Federalism is not a wedge issue, it’s the foundation of our country
According to John Ivison, Liberal leader Stephane Dion may be looking to the concept of federalism in his continual search for wedge issues to divide Canadians.
This is, quite simply, bad news for Canada.
According to Ivison, the issue is coming down to a conflict between two visions of federalism: Paul Martin’s vision of assymetrical federalism, under which Quebec would be afforded powers and privileges not afforded to Canada’s other provinces, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of open federalism, under which the jurisdictions of the federal and provincial governments are defined and defended.
The disagreement is fairly simple: Stephen Harper believes the spending and legislating powers of the federal government should be both limited and enshrined, while Stephan Dion believes they should be limitless.
Each side actually has a case. Harper’s belief in defending provincial powers from federal encroachments actually has historical foundations, dating back to the establishment of the country, and the conflict between John A MacDonald and various provincial premiers (spearheaded by Ontario) over various points of conflict.
Yet Stephane Dion has a fair case as well. There always remains the possibility that the federal government may need to step in and establish necessary programs in provinces that are unwilling to establish them on their own, or act in order to prevent the citizens of some provinces from being unduly disadvantaged.
Enshrined federal spending powers laced with contingency clauses seems like a reasonable compromise between the two views.
But this has little to do with symmetrical or assymetrical federalism.
The fact is that federalism cannot be assymetrical and also be just. Not only would assymetrical federalism entrench inequality (and, thus, injustice) in the short term, but it would commit us to that inequality and injustice in the long term. Worse yet, it would establish it as a foundation upon which the country is established.
Assymetrical federalism represents the same threat to Canadian unity as any coercive policy of official bilingualism ever could. Just as many French Canadian scholars were noted to remark with glee (perhaps naively) how official bilingualism could have been used to transform Canada as whole into a French state (at least as acknowledged by Peter Brimelow), assymetrical federalism represents a tool by which extreme Quebecois nationalists could mould Quebec into an increasingly exclusive enclave, while possessing a disproportionate amount of influence over the rest of the country. Assymetrical federalism may not necessarily transform Quebec into a sovereign state nearly by default, but it will certainly do the next best thing.
The granting of such powers to Quebec would only be tenable under circumstances in which those powers are also extended to the other provinces. Then again, that isn’t assymetrical federalism. That would be symmetrical.
Yet the granting of additional powers to, for example, western provinces has rarely been considered seriously because those in power have rarely considered western separatism to be as threatening as Quebec separatism. On the same not, those men have disproportionately tended to be French-Canadian. One may make of that what they will.
If Stephane Dion is truly prepared to depart from his party’s flirtations with assymetrical federalism, as Ivison has suggested, this is a good thing. But turning to the very foundations of Canada as a wedge issue is not.
It shouldn’t be suggested that Dion should consider federalism topica non grata, but rather that he should engage that topic in a responsible, collaborative manner, not a divisive one.
Any discussion of federalism should seek to unite Canadians, not divide them. There are simply some ways in which a country cannot be divided and still remain whole. This is one of them.
The fact is that no politician can reasonably expect to politicize the very concept on which the country was established without risking the break-up of the country. It is in this sense that Dion’s reliance on divisive issues may finally bear fruit, but it will be very bitter fruit, indeed.
The nature of Stephane Dion's take on federalism is bad news for Canada.