From Con-federation to Co-operation

There are at least two common elements that link the recent official visit to Ontario by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and the NDP’s recent election victory in Alberta.

Both events open up possibilities for co-operation among Canadian provinces / territories and both may also set the foundation for building coordinated national policies and initiatives in the fields of energy, management of the environment and inter-provincial trade.

At present those are three fields in which our existing system of confederation places significant barriers to Canada’s economic development and therefore to our standard of living and our quality of life as citizens, residents and taxpayers. The reasons for this state of affairs are of great interest to those with a passion for history, constitutional law and politics.

Briefly put, our confederational structure gives the federal government responsibility and control over national defence, foreign affairs, aboriginal lands and rights, federal taxation, employment insurance, banking, fisheries, shipping, railways, telecommunications, pipelines and criminal law.

The provinces (and, to a lesser extent, the territories) have jurisdiction over their natural resources (oil, natural gas, mining, etc.), municipal affairs (cities and urban affairs), along with the other day-to-day aspects of our lives such as education, health and infrastructure (roads, public transit, water, and electricity, etc.).

That two-way sharing of responsibilities – the third level, municipal government, is an issue in itself – leads to the political and financial tug-of-war that fills the soft and hard pages of our media every day.

Our general attitude to the need for change varies from indifference to complacency to opposition, effectively a three-way split. Most of those who would like to see a stronger federal system give up hope easily because any attempt at substantive constitutional changes in Canada seems doomed to end in a pit of political quicksand.

But it is important to consider the reasons behind that three-way split.

Most people do not pay any attention to the disadvantages of our country’s system of con-federation. In fact, it is quite likely that many of us are unaware there are serious disadvantages that directly affect our cost of living, our health and our quality of life.

No doubt, there are also large numbers of Canadians who prefer the existing confederation arrangement, either because of complacency or because it suits their political, economic or regional identity interests.

So we have solid grounds for applauding the compatibility on major policy issues that is emerging from the positions espoused by Premier-elect Rachel Notley of Alberta, Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Premier Philippe Couillard of Quebec. They are doing their part to break down the isolationist past of our three “solitudes”.

In that regard, many analysts have highlighted the significance of Notley’s clear indication that her government’s decisions on industry, energy and management of the environment will be determined by science-based criteria.

Her recent election victory means that Alberta, a major player in Canada’s economic (and political) life, will be willing to join forces with Quebec and Ontario in the process of developing a more rational approach to the management of our country’s natural resources. It also means that, unlike the situation that obtained in the past, Alberta will show a greater openness to inter-provincial cooperation.

As we move away from the divisive past of Con-federation, we are creating the foundation for Co-operation among our provinces and federal territories, for a more rational and productive future for all of us.