Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Federal-Provincial Overlap and Civil Servants: The Case of Occupational Training in Quebec and Ontario

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Federal-Provincial Overlap and Civil Servants: The Case of Occupational Training in Quebec and Ontario

Article excerpt

This article examines the issue of administrative overlap in the Canadian federal system, focusing on occupational training, to establish to what extent federal and provincial officials identify overlap as a management problem. Unlike other sectors of federal-provincial intervention, occupational training has been the object of much dispute and has frequently been used as an example of flagrant federal encroachment on a provincial jurisdiction.

After the Meech Lake Accord constitutional debates, for a variety of political and economic reasons, occupational training became a very sensitive issue. First, with the implementation of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, along with growing globalization of the economy, it became critical to properly train Canadians to make them competitive. Second, the adoption by most provinces and by the federal government of a zero-deficit policy required cutbacks that, in turn, meant tracking down superfluous expenses such as the ones caused by overlap and duplication of two levels of government. Third, constitutional discussions around the Charlottetown Accord compelled the federal government to back down and transfer some powers to the provinces. Fourth, with Quebec's pending referendum on sovereignty in 1993, the Parti quebecois government was poised to use occupational training as a perfect example of federal interference in provincial affairs. Business leaders in Quebec seemed to support the provincial government in its claim that federal-provincial overlap was costly and ineffective and that the federal government should leave occupational training to the province.

Following the failure of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, some provinces decided to take a stand and create their own board for occupational training. Quebec made it clear that the federal government was expected to substantially help with the funding of the Societe quebecoise de developpement de la main-d'oeuvre (SQDM). Ontario, not far behind, created the Ontario Training and Adjustment Board (OTAB), and, in the midst of Premier Mike Harris's "Common Sense Revolution," was determined to get its "fair share" of federal spending.

However, while Quebec and Ontario had been the squeaky wheels of the federation where occupational training was concerned, both provinces ended up abolishing their boards. In Quebec, the SQDM was rolled back into a freshly reorganized Ministry of Employment and Solidarity in 1997, just as an agreement with the federal government had been secured and many employees of the board were laid off. In Ontario, OTAB was abolished because the experience had been a failure, particularly with regards to cooperation between business and union leaders.

Quebec and Ontario are interesting to compare when it comes to occupational training, partly because of their similarities in terms of economic structure and social development and partly because of their different historical relationship with the federal government. A comparison of these two provinces was meant to isolate the nationalist factor that I expected to find very strong in Quebec, even among public officials, compared to Ontario, where I expected less emphasis on federal-provincial disagreements. This was the ultimate test. If only Quebec officials found federal-provincial overlap in occupational training a serious management issue, then the political overtones of that position would be obvious. If Ontario officials also criticized federal intervention, then the nationalist factor would be minimized.


I conducted semi-directed, confidential interviews, cross-checking data by interviewing federal and provincial counterparts in the civil service. Efforts were concentrated on officials involved with the other level of government in occupational training at the middle-management level (operation directors, regional directors, program directors), but I also met with deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers. …

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