by François Rocher
In December 2003, when Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien, who often acted toward the provinces in a casual and even arrogant manner, he came with a reputation for being more conciliatory toward provincial concerns.
Meanwhile, on the provincial front, the Council of the Federation was established on the initiative of Jean Charest’s new Quebec government. All of this took place in the context of the mounting “fiscal imbalance” as cash-strapped provinces faced swelling health care costs. Has there been a new era of provincial partnership with the federal government? I will look at this question, and Quebec’s position in particular.
The signals from Ottawa since Martin’s accession have been mixed. In a speech three days before he took over as prime minister, Martin asserted that the federal government had to change its approach to dealing with the provinces. He added that the first thing he did after winning the Liberal leadership was to meet the provincial and territorial premiers during the Grey Cup: “I did so because, if we hope to strengthen universal public health care, we have to work with the other provinces to do that.”1 Yet not long afterwards, in the June 2004 election, he ran on a platform signalling a federal foray into social programs essentially under provincial jurisdiction. The Liberal Party promised to “strengthen and enhance Canada’s social foundations. And it will begin by achieving real progress on the issue that matters most to Canadians: the quality of the health care we receive.”2 After the election, Martin tried to reconcile his promises with the fact that management of the health system is under provincial jurisdiction by calling a first ministers’ meeting, held in September 2004.