Feds vs. Provs: Who speaks for Canada now?

  • National Newswatch

When the premiers banded together to gang up on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—as they often did—he had a great way of putting them back in their place: 'Who speaks for Canada?' he'd growl.Well, there is a case to be made that it is no longer Ottawa that speaks for Canada, but the provinces—and, indeed, that they are the real heirs to the Trudeau vision.This came into sharp focus last week when Industry Minister James Moore proudly announced his plans to make Canada a free-trade zone. Premier Brad Wall promptly snapped back that the provinces were already at work on the file and moving it along quite nicely, thank you very much.The premier has a point. Perhaps the most impressive evidence is the New West Partnership Trade Agreement (NWPTA), which involves BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to Wall, it made these provinces a free-trade zone back in 2010. And the feds had no part in it.It may also be the stone that finally tips the fed/prov balance of power irrevocably toward the provinces. To see why, let's take a quick look at why Trudeau's claim to speak for Canada was so effective.When Trudeau came to power in the 1960s, Canada was entering a new era. People were traveling like never before and, as a result, they were waking up to the magnificent diversity of their country. Canadians recognized that being free to live and work in any part of it was a gift. They embraced it as birthright and an integral part of their citizenship.Trudeau not only understood this, he deftly positioned the feds as the champions of citizen mobility. Speaking for Canada was a way of declaring his commitment to do what was necessary to realize this vision. Two elements are relevant here.First, mobility required Canada-wide access to the social safety net. At the time, provinces often made it difficult for people from out-of-province to qualify for social services, thus discouraging them from exploring the country.Second, being recognized as, say, a doctor or a pipefitter in one province did not qualify a person to work in another. Certification is a provincial responsibility and provinces often have very different standards for the same job. As a result, people who moved often found they couldn't work in the new province until their credentials were approved, which could take months or even years.While Trudeau can be credited with consolidating the national social safety net, he did little to fix the certification problem. Numerous efforts followed, culminating, finally, in the 1994 Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT), which was supposed to solve the problem, once and for all. The general view today is that it has failed—miserably.This judgment may be both too hasty and too harsh. Big change is never easy and rarely fast. People and governments need time to adjust. We tend to forget that, in signing the AIT, premiers were making a unanimous public declaration that they could and should move beyond the old protectionist ways—and they were saying this for the first time. It was a major achievement and it started the wheels of change turning.Since then, premiers have completely reformed how they talk about the problem. Today, they all agree that interprovincial trade and labour mobility is critical to their own prosperity. They view interprovincial barriers as an unfortunate and costly legacy of the past, rather than a provincial right. And they openly agree that they can and should do something about it.The question now is whether this talk can be translated into action. Last week Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, Alberta Premier Dave Hancock and BC Premier Christy Clark sent a letter to their provincial counterparts that will test these waters.When the Council of the Federation meets in Charlottetown in August, these premiers hope to persuade their colleagues to use the NWPTA as a model for the whole country. If they agree, it would establish Canada as a free-trade zone. It would also vastly increase the credibility and prestige of the Council of the Federation. And this, in turn, could spur the premiers to act on another important commitment.At the 2012 Council meeting in Halifax, the premiers discussed how they should respond to Ottawa's unilateral approach to health funding. During the 2013 meeting in Niagara on the Lake in Ontario, they discussed Employment Minister Jason Kenney's new Canada Jobs Grant and his plan to claw back $300 million in federal training funds.In both cases, the premiers recognized that it was not enough to take a united stand against the feds. They needed to work together collaboratively to show they could begin to manage the national health system or the training system from a pan-Canadian perspective, with or without Ottawa. In short, for the first time, they declared that they were ready, willing and able to speak for Canada on these issues through the Council of the Federation.Of course, saying this and doing it are two different things. But the ball is now in the premiers' court. Internal trade looks like it is being presented as a test of their resolve and capacity to step outside of their local perspectives and act as a truly pan-Canadian body. If they succeed, internal trade may be just the first step. Perhaps health is next.As for ministers like Moore and Kenney, I think they are starting to see the writing on the wall. Stephen Harper's refusal to host First Ministers Conferences and his commitment to classical federalism are paralyzing his government. His ministers need new ways to work with the provinces and enterprising individuals like these two ministers are starting to strike out on their own.So, who speaks for Canada now? We shall see. Federalism remains a work in progress, a process that is always evolving—sometimes in directions that no one expects.Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on democracy, public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Since 2009, he has been Senior Associate at Canada's Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. From October 2013 to April 2014, Don served as Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan