Bilateral Federalism and Workforce Development Policy in Canada

By Wood, Donna; Klassen, Thomas R. | Canadian Public Administration, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Bilateral Federalism and Workforce Development Policy in Canada


Wood, Donna, Klassen, Thomas R., Canadian Public Administration


Traditionally, the objective of employment and training policy in western democracies has been to ensure that labour markets function efficiently. This includes providing labour market information, matching job-seekers with vacancies, promoting mobility, and preparing and training the unemployed. In a globalized economy, where capital and labour are highly mobile, many observers propose that a broader agenda--characterized as workforce development--is now required, one that also incorporates measures to attract and retain talent, solve skills deficiencies, integrate immigrants, incorporate the disadvantaged, improve the quality of the workplace, and generally enhance the competitiveness of local firms (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2008). Workforce development is a complex policy domain--not only are there a variety of terms used to describe it, (1) but in an age of global economic and labour competition it has become increasingly merged with immigration, social security, labour, and economic development policy. It also has a deep historic relationship to higher and post-secondary education, since many aspects of labour market training are delivered by community colleges, part of the higher education sector.

Various groups in Canada have recently embraced this broader workforce development agenda. In 2007, the federally funded Canadian Council on Learning released a series of reports suggesting ways to improve Canada's performance in workplace learning, adult learning and post-secondary education (Canadian Council on Learning 2007). In its review of employability in Canada, the standing parliamentary committee on human resources, social development and the status of persons with disabilities outlined a variety of measures to bolster the participation of underrepresented groups, increase investments in education and training, and improve productivity and economic prosperity (Canada, Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and Status of Persons with Disabilities 2008). In Learn Canada 2020, provincial education ministers set an accessible, diversified and integrated system of adult learning and skills development as a key goal (Council of Ministers of Education Canada 2008). Similarly, the long-term economic plan of the federal Conservatives, in the fall of 2007, seeks to ensure that Canada has the best educated, most skilled, and most flexible workforce in the world (Canada, Department of Finance 2007). All of these approaches highlight the need for intergovernmental cooperation, and many also promote a national or pan-Canadian approach to workforce development under federal leadership. However, there has been little analysis and reflection on how this can be accomplished in the context of the constraints imbedded in Canada's federal political system.

Policy-making in federal political systems is much more complex than in unitary systems because the question of who should take action is superimposed on the question of what should be done. Since Confederation, both orders of government in Canada have been active in labour market matters, and their relationship in this policy domain has often been contested and strained. Provincial governments have constitutional responsibility for most social programs, including education, social assistance and training. Ottawa's involvement derives from its responsibility for the economy; in addition, a constitutional amendment in 1940 gave it responsibility for unemployment insurance. Between 1940 and 1995, the policy domain was dominated by the federal government, which funded, managed and delivered most programs through a national public employment service and influenced provincial actions through its spending power. However, since 1996, many federal programs have been devolved on a bilateral basis to provincial and territorial governments, leading to asymmetrical workforce development arrangements across the country.

In this article, we examine the performance of the intergovernmental relations system in workforce development policy in Canada, since 1996, through a review of relevant sources and over thirty key informant interviews with government officials and external stakeholders. …

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