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“Asymmetrical federalism”: A win-win solution?

16-Photo-Joyal-final-colourAn open letter

by Serge Joyal

The constitutional Pandora’s Box has now been reopened. As a result of an “administrative agreement on health,” we are plunged back into the constitutional morass in which the ambiguity of words feeds the confusion of the mind.

Although the voters had no inkling of it in June, the country has set off once again on one of those marathons in which its unity will be at stake. There have been reassuring words from our leaders of all stripes. The recent agreement on health is merely an administrative document; it is not “constitutional.” Everyone is expected to applaud because we have succeeded in creating a federal-provincial agreement. Others see the agreement as an example to follow in other fields. Quebec sets the pattern, the model, for a whole series of future bilateral agreements: parental leave, day care, cities, student loans, telecommunications, as well as appointments to the Supreme Court, the Senate, the CRTC and the Bank of Canada (appointments that lie exclusively within federal jurisdiction). Finally, at the end, when it’s all over, Quebec will withdraw from almost all areas that give meaning to the existence of a country and value to citizenship. And it goes without saying, this will happen with the agreement and the blessing of the spineless Canadian government. We will have achieved the objectives of the Allaire Report [a 1991 Quebec Liberal Party document that recommended an extensive transfer of federal powers to Quebec – ed.], in deed if not in name.

People may accuse me of being alarmist, since the programs that we are prepared to transfer to Quebec are also available to other provinces, in the wake of the “Harper” clause. Pursued to its limit, the provinces will be able to appoint judges from their region to the Supreme Court. This guarantees wholesale fragmentation! Mr. Harper even tries to lure us into turning Canada into Belgium.

Quebec, we are told, also lays claims to a place on the international stage – even though this is a federal preserve. This might signal to other provinces that they ought to participate directly in international negotiations in areas of interest to them (UNESCO, ILO, WHO, FAO, UNPD, UNEP, SDC, HABITAT, the list is endless). Ultimately each province and territory will be able to withdraw from programs described as “national”,”centralist” and “levelling.” Every premier will be able to twin with a foreign head of state for a trade, political or cultural mission abroad. How long will it be before we have a Bush-Klein visit to secure oil contracts in Iraq?

Apparently you can play this way at remaking the country, just as you play with Lego or Meccano. You just have to put it all back in the box when you run out of ideas and mental fatigue sets in. At the end of the day, what will be left of Canada? A great pool of taxes and customs duties, the proceeds of which will be handed over instantly, unconditionally and automatically to each of the 10 provinces to pay for the programs they control.

With Asymmetrical Canada, the federal government will give up its ability to raise taxes for purposes that benefit all Canadians, a power it enjoys under the current constitution and has hitherto used for the benefit of every Canadian. Not, contrary to what is often said, out of a desire to crush the provinces, or an insatiable appetite to tell everyone what to do. If we have a health system that is reasonably comprehensive today, available and accessible with a comparable level of quality everywhere in Canada, free of charge, it is because at one time the government of Canada felt that this protection had become necessary in a society where equality of opportunity, including equality of access to a service like health care, should not depend primarily on the size of an individual’s bank account. The same is true of other social services, aid to postsecondary education, the Canada Council, scientific research and so forth.

When, in the days of Premier Duplessis, education could be too much of a good thing, or “research and writing” were for “dreamers,” the breath of fresh air came from the CBC and from the National Research Council. They helped to make it possible for Quebec to break the fetters that locked us into our rural, Catholic distinct society!

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About the Author

Serge Joyal





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