Canada: Forging a Federation


Last fall Canadian voters resoundingly rejected the Charlottetown agreement, an attempt to revise the constitution and redefine Quebec's relationship with the rest of the country. The deal was bound to fail because it evaded the central question of whether Canada should be a federated nation or a federation of nations.

The settlers of what is now Canada have been grappling with this issue through attempts at political reconstruction starting with the 1840 Act of Union and the British North American Act of 1867. These two documents suggested that Canada would evolve toward a federation of nations, one English, the other French. Two developments have been working against that expectation. First, Canada has attracted many immigrants from throughout the world; today, 25 percent of the population is of neither French nor British origins. Second, the central government has taken on an ever-expanding role, culminating with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's rise to power in the late 1960s. These developments suggested that Canada might become not a federation of nations but a federated nation like its neighbor to the south.

The events of the last two decades have shown that this is not about to happen. Trudeau failed in his attempts to build "a unified Canada" from the top down and to drown Quebec nationalism by subsidizing bilingualism across Canada. Twenty-five years after Trudeau came to power, Quebec's nationalism is still alive, and bilingualism did not induce French Quebecers to move to the rest of Canada. Moreover, bilingualism is not practiced in Quebec. As a result, not only are English-speaking Canadians not coming to Quebec, but English-speaking Quebecers, as well as immigrants who first settled in Quebec, have been leaving the province in droves.

This is not surprising. Quebec's Bill 101 forbids immigrants to send their children to English schools—the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights notwithstanding. As a result of this law and the emigration of anglophones, there are only about 100,000 children enrolled in English schools in the province today, down from more than double that about 20 years ago. Bill 101 also requires that French be used in any workplace employing more than 50 people. Another law, Bill 178, outlaws English signs in the streets and regulates their size and color inside stores. These laws are not likely to be undone in the foreseeable future. Consequently, any lasting federal arrangement will have to accommodate French and English populations that remain geographically separated.

A federation should allow diversity and competition among provinces while constraining the ability of provincial governments to abuse their power. For example, a federation might allow Quebec to require that all students speak French fluently—indeed, the advantage of learning French might even attract immigrants—but forbid restrictions on education in other languages. A federation also provides representation for demographically small units in international trade negotiations. And in the Canadian case, a stable federation would avoid the costly uncertainties of separation. But it's hard to know how to write a constitution for such a federation, because there are few models to follow.

The Swiss federal system, a 700-year success, naturally comes to mind. Its German-, French-, Italian-, and Romansch-speaking peoples have each prospered in their separate cantons and municipalities, with very little mobility across linguistic borders. Despite such local attachments, members of these linguistic communities have been very Swiss too. By and large, they do not question their membership in a community of communities.

But there are significant differences between Switzerland and Canada. Switzerland is not a country built on immigration, and by now 700 years of shared history have shaped a Swiss "tribe." Canada, by contrast, has a short history, and it accepts 250,000 immigrants (1 percent of the population) a year.

Canada also differs from the United States in important ways. Although Canada has a strong tradition of tolerance, it does not adhere to the melting-pot principle, and it does not share the Horatio Alger myth. Immigrants coming to Canada are expected to find their place by attaching themselves to a community. They are expected to pay taxes and then share the various public goods Ottawa supplies, to be gentle, nice, and prosperous—but not conspicuous.

Canada needs to find a way to combine significant immigration with a community of communities, perhaps through a unifying vision akin to the American dream. The recent attempts at political reconstruction show how not to do this. The Charlottetown accord was a wishy-washy mishmash of a document. It suggested that Canada is neither a federation of nations nor a federated nation but a holding company for special interests with their hands in the federal government's till.

The document tried to satisfy Quebec, which refused to sign the constitution of 1982. The accord referred to Quebec's right to "preserve and promote" its unique French character and gave the provincial government control over "culture" and "immigration." Nobody knew what this would mean in practice: Which federal laws, applying to all Canadians, could Quebec override by passing provincial laws? And what does it mean for a province to control immigration, if residents have the right to move to other provinces?

The document also gave aboriginal Indians and Inuit the right to promote their languages, culture, and traditions. In general, the deal made a commitment to "respect for individual and collective human rights," though it never spelled out what exactly "collective rights" were.

The agreement also tried to satisfy the demands of the resource-rich Western Canadian provinces. These provinces have bitter memories of the National Energy Program, under which Ottawa transferred a significant part of their oil wealth to the rest of the federation. The Charlottetown agreement was supposed to prevent such interventions by establishing an elected Senate with equal representation from the 10 provinces, instead of what Canada has now, a powerless chamber filled mainly with political appointees for life from Ontario and Quebec.

Add to all these promises a vague "social charter," a phrase mentioning "gender equality in the composition of the Senate," another stating that "a framework should be developed to guide the use of federal spending power," subject "to multilateral agreement that would receive constitutional protection," and you get an idea of how the document promised to slice up the Canadian cake without making it clear what holds the cake together or what might increase its size. The accord thus reflected the redistributive policies that Ottawa has pursued during the last few decades. The federal government tried once more to suffocate all grievances with commitments.

The failure of the Charlottetown agreement demonstrated that centralization will not work for either economic or nationalist-linguistic issues, since every promise given to one group will be seen as taking away from another. The defeat showed that government attempts to maintain political attachments by bribing people with favors cannot "build a nation." Such an approach only provokes discontent, cements groups, and raises nationalist sentiments.

The next attempt to rewrite Canada's constitution will stand a better chance of success if it avoids any reference to specific policies. Instead, it should include matters on which Canadians agree: preventing centralization of power, dividing power between the provinces and the federal government, and protecting civil liberties through a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It should establish a federation of nations that limits the powers of both the central government and the Quebec government.

Karl Renner, the first president of the reborn Austrian Republic, suggested one approach to such a federation that has never been tried. To diminish intergroup tensions, he recommended that nationalism be confined to the spheres of culture and communication. Under Renner's plan, each individual, irrespective of where he lived, could become a member of a voluntary organization with agencies throughout the country (much like the Catholic Church), which would then be responsible for linguistic matters or any other education. Though such an arrangement seems utopian today, when governments routinely decide issues of culture, language, and education, we should recall that the combination of church and state was once taken for granted as well.

After the rejection of the Charlottetown deal, surveys found that a majority of Canadians, even in Quebec, wanted to stay together by negotiating a new agreement. So there is reason for cautious optimism. Canada may yet have a chance to be reinvented.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair in Economics at McGill University's School of Management. He was invited to submit testimony to the Bélanger-Campeau Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec.