The Evolution of Federalism Studies in Canada: From Centre to Periphery

By Fafard, Patrick; Rocher, Francois | Canadian Public Administration, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Federalism Studies in Canada: From Centre to Periphery


Fafard, Patrick, Rocher, Francois, Canadian Public Administration


The Supreme Court of Canada, in the Secession Reference, suggested that federalism is among the core shared values of Canadians, along with democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of law and respect for minorities (Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217). As such, it would be reasonable to expect that federalism would be a major and ongoing preoccupation and concern for those who, broadly defined, study Canadian politics and government. However, there is some debate about the extent to which, in fact, federalism remains the object of sustained and continuing scholarly attention. This article seeks to add to this debate based on a review of recent scholarly literature on federalism published in Canada and the results of a series of interviews with scholars for whom federalism is major concern.

In this article we combine a count of relevant publications dealing with Canadian federalism, generally defined, with a brief qualitative assessment of the state of studies from researchers active in the field. Specifically, we aim to identify the current state of federalism studies across Canada and in both official languages, gauge the attractiveness of such studies to graduate and undergraduate students, and probe the trends in federalism scholarship over the past decade.

This article is divided into five parts. The next section offers a brief description of earlier studies that seek to assess federalism studies in Canada. The second section describes the methodology of the current study. The third and fourth sections are the core of the article and present the results of our quantitative review of the scholarly literature on federalism published in Canada between 2000 and 2007 and the results of a series of sixteen interviews conducted with a diverse group of students of political science, economics and law. The final section briefly considers the implications of the results.

What do we know?

Over the past ten years, a number of generalizations have been developed based on different overviews of the state of federalism studies in Canada. (1) In a general review of the literature published in 2002, Richard Simeon stressed that studies on federalism could be characterized by two main phenomena: first, they have been profoundly influenced by contemporary political events; and, secondly, they have become more diversified, reflecting the changing nature of the relationship between different political and methodological issues in contemporary political science (Simeon 2002). Thus, several areas that have dominated the study of Canadian federalism are themselves a response to the political reality of the day. In this context, it is to be expected, observed Simeon, that the Canadian unity debate had captured and held the attention of researchers.

Although Simeon's overview reflects his own particular study of works on Canadian federalism, (2) it nevertheless draws several general conclusions on the then current state of scholarship. According to Simeon, it was fair to conclude that we had

detailed evidence about current attitudes to federal and provincial governments and the balance between national and provincial identities [, ] ... very good data on regional variations in voting and party support [,] ... increase[ed] understanding of federalism and the party system, ... a growing number of sophisticated studies of intergovernmental relations and their place in Canadian policy-making ... [made] considerable progress ... in understanding the economic bases of interregional conflict [,] ... provocative hypotheses about the linkages between institutional and elite forces and underlying social cleavages (Simeon 2002: 39-40).

Despite the burgeoning of scholarship on federalism, beginning in the mid-1990s, there developed an impression that scholars had, in fact, begun to neglect and move away from this field of study. Thus, summarizing a meeting among Canadian political scientists in June 1996, Peter Leslie noted a belief that there was a growing shift in the focus of federalism studies: the literature focused less on traditional questions of federalism (e. …

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