Federalism Reigns for Most Who Live in Democracies

By Chretien, Jean | Canadian Speeches, September-October 1999 | Go to article overview

Federalism Reigns for Most Who Live in Democracies


Chretien, Jean, Canadian Speeches


Federalism was an invention of the United States, some 200 years ago. Now, two billion people -- and the majority of those who live in democracies -- live in the world's 23 federations. Canada, the world's third oldest federation, is seen as a model of the virtues and benefits of federalism. Speech to the Opening Plenary of the International Conference on Federalism, Mont Tremblant, Quebec, October 6, 1999.

Thank you Mr. Voscherau. Let me add my very own warm welcome to the delegates from around the world. We are delighted to have you here.

Over the next three days you will share a unique experience. For the first time, politicians, civil servants, academics -- all practitioners or experts of federalism -- are coming together from around the world to compare experiences and to learn from one another about federalism.

Sometimes some of us think that we must be the only federation in the world. That no one else shares our problems, that no one else shares our successes. But that is simply not true. That is why today's conference is so important.

It is particularly appropriate that this first international conference on federalism should be held in North America. The three countries of this continent are federations. And it was here in North America, over two hundred years ago, that federalism was invented. The founding fathers of the new United States of America began this new experiment, after the failure of their earlier experience with a much looser confederal regime.

The Swiss Federation came into being later in Europe. And Canada was next. In 1867, we became the third federation in the world.

Mexico is North America's third federation. Mexican federalism is a good deal younger than that in the United States and Canada. In the last few years, it has been exciting to watch how the democratic development of Mexico has gone hand in hand with the development of its federal character.

The three federations in North America are now joined by 20 other federations around the world. Over two billion people live in some sort of federal country. The large majority of people in democracies around the world live in some form of federal system.

The reason is clear. Most of our countries are too complex, too spread out geographically, or too populous to be successful as unitary states. But equally, our countries have too much shared history, too many common links, too great an investment in one another, to imagine splintering and falling apart.

Federalism fits the reality of the world. A world where 187 countries are at the United Nations. A world with over 600 living language groups and almost 7,000 ethnic groups. Just imagine what the planet would look like if all these groups tried to create their own countries.

The essence of federalism is balance. A balance between different identities. A balance between local interests and larger interests. Federalism helps democracy flourish in complex societies. It does not just recognize and accommodate diversity; it sees diversity as something to celebrate and cherish. Federal countries often find unity in their very diversity.

In federal countries, citizens can identify themselves in more than one way. For example, I am a proud Quebecer and a proud Canadian -- and there is no contradiction between the two.

In true federations, citizens directly elect both their central and state of provincial governments. This makes both orders of government directly responsible to the population. As it should be in a democracy. It fits the reality of how people identify or define themselves as belonging directly to more than one community.

Federalism is tremendously flexible and can be adapted to very different needs. Federations can be quite centralized or de-centralized. They can have parliamentary or congressional systems. They can have formal or informal institutions for inter-governmental relations.

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