Transcript: Contemporary Issues in Canadian Federalism Series: Why Federalism Matters
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[The screen fades to Charles Breton in a video chat panel.]
Charles Breton: Good afternoon and welcome to this event entitled Why Federalism Matters. Note there is no question mark because this is not a question, it does. Thank you for joining us. My name is Charles Breton. I am the Executive Director at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation. I will be your moderator for today's panel.
I will be your moderator for today's panel. I would like to welcome all of our participants who are here with us today, on this Friday before Thanksgiving. Thank you!
Let me start by acknowledging that the land from which I'm talking to you, [inaudible], is the unceded traditional territory of the Kanien'gehaga. I recognize that we all work in different places, and therefore, you work on a different traditional Indigenous territory.
Please take a moment to think about the Indigenous Peoples of the land where you are. Thank you, merci!
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Please go to the top right corner of your screen and click the chat button and enter your questions. We'll get to a Q&A towards the end. Even if you don't see your question appear in the chat, don't worry, it will get to the moderator.
Okay, so with that done, it is my great pleasure, again, to welcome you to this event. This is the first in a series created through our partnership between the School and the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation at the IRPP on contemporary issues in Canadian federalism. I'll just say a few words about us, about my organization, and then move on to our discussion, the reason you're all here today.
For those of you who don't know, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the IRPP, is a national independent think tank. This year, we're celebrating our 50th anniversary. The IRPP was created in 1972 with an initial endowment from the federal government and donations from provinces and the private sector. So, right from the start, discussions about the Canadian Federation, about federalism, at that time, mostly about national unity, were at the core of IRPP's mission.
And so, throughout the Institute's history, questions related to Canadian federalism have remained central to the work that we do.
The Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation, which I lead, was created in 2019. It was therefore a logical progression from the work done at the IRPP since the 1970s. It is in fact a permanent centre within the IRPP, which is dedicated specifically to the study of federalism in Canada. This was possible, among other things, because Canadian Heritage and the Government of Canada believed in our mission, and contributed an additional amount to our endowment fund to create the Centre. So there you go, enough about me! On to our guests!
Today, for this first event, we're laying out the foundations. We're going over the fundamentals of federalism. Later in the series, we'll delve into the nitty gritty of intergovernmental relations, whether on health care or the role of municipalities, for instance, but today, that's not necessarily the goal.
Today, we stay, in some ways, at a higher level, again, thinking about what federalism is, what it means, and how it evolves in the face of challenges.
So, we're doing so with two outstanding speakers, each with unique expertise on the matter. We'll start with a presentation from Jenna Bednar, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
[Jenna Bednar and Benoit Pelletier appear in separate video chat windows.]
Professor Bednar's research focuses on the analysis of institutions and the theoretical underpinnings of the stability of federal states. She's one of the foremost scholars of federalism and we're lucky to have her with us.
We are also lucky to have Benoît Pelletier with us. I'm sure many of you know him. Mr. Pelletier is a law professor at the University of Ottawa and has also been a minister in the Quebec government, including in Intergovernmental Affairs, and he is the author of several books on federalism and the Canadian federation. He therefore has insight into both the substance of the issue and the practice of federalism in this country.
So, we'll proceed in the following manner. Jenna will get us started with a discussion of her work on federalism and the characteristics of the robust federations.
Benoît will then comment on the case of Canada, and elaborate a little further on our own experiences with the principles of federalism. We will then move on to a discussion that I will moderate on the issues raised during the presentations and then to any questions you may have for our panelists.
So, again, it is my pleasure to introduce our speakers, and especially now, because it's her turn to talk, Professor Bednar, Jenna, over to you.
Jenna Bednar: Thank you so much for that invitation, that introduction but also this invitation. Before I begin, I actually want to say thank you to all of you Canadians, because it is literally because of my experiences working as an undergraduate intern in Canada that I became interested in federalism. It was during a period when federalism was, frankly, quite boring in the United States.
And in fact, the first day I started grad school here, I spent some time in Canada, figured out that federalism is very much alive and very much fascinating. So, I went off to grad school at Stanford and the very first day, I remember saying, oh, I'm going to work on federalism, and my professor said, wait, isn't that dead?
And so, it's an honour and a thrill to be with you, and I just am so glad that you are all spending this year and this series together, really engaging with this important question.
And so, I'm going to start maybe in an unusual way by saying what might be on some of your minds, although you may not feel comfortable saying it out loud. So, I'll just say it.
Federalism is a pain. It's totally annoying, right? The provinces are mischief makers. They create headaches and one of the biggest parts of your jobs is to fix their mistakes.
I'm a political scientist and this view of subnational entities as troublemakers is the overwhelming view of my colleagues. So, for those of you who somewhere inside of you say, I think I feel a little bit that way, you're in very good company with an awful lot of scholars, including me to a certain extent.
So, a lot of political science and legal scholarship is about how to overcome the problems that federalism creates but what I want to do today is give you a slightly different view and that is I want to take you from this sense of annoyance to, first, an appreciation for the competition which you're probably already sensing, competition between the subnational governments and the federal government.
But then I want to take you to maybe a new place, which is of collaboration. So, we're going to move from annoyance to competition to collaboration.
And first, let's think why would we want to make that move. If our view of federalism is that it's an annoyance- or, as some of my legal colleagues have called it in the United States, it's the U.S.'s national neuroses that we just can't get over. If that's the diagnosis, then the clearest remedy to that is to minimize the autonomy of the subnational units.
And if, even in the United States where there isn't as much of, I think, an identification with- an overt identification with federalism as being part of our political makeup, if there, it's cause for some kind of a revolution, just imagine in Canada what it might do, right?
So, if instead you say, like it or not, I have to embrace the autonomy of these subnational governments formally as expressed to organize through the provinces- but also, I think it's quite interesting to think about the role that regional governments and city governments play in this federal system.
As soon as we embrace that, then we have to accept that these different units are going to have differing interests from the whole, and then we open up the likelihood, the certainty, that those interests will clash and they're going to compete for supremacy.
And so, most federal constitutions have provisions for legal supremacy of the federal law. The feds often can just simply dominate subnational law by invoking their constitutional dominance, whether it's by pointing to convenient constitutional clauses or through other kinds of things like pre-emption.
And where that is not available, federal governments, increasingly, we're seeing this a lot in the United States, can use their powers of the purse. That is, they can buy their preferred policy generally by putting out the carrot of new money with strings attached, policy strings attached, for the subnational governments to take, or sometimes by withholding money that had ordinarily been committed unless new conditions are met.
And this is actually a recent area of legal judicial shifts in the United States where there's limits on that. I'm not sure, in the Canadian context, where you sit with that. So, using money to buy policy is another way that the federal government can really impose its will on the subnational governments.
And so, when the federal government asserts itself, overwhelming subnationals and winning this competition by force, what's lost? What's the downside of that? Of course, we know, everybody understands that the first reason anyone trots out for why we might want a federal system is to tailor policy to fit local conditions, local preferences. That's the oldest and most cited reason for federalism.
And so, if the federal government is suppressing the expression of those interests, that's considered to be a loss, but there's also a loss of learning.
So, some policies and practices developed at the subnational level turn out to be really good ideas, and as we're in this world where policies are increasingly complex, where it's hard to see the right thing to do, and here, of course, I'm thinking, I mean, there are many examples, but if we just jump right to climate change and how we- which is the literally existential threat that we face, there is no single path forward, no single policy prescription.
And the way that climate change affects us varies a lot from locality to locality. So, we really want to be able to engage local decisionmakers as we wrestle together with this common crisis.
And so, it's an opportunity by kind of practicing a little bit of self constraint and recognizing the significance and importance of the expression of these diverse interests at the subnational levels.
It's an opportunity for learning, and learning that those policy innovations can diffuse horizontally or upward vertically. Some of the most interesting policy achievements at the national level in the United States were first tried at state levels.
So, in this way, federalism is like a problem-solving mechanism. It's a way of having an entire society learn to think about what we might do to make good policy.
And so, given that perspective, we want to think about, how do we make it work well? Hang on to that thought because I want to add one more wrinkle. So, that's from competition to collaboration.
So, collaboration, what is collaboration? Think about it as an alignment of values and an alignment of action, and is that even possible in a federal system where I've already said that kind of by definition, we're going to have the emergence of diverse and often competing interests?
But I've also just made the case for a big common objective which is good policymaking, that is, for sure, at the federal level, there are federal interests that are distinct from provincial or city interests.
And so, the ends that you might want to achieve and the means, the policy means, for getting there may differ but there is, at the federal level, stepping back, one thing that you all hold in common, which is you as public servants want to create good policy, that is, you want to make appropriate policy, effective policy that works for the people that you serve.
And so, hanging onto that thought means acceptance of some of the goods that federalism can offer, tailoring policy and learning, and sometimes those goals do align and you can literally work together with the different capacities that local, provincial, and federal governments have to achieve those common ends.
So, good policymaking is a collaborative effort and there's one more collaborative effort that has [inaudible] United States really become a major preoccupation of ours, which is the democracies in crisis.
And with the democracy of crisis, we think about what's holding democracy together and what's preventing the emergence of an authoritarian state. Fragmenting power, certainly at the national level, is quite effective but the last backstop in the United States or in our federal system against authoritarianism, is federalism.
And if you paid attention to the 2020 elections which were so concerning, there were many heroes but I'd say the real heroes of that election were in a number of states, the state secretaries of state, which is the office that's in charge of administering the elections in each of the states. The state secretaries of state were our heroes, standing up and first running a very clean, transparent election and then saying the people have spoken, and saying it quite firmly, both Democrats and Republicans.
So, if subnationals are dismissed and diminished for being nuisances, we lose these opportunities for collaboration. So, these upsides or these opportunities that federalism creates rely on, kind of paradoxically, the downside of federalism which is its diversity, that is diversity is both federalism is greatest challenge and its greatest strength, because in order for the system to work well, you need to have these diverse inputs.
Learning can't happen without trying different things, the input of different perspectives. Collaboration is made more effective when each team member, here, the federal government and the subnational governments, brings its own strengths to the effort, and democracy can't be preserved if there's no internal pushback, no diversity of argument. So, diversity is a benefit of a federal system that has to be preserved.
So, that takes me to kind of the last big point I want to offer which is thinking about what holds this whole thing together, some safeguards. So, while we're embracing competition, we need to have some way of keeping the action, the policies, and the activities of each of these components of the system in check in bounds, right?
And importantly, what counts as...
[Jenna Bednar motions air quotes]
...in bounds will change over time. The meaning of the Constitution, the way that it limits the government's power over all and its duties to the people, as well as the relationship between the component units of government, the federal government and the subnational governments, will need to change over time in response to our changing demands.
I mentioned climate change earlier, right? But including our own preferences, what we as people want from our government, and as our preferences change, so should, in the federalism context, the assignment of power.
So, there is no optimal constitution, certainly no one size fits all constitution to fit all federal systems, but no one constitution that's going to work for a particular country over time. So, it needs to be able to evolve.
So, what that means is we're looking for a system of safeguards that's flexible, that allows for this change while still preventing opportunism, that is this exploitation of that flexibility, that discretion for private gain. So, that means we need a system that is not fixed or stable but instead is robust, one that is adaptive but still capable of being strong enough to keep actions in the realm of what we consider to be constitutional.
So, this robust system will tolerate- not just tolerate but embrace some deviations. It's hard. It's hard to accept it, I know, because that's going to mean, in the system, there are going to be things, actions taken by some other governments, that you don't like, but including some differing interpretations of what is constitutional, that is the Constitution itself is breathing, is evolving, is changing, and that change comes from trying out different meanings of it.
But at the same time, if you can imagine the metaphor of a ping-pong game, a game of ping-pong, and you want to keep the ping-pong ball on the table, it doesn't mean that it's always bouncing in the same spot. There's a lot of room for tolerance of diversity but you want to keep it from falling off the table.
So, that's what a system of safeguards can do.
And I have to say, when we think about safeguards, we traditionally think about them as managing this competition, and so to manage this competition, there's no single safeguard that works for a law.
A good period of the 20th century, legal scholarship, of course, tended to say it's the courts who are the umpires, because they are the ones we traditionally think of as being the interpreters of the Constitution and therefore what is unconstitutional.
But as we're trying to keep that ping-pong ball on the table, we can think of some other kinds of safeguards, that is those that first constrain the governments from taking actions that are out of bounds.
So, by fragmenting authority at the national level, which most federal systems do, that's a way of first building in checks on overt exercise of authority that, given the advantages that the federal government has over the subnational governments, it's just kind of like an internal check.
Second, it offers opportunities for subnational input depending on how the institutions are constructed. The party system is a way of creating dialogue and some checks between the levels of government.
And at the end of the day, the people themselves interpret the Constitution, and though they- actually, it's you all. Canadians are much more likely, I think, than Americans to be able to express opinions that are well-considered about constitutionality, unless you're talking about maybe the Second Amendment, Americans aren't really very good, the Second Amendment being the one about regulation of firearms and possession of firearms. Other than that, I really haven't had too many conversations with the general public that are constitutional.
But you are in a position, that is we, the public, the voting public, are in a position to be able to regulate our government's actions and try to keep that ping-pong ball on the table. So, these safeguards, no single one is sufficient but they reinforce and complement one another.
Now, and I'll just close with this, that's really about regulating competition. When we're talking about collaboration and taking advantage of these opportunities for these different levels of government to work together, that's a different kind of idea, and safeguard might not even be the right term for this but it's an extension of the safeguards argument, to think about ways of channeling that competition into aligned action.
And so, this is something I have to say the United States does terribly, absolutely terribly. We don't really- we don't have an official institution that is designed to foster dialogue between the states and the federal government. It's all reactive.
There are some non-governmental interest groups like the National Governors Association or the National Conference of State Legislatures that essentially are lobbying organizations but there's nothing that is constructed by the government. We used to have something called the Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations but that was defunded by Congress. Remember, I said in the 1990s, federalism was considered dead in the United States, and that's when Congress decided that was just a waste of money, because who really needed to think about what the states were doing?
There is, though, it's fun that we're talking about this this week, one new institution recognizing the competition of the states in the creation of American foreign policy. So, a couple weeks ago, I published a paper with Tino Cuéllar who's the President of the Carnegie Endowment, and one of our arguments, it was called the fractured superpower, and one of our arguments was that you have to take seriously the extent that states and cities are engaged in their own international relations.
And just on Monday, the Department of State announced that they had created a new office, first ever, the Special Representative for Subnational Diplomacy, and they brought in, to head it, somebody who had been in charge of international affairs for the city of Los Angeles.
So, that's- in some ways, I think the first step forward that I have seen in the United States on collaborative institutions. Canadians are far ahead of us on this and I am jealous of the institutions that you have to create formal opportunities for collaborative dialogue.
So just to recap, I have tried to suggest, as annoying as federalism may seem at times, first, it's a reality, it's a part of our political identity, and so managing the competition that results from that is possible but we may even be able to move to a point where we find opportunities to transform competition into collaboration in the creation of policy that is effective and appropriate.
Charles Breton: Thank you, Jenna.
I noted when you said that federalism is a problem-solving mechanism because I think that was one of the reasons why we ended up with federalism in this country, but I think that we tend to kind of lose track nowadays of that aspect of it as a problem-solving mechanism, and we'll get back to that when we go to the questions.
We will now turn to Mr. Pelletier, Benoît Pelletier, to put all this into the Canadian context, but Jenna still has some things to say about Canada as well. And so, with your knowledge of the country, Mr. Pelletier, I give you the floor. Over to you!
Benoît Pelletier: Thank you, Charles. Thank you, Jenna for your presentation!
Thank you for having invited me to this conference and thank you for being here virtually, of course, but you're here and that's the most important.
Thank you to the organizers for this experience of discussing federalism and discussing the foundations of federalism.
I will be speaking in English and French. I was told that there is simultaneous translation, so therefore I would ask you to use it if you feel it is necessary.
I will be speaking in both languages, not in the same sentence, of course, but I will be speaking in both languages. I will be pleased to answer your questions in the official language of your choice. I would like, though, to forgive my accent. I have the typical accent of someone coming from Quebec City, but I will be pleased to answer your questions in the language- the official language of your choice.
This being said, I will give you my perspective about Canadian federalism and through my perspective, there will be the Quebec perspective because I've been part of Quebec's politics during ten years. I was a minister in the Quebec government for six years. I'll come back to that experience in a few minutes but I'll give you my own thoughts about what are the foundations of federalism.
First, in order to understand what federalism is about, we should start from the concept of a state, and here, I use that concept as meaning a country. Of course, I'm not talking about the different states that compose the United States. I'm talking, when I use the word state here, as the meaning of country.
In constitutional law, we consider that a state has and is a full sovereignty that expresses itself internally and externally. What I mean here is this.
The concept of state in constitutional law is a concept that we describe as total sovereignty, which is expressed internally, that is to say inside a state, and externally, in other words, on the international scene.
Of course, this sovereignty is exercised by institutions, and we believe, in our country, in a country like Canada, and it's the same thing in the United States, that the sovereignty belongs to the people and that the people determines the sovereignty of the state.
But at first, we consider that the state, it's a concept that is about sovereignty and not just sovereignty or full sovereignty.
Federalism is a sharing of the state's sovereignty between two or more levels of government, between at least two levels of government or two orders of government. So, federalism is about, I repeat, sharing the sovereignty of the state between different political entities. There are the federal authorities and there are what Jenna called the subnational governments, what we also could call federated states.
I'm not using the word federal state. The federal state is something else. It's the whole country. I'm talking about federated states or what we call in Canada, the provinces. So, there is that sharing of sovereignty in the sense that we could say that within Canada, the Canadian provinces are sovereign but they are sovereign in their field of jurisdiction. Their sovereignty is limited.
It is limited by the Constitution, the Constitution that, in fact, distributes the legislative powers between the federal order of government and the provinces, but the provinces are sovereign in Canada. Again, they have a partial sovereignty or a limited sovereignty, and the federal order of government is also sovereign but it's a partial sovereignty. Again, it's sovereign and it's filled with jurisdiction.
And the full sovereignty of the country is made by the addition of the sovereignty of the provinces and the sovereignty of the federal order of governments.
What I mean is that the complete sovereignty of a federal state like Canada, the complete sovereignty of the state lies in having both provincial jurisdictions and federal jurisdictions.
So, because the federal principle, in fact, implies the sovereignty of the provinces, everything that goes against that sovereignty, like the federal spending power, for example, when it is used in provincial fields of jurisdiction, is something that could be seen as being suspect with regards to the federal principle.
Jenna talked before about the powers of the purse. That's the spending power, I think. It's the power of using money in order to interfere. Here, I'm talking about the federal spending power, the power of using money to interfere into provincial fields of jurisdiction, and this is something that should be seen as being suspect with regards to the federal principle.
When we talk about the federal supremacy or the federal preponderance or the federal superiority in a state, it exists but it's not something that is entirely compatible with federalism or the federal principle, as it is theoretically seen, as it is theoretically described, as described just a few minutes ago.
So, in this regard, you must understand that some of the positions of the Government of Quebec in Canada- and it's the same thing for other provinces in Canada. I say, some of the positions of the Quebec government are aimed at ensuring that the federal principle be more respected in Canada.
And I used to say, and I could repeat this today, that Quebeckers are among the best federalists in Canada. It may surprise you but in fact, Quebeckers defend the federal principle. They defend the autonomy of Quebec. They even defend the sovereignty of Quebec, but here again, it's the limit of sovereignty within Canada, as I said before.
But Quebec is protecting and defending and promoting the respect of the federal principle in many, many of the positions that it takes at the Canadian level.
But it should also be understood that Quebec is not just a province. Quebec is also defined by the House of Commons and defines itself as a nation. So, there is a nation within the nation, and it's the same thing that Alberta tries to do those days with, I would say, the expression of a new nationalism. Alberta tries to define itself as being a nation within the nation.
So, I hear you saying, well, is it possible that the nation exists within another nation? Well, yes. What about the First Nations? What about the Aboriginals, about the Indigenous people, as we now call them? What about the Indigenous people? They formed nations within Canada. They formed nations within their nation.
Canada is a nation, that's for sure, but Indigenous people also are described in the Canadian Constitution as people, and Quebec has been recognized, the Quebecois have been recognized, as a nation by the House of Commons of Canada.
So, in reality, we must increasingly think of Canada as a multinational state, that is to say, a state made up of several nations. And I can tell you that many Canadians see Canada not as a state, not just as a mononational state, but as a unitary state.
One of the problems in Canada is that many Canadians see Canada as a unique [inaudible]. What I mean here is that they see Canada as being composed almost exclusively by the federal government and the Parliament of Canada, and they are in favour of more centralization of powers in the country. They are in favour of the preponderance of federal powers over the provinces. Some Canadian even ignore the existence of the provinces.
When I teach constitutional law and I talk about Canada, most of my students, at the beginning, they only think about Justin Trudeau and his government. They forget the provinces completely. They forget that the provinces are part of the Canadian experience and not just that, they are part of the definition of Canada as a federal state.
So, one of the problems that we are facing as a country is that many Canadians tend to see Canada as a unitary state when, in fact, Canada is a federal state, and what is ironic is that many Quebeckers defend the federal principle within Canada and they are seen as being too autonomous by other Canadians.
So, we are facing different dynamics in Canada that do not necessarily exist in the United States, of course, and I will close my remarks, Charles, if you don't mind my saying this, by saying that Jenna was absolutely right when she emphasized diversity as being one of the strengths of a federal state. Diversity is at the basis of a federal state.
If a federal state is a federal state and not a unitary state, that's because it initially wants to promote its intrinsic diversity. So, that diversity should not be ignored. It should be respected, it should be promoted, and in the case of Canadian federalism, if you ask yourself what was the main reason for the creation of a federation in Canada in 1867, well, I will tell you that one of the main reasons was Quebec.
Could you imagine? Quebec was one of the main reasons why the fathers of the Canadian Federation chose federalism in 1867 instead of the unitary model.
And I will end by quoting the Supreme Court of Canada in a decision that it rendered in 1998, and the decision the decision goes like this. I quote, "Federalism was a legal response to the underlying political and cultural realities that existed at confederation and continue to exist today. The social and demographic reality of Quebec explains the existence of the province of Quebec as a political unit and indeed was one of the essential reasons for establishing a federal structure for the Canadian nation in 1867."
So, what it means is this, it means that Quebec's specificity is not something that is incompatible with federalism. It's something that explains Canadian federalism fully and that explains why, in 1867, we chose the federal model instead of the unitary model.
Charles Breton: Thank you, Benoît.
So, you ended by talking about, again, and those are terms also that Jenna used, embracing diversity, embracing autonomy. I want to talk a bit about the flip side of that.
And Jenna, you touched a bit on the safeguards and the systems of safeguards. Again, keeping in mind- and to me, I was reading those as safeguards to ensure that we embrace autonomy, that we embrace diversity.
But again, the flip side is, how do we keep a federation going to keep- how do we keep it robust and stable when embracing that diversity and embracing that autonomy has the potential to just have the whole thing explode, right? So, the flip side of that is how can a federation be robust and stable while embracing that?
You talk about safeguards again, but safeguards against that, and perhaps, in a way, in your view, what explains the durability of Canadian federalism specifically in regards to that?
Jenna Bednar: Alright. Well, you're really asking me to go out on a limb as an American to explain why Canadian federalism-
Charles Breton: In your view.
Jenna Bednar: But let me just start by speaking semantically about what robustness is and is not. So, robustness is not something that is guaranteed to be successful.
And in fact, for those of us who are engaged in robustness science, we are always aware of this kind of relationship between robustness and stability, that all robust systems are also fragile, and it's a question of, how do you manage that fragility?
And so, in any federal context, what that's going to mean is that you can never take anything for granted, that any government requires work, and we haven't gotten that much into it but at the end of the day, all these institutions that I've described and the law that Benoît and I have been talking about are only as strong as the public that's behind it, and it's because it relies on legitimacy and it relies on the internalization and expression of norms, norms of democracy and norms of valuing federalism, including valuing diversity.
And I will say here that on the U.S. side, we have a real handicap in kind of our cultural identity because our cultural identity has been very much a culture of a maverick, of a self-reliant cowboy, of the resistor, you know, the revolution against Britain, right?
And what this means, I think, in this context of where federalism depends so much on norms of embracing diversity, is that that maverick or cowboy view is ultimately harmful as we find increasing in the United States that we need to lean on these norms, collectivist norms, norms that are pro-social and caring for one another, and in this enterprise that we can build together.
And so, and here's where I'm going out on a limb, and bear with me because there was a time when I really wanted to move to Canada. I was still entertaining invitations, adoring Canada as I am, but I'm an outsider.
But I think Canada may have some advantage, as I perceived it as an outsider, of tolerating difference much better than in the United States, of having some kind of nearly universally-held view that we don't expect everybody to become identical with one another, and that Canada is strong.
Actually, as Benoît so beautifully pointed out, Canada exists as it is today because of those differences and it is strong because of these differences, but that's also very fragile, and so, while it's robust, it has this fragility that requires constant, continuous work to maintain.
Charles Breton: And that's interesting, and continuous work in this capacity to adapt.
Jenna has spoken often about this need for federations to adapt and be flexible. For you, what are the elements that make it possible for the Canadian federation to adapt? The elements that make it possible for the Canadian federation to not be forced, or perhaps on the contrary, you think it is too rigid? But surely there are elements in the institutions of the Canadian federation that allow it to adapt, aren't there?
Benoît Pelletier: Yes, is this question for me, Charles?
Charles Breton: Yes, absolutely!
Benoît Pelletier: Yes, thank you! So first off, I have to say that Jenna is absolutely right about the strength of the federal system.
I like very much that concept of robust federalism. To me, robust federalism is a flexible federalism, and it is robust because it is flexible.
And I think that Jenna and I share the same point of view on this question. What I mean here is this, I mean that federalism should be able to adapt itself to the different sociodemographic and sociopolitical contexts that exist within it, and as for example, Canada should see Quebec's specificity as being an asset, as being something that is beneficial for the country, not as being something that is an obstacle to Canada's unity.
My fear is that there are not enough kind of Canadians who believe that Quebec's specificity is such an asset for the country. I think that many people think that Quebec's specificity is good only in Quebec and that it could express itself but on Quebec's territory only, when in fact, I believe that Canada as a whole should promote Quebec's specificity more and more.
And when I was in politics, I promoted asymmetrical federalism. Asymmetrical federalism, this is not all-out asymmetrical federalism, it is not asymmetrical federalism all over the place, but it is a federalism that succeeds in adapting to the different needs of the Canadian provinces while obviously keeping common values, common wealth, and substantial and strong federal power.
So, this concept of asymmetrical federalism is something that, in fact, some federalists did not adhere to. Some federalists opposed that concept of asymmetrical federalism that I promoted when I was in politics.
But in my view, the future of Canada resides in such a concept. What I mean here is that Canada should be more flexible than it is currently. It's not flexible enough in my view, but flexibility is certainly one of the values of federalism that should be promoted and cherished.
Charles Breton: So, if I understand correctly, what you were saying is that for you, one of the main tools that Canada has to be robust and to be flexible would probably be the possibility of asymmetrical federalism the way you understand it, right? Is that what you would say, that that's probably one of the best tools it has to recognize some of the specificities for Quebec but for other provinces as well?
Benoît Pelletier: Yes, and it goes through administrative agreements or intergovernmental agreements, for example. There could be and there should be agreements between the federal government and the provinces or some of the provinces or one of the provinces in order to respond to the special needs of the province, but again, it's not asymmetrical federalism at all costs. It's asymmetrical federalism as long as Canada continues to be a federal state.
At some point, asymmetry is something that, in fact, goes against the principle of federalism. Too much asymmetry is not good for federalism as much as too much centralization is not good for federalism. So, I promote a limited form of symmetrical federalism.
Charles Breton: So, I want to go back to Jenna. You mentioned climate change and I want to talk about perhaps new challenges that are different from perhaps the historical ones that both, whether the U.S. or Canada, have had with federalism.
And I wonder about climate change in the sense that, is climate change a new type of federalism? Like, climate change is new in a way, but as a type of problem that federations need to deal to deal with, is that one a new type of challenge that federation has to deal with or is there any kind of new challenges that are really proper to this era we're in, that are the product of the era we're in, that federations are dealing with or need to contend with?
Jenna Bednar: This is a super rich question, but I actually wanted to say one more thing about what Benoît was just saying because- so, Charles, I'm going to get back to your question.
Charles Breton: Perfect.
Jenna Bednar: But I may misremember part of it, so I'm just making a note to myself.
Charles Breton: I can repeat myself too.
Jenna Bednar: But just thinking about asymmetrical federalism, because it's not something that we- like, a legally asymmetric federation, meaning that there are different legal arrangements and rights and responsibilities from one province to another.
And so, if I were to take this to the typical American, they would think that was crazy because we don't have that, but we do have it in a de facto sense.
So, when I was when I was talking about the power of the purse or the use of the spending powers, there are some states that are much better insulated than others, like California for sure, a massive economy. It is not as dependent on the federal government.
And in fact, the federal government is much more dependent on cash flows from the people of California to it to be redistributed out, and so it puts it in a pretty privileged position.
And so, I think we might argue that, in the United States, we have de facto asymmetric federalism, and if that's the case, maybe that's not very fair and one would want to address it through some legal acknowledgment in the way that Benoît was proposing.
So, I think that's super interesting and it may be a way of making the whole system more just, even though one's initial reaction to it might be, wait, that means you're going to privilege one province over another, but instead, it may be some way of making it behave in a more equitable way.
So, I just wanted to say thank you to Benoît for that because it's got me thinking about the U.S. federation a little bit differently.
Now, back to this question, is climate change a different kind of problem for polities and for federal systems in particular, and I think that you also asked, is there anything else that is like this?
Well, I would say, first, is there anything else like this? In the U.S. context, we are really in the midst of a massive reckoning over our racist past, and that racist past is very much linked to federalism because even as some states were moving forward toward equity 100 years before others, and then finally with the U.S. Congress taking a firm stance against discriminatory practices in some of the Southern states, it just, took a pretty heavy hand of denying autonomy to some states in order to make that correction.
And a legacy of that, frankly, has been that the progressives in the United States have abandoned federalism for them. Remember, I opened with federalism as annoying. Well, they would have much juicier words to describe how they feel about federalism, and so for them, anything happening at the state level had the possibility of going off the rails in a racist direction, and so they have always practiced a strategy of wanting to centralize things.
So, that's a more complicated conversation but one that I thought I'd put out there.
As far as climate change goes, as I said, with climate change, our thought is, well, this is a global problem and so we need to take the solution-making to it to the highest level possible, and that's not just an intuitive reaction but it's probably approximately the right one.
But the question is, do you want to leave behind the local and state or provincial governments as you move in this? That is, do we want just centralization or do we want collaboration?
And I think that this is a perfect example of when we need collaboration, because climate change- you can walk me through the effects in Canada but I can take you around the map in the United States, starting with just earlier this week with the hurricane in Florida and the droughts in the west and the forest fires and the general decline in water availability in the west, but then in the east, water abundance, catastrophic water abundance with flooding and erosion, etc.
This is all connected to climate change but it's playing out very differently.
The only way we're going to build the political will to addressing, to making the change that we need to make nationally is by embracing the realities on the ground, having people say this right here is the problem that we need to work on, and then helping everybody see just how linked that is.
So, I see this as a perfect opportunity to promote a collaborative process over a competitive one.
Charles Breton: And in a way, what you're saying is that, yes, we need a national approach but a national approach doesn't need to be a federal one coming from the federal government.
[Jenna Bednar nods her head]
Jenna Bednar: Yes.
Charles Breton: I see you both nodding, which I guess means I'm right.
Benoît, from your perspective, do you see any challenges for the Canadian Federation that are perhaps different from the challenges that we are used to from past experience? Or is it more that the same challenges keep coming back, and perhaps the solution is not always the same, but it always seems to be the same challenge, for example, as you mentioned earlier, the challenge of embracing the autonomy of the provinces and diversity? Do you perhaps see any new challenges that will require the Canadian federation to maybe adapt differently?
Benoît Pelletier: Yes, of course! You mentioned climate change as an example, a good example, where there can indeed be better federal-provincial cooperation and there needs to be better federal-provincial cooperation. I am also thinking of the issue of firearms, which is discussed a lot these days. There are a lot of important issues. In fact, the Indigenous file is one that will literally bring about a legal revolution.
We used to think about Canada as being two official languages and a linguistic duality, the Francophones, the Anglophones, and so on and so forth, but the Indigenous people are going to provoke a real revolution of the way we see Canada? The dualistic view of Canada will have to be reviewed in the light of the emergence of the Indigenous people in Canada.
There is going to be a real legal revolution in light of Indigenous issues, I am convinced of it, and I would say it is the biggest challenge facing Canada. The biggest challenge is really adjusting and readjusting based on the emergence of Indigenous issues. But you know, I was talking a moment ago about federal-provincial collaboration and well, when we formed the government, in Quebec, in 2003, we took the initiative to create the Council of the Federation.
One of the goals of the Council of the Federation which exists since 2003, one of the goals was, at the beginning, to make sure that the provinces have a say with regards to the definition of tomorrow's Canada. The goal was not just to strengthen the relationship between the provinces and the territories. It was also to make sure that the provinces be part of the great decisions that concerned the future of Canada.
So, it's related to what you just said, Charles.
When you said: "Well, essentially, shouldn't the provinces be invited?" But after all, you said: "To redefine Canada, to take part in the definition of Canada." » Mais, c'est justement ça, c'est l'un des défis du Canada aussi. One of the challenges that Canada faces is that of ensuring that the provinces participate more in defining the Canada of tomorrow.
That's one of the challenges that Canada has to face and that the federal government will have to face or I hope will face in the future.
Charles Breton: I want to go back to something that Jenna said. I can't remember if it was- I don't think it was in your presentation. It was later, in an answer to a question, where we were talking about people as being also a safeguard.
And I want to talk about that role a bit and the role of people in making federalism robust, and not politicians but actual Canadians and citizens.
By definition, the central or the federal government is further away from citizens. It's in their everyday life. That's not necessarily what they see, right? The same way that their municipal government is much more present in their everyday life than their provincial government.
But how does a federation go about keeping those people committed to it, to that federal government that they don't necessarily see in their everyday life, to that presence of a further away government, basically? How do we keep people committed to that government that may seem, again, not always but may seem in everyday life, as something that's somewhere over there and that you don't necessarily- and a part of that that's also just- that can feed into your identity and who you identify with and who you feel best represents your interests.
There's an issue there for a federal government to make sure that people keep identifying or feeling that their interests are represented within the federal government as well.
Jenna Bednar: Yeah, this is a very tricky question, tricky in a lot of ways because in a federal system, we don't just want people to identify with the federal government but also- sorry, with the national government on its own, kind of in the way that Benoît was talking about with the younger people, just thinking of Ottawa as being all there is.
What we used to have is a civic education that happened in our public schools and that helped people to develop a common understanding of our shared past and our common future for a lot of reasons that has been broken apart in the United States. I'm not sure where that stands in Canada.
And it's actually because I care so much and believe so much in the significance of democratic norms, in sustaining our democracy, and that norms are things that are built and reinforced person to person.
Now, I mean, it's separate work and stuff that I'm early days on but I'm trying to better understand how, through local communities, we can build an inclusive federalism.
So, one of the one of the concerns is if you decentralize too much, then you create like a fortress federalism. You create abilities for people to band together, identify with one another and against everybody else, and that's that competitive, or even worse, kind of dynamic that can be destructive or can cause us to miss opportunities.
And so, I'm trying to better understand how we might, instead of building this fortress federalism, build on this porous, build a sense of local identity but that recognizes our interdependence with others, and I guess all I can say is stay tuned.
I mean, the first step for all of us in political science is recognizing this as being a need, and then, from there, we can move forward in trying to better understand how to build those values and those norms, for me, as a very concerned American, to try to reconstruct the bulwarks that support our democracy.
Charles Breton: And finally, before I move to questions, just maybe it's a curveball. I apologize if it is, but our audience here is the federal public service. So, what do you see as their role in making the Canadian Federation robust, and appreciating that a lot, like many of these people in the audience do completely jobs within the public service. So, we won't be able to speak for everyone's position.
But just in general, how could we see the federal public service's role in making the Canadian Federation robust?
And again, if you want some time to think about it, I'll just answer one question that's coming from the audience.
Mr. Pelletier, you spoke about the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples.
You did talk about Indigenous people as one of the- maybe challenges is not the right term, but something that the Canadian Federation will have to come to terms with, allowing Indigenous governments to have their say and play a role in the Canadian Federation. I have to say that we will have a whole session specifically about this during this series, about Indigenous people and how they interact with the Federation. So, I'll just postpone answering that question. Well, we'll do it with people from Indigenous communities later on in the series.
So, going back to you, if you have an answer to that curveball I just threw you about maybe how people in the audience, the public service in Canada, can perhaps make or help make the- not saying that it rests entirely on them, but how they can perhaps help in making the Canadian Federation robust.
Jenna Bednar: And I'm assuming that by you, you mean me because you posed the question in English and not French, but with pleasure.
So, yeah, alright. So, let's think about that, these two- setting aside the federalism as a nuisance model and thinking about competitive federalism versus collaborative federalism and the role that public servants, federal public servants, can play in managing those two or, in particular, in when there are opportunities to move us from a competitive interaction to a collaborative one.
And so, remember when I was talking about what we don't have in the United States, the institutions that sustain- that support dialogue, collaboration, in order to come to believe that we share values and definitely to align our actions, you know, these two sides of what makes something collaborative, takes a lot. It's a process-heavy kind of relationship.
Competition's really easy, collaboration is not easy. It means taking the time to listen and taking the time to not just listen but actually hear and incorporate.
And so, I think one of the best things- and like I said, I feel like you already have some advantages in having some institutions set up to create those dialogues but to take them quite seriously and have a mindset of this isn't- we don't necessarily always have to lock horns but there may be opportunities for collaboration.
So, just pausing a moment, being patient, and seeing if that opportunity can reveal itself and recognize that you have a really important role to play in making that process successful could go a long way in ensuring the robustness of Canadian federal systems.
Charles Breton: And Benoît, in your view, what role do you see for the federal public service in the creation of this robust Canadian federation?
Benoît Pelletier: Yes, but first, I must mention, Charles, that I started my career as a lawyer for the Department of Justice Canada. I worked in this role for seven years and so was able to learn about the federal public service. And today, well, it has been a pleasure speaking to you all. But I really think there are three points: the first point is that we have to fundamentally question ourselves about cooperative federalism. Et Jenna vient de mentionner le concept de "cooperative federalism"...
-- and this is also a concept that is invoked on occasions by the Supreme Court of Canada. In fact, on many occasions, it's invoked by the Supreme Court of Canada, that need of cooperative federalism in Canada.
The second thing is that I would recommend open-mindedness. Open-mindedness in particular, I'm saying here in particular, in relation to Indigenous peoples in Canada, in relation to all of Canadian Francophonie, because I have spoken a lot about Quebec, but I also care deeply about Canadian Francophonie in its entirety, that is to say all those Francophones and Francophiles who live in a minority situation and who are also part of today's definition of Canada. And of course, there are minority groups in society whose constitutional rights need to be considered and quite simply, I would say, so does their right to exist and their right to flourish in Canadian society.
So, the first point would be cooperative federalism. The second point would be, I would say, the Canadian values, an examination or analysis of what forms the Canadian values today, and the third point is openness.
An open mind in all matters can only be beneficial for the Canadian state.
Charles Breton: So, Jenna, Benoît, Thank you very much!
This has been a truly illuminating conversation, one that I think really sets the stage for the rest of our series, and we saw some questions coming in that will be part of the future of the series, because before delving into questions about how resources are allocated across orders of government or federalism helps or hinders economic development, and questions like that, it was essential, I think, to have a better understanding of, really, the theoretical underpinnings of federalism and what makes a federation robust.
And after recent events, whether it's the Quebec election from earlier this week or the Alberta UCP leadership results from last night, it is perhaps reassuring to know that the Canadian Federation and its institutions have been able to adapt to challenges of the past and have the tools required to be a robust federation capable of really facing the challenges ahead.
I would like to thank our panelists and all of you across the country for participating in this event. I hope you enjoyed the event as much as I did.
Your feedback is very important to us and I invite you to complete the electronic evaluation that you will receive in the next few days. The School has more events to offer you and I encourage you to visit their website to keep up to date and register to all future learning opportunities, including this series which will continue monthly this year and next.
Once again, thank you all and have a wonderful day.
Benoît Pelletier: Goodbye!
[The video chat fades to the CSPS logo and then fades to black.]