own ideas for further inspiration.


My overall understanding of Canada’s system of government came from three main sources:

Patrick Malcolmson & Richard Myers (2002) The Canadian Regime: An Introduction to Parliamentary Government in Canada (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadway Press);
Bernard Burrows & Geoffrey Denton (1980) Devolution or Federalism? Options for a United Kingdom (London: Macmillan); &
Wikipedia, particularly its sections on “Politics of Canada” & “Provinces & Territories of Canada.”

For understanding local government in Canada my main source was C.Richard Tindal & Susan Nobes Tindal (2004) Local Government in Canada (Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson).

For helping me towards my conclusions I must tip my hat to the comments of long-standing Canadian Anarchist Larry Gambone ( about Canada’s federal system. To understand where Canada is politically I would also recommend reading “Limits of Political Parties”, a chapter in Naomi Klein’s 2002 collection of essays Fences and Windows (London, Flamingo), pp.228-233:

“Listen to the most economically and socially excluded Canadians and you hear an idea absent from the mainstream left: a deep distrust of the state.”


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