Asymmetrical Federalism

By Boyer, Pierre | Inroads, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Asymmetrical Federalism


Boyer, Pierre, Inroads


An idea whose time has come?

ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2004, THE FIRST MINISTERS AGREED TO A PLAN OF ACTION ON health care in Canada. The same day, Prime Minister Paul Martin and Premier Jean Charest issued a press release outlining a separate agreement for Quebec and invoking the principle of asymmetrical federalism.

Many commentators, especially in Quebec, saw this explicit reference to asymmetrical federalism as a possible breakthrough toward renewal of the way Canada is governed. In their view, because the agreement with Quebec is an administrative one, it can potentially be extended to other sectors without formal constitutional discussions. But we should not let this distinction between "administrative" and "constitutional" change obscure the fact that the agreement on health - just like previous agreements between Ottawa and Quebec such as that on immigration (1991) and employment training (1997) - complies fully with the distribution of powers set out in the constitution. As André Burelle reminds us (in the November 2004 issue of Policy Options), the principles underlying the health agreement with Quebec amount to nothing more than a reassertion of basic federalism - "a basic federalism that we celebrate today as a breakthrough only because unitary nation-building and the tutelage of the provinces by the federal spending power are seen as the norm."

As a result, asymmetrical federalism has led to at times heated public debate, eloquently represented in the following pages by the exchange of letters between Liberal Senator Serge Joyal and Quebec Minister Benoît Pelletier. Two conceptions of Canada - and of federalism - confront each other: on one side, asymmetry as a threat to national unity; on the other, asymmetry as a promise of renewal.

Political scientist François Rocher does not subscribe to the scenario of a breakup of the country, but neither is he convinced that renewal of Canadian federalism is imminent. …

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