Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Dismembering Canada? Stephen Harper and the Foreign Relations of Canadian Provinces

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Dismembering Canada? Stephen Harper and the Foreign Relations of Canadian Provinces

Article excerpt


Stephen Harper has pursued an admittedly decentralist agenda since becoming Prime Minister in 2006. Specifically, Harper has pledged to limit Ottawa's use of the federal spending power and reduce new social programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction. As leader of a minority Conservative government, Harper also declared Quebec a "nation" and promised to revisit existing fiscal transfers to the provinces. One of the most controversial issues, however, was Harper's decision to grant Quebec a formalized role in Canada's delegation at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Quebec's proposed bilateral labour mobility agreement with France and Ottawa's support for international economic autonomy for all provinces also drew significant criticism. Some observers, such as Andrew Coyne, have suggested that granting provinces greater foreign autonomy contributes to the "dismembering of Canada" and "blurs our national identity." However, Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested that this is simply "the same old bullshit." (1)

This article will explore Harper's decentralist agenda in relation to the foreign activity of Canadian provinces. It will argue that the Prime Minister's use of the term "autonomy" requires clearer analytical parameters to allow for an extended evaluation of subfederal international engagement. In examining the historic role of Quebec, trade promotion, foreign offices, trade policy, cross-border functional relations, development assistance, and the environment, it becomes clear that Canadian provinces have exercised both partial and significant autonomy in these policy areas long before the arrival of Harper and the Conservatives. There is a tendency to think that autonomy is simply granted to provinces by specific governments, but in this policy area it more accurately reflects the increasing intrusiveness of international trade agreements into areas of provincial jurisdiction, federalism's response to these pressures, and the ongoing decentralization of federal-provincial relations in Canada. There is also the fact that provincial governments are increasingly influencing both Canadian foreign policy and, in some cases, the evolution of international norms and standards.


A number of terms must be clarified to evaluate Harper's position regarding provincial international activity. First, a distinction must be made between foreign policy and subfederal international relations. Foreign policy focuses on the specific international goals of officials and the values and mechanisms used to pursue these objectives. (2) In contrast, "foreign relations" is a much broader term, and refers to functional issues and other noncontroversial international activities. (3) There are also important distinctions between trade and economic policy. Economic policy engages matters of economic growth and fiscal and monetary issues. Trade policy, however, focuses on the exchange of goods and services and the negotiation and implementation of international (and domestic) trade commitments. It also includes policies of protectionism and liberalization, which can be transparent (tariffs and quotas) or more difficult to identify (subsidies and nontariff barriers). Trade promotion, on the other hand, is the expansion of export markets for domestic goods, and in some cases the pursuit of investment.

There are also important distinctions between the term "autonomy," and the related concepts of independence and sovereignty. Independence is the "ability to be free from the control of others" whereas sovereignty encompasses the " juridical recognition" of modern states to control territory and exercise authority over citizens. (4) Autonomy, on the other hand, is the ability to achieve specific preferences. Although all political communities pursue these goals, none are able to consistently exercise complete autonomy due to internal and external demands and constraints. …

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