John Ibitson, writing in the Globe and Mail, says that “the provinces run this country. The political elites in Ottawa find this intolerable. But that doesn’t make it any less true.” He said that “The know-it-alls will sigh with boredom. Once again, those whiny premiers demand that Ottawa shovel more tax dollars to them with no accountability and no national vision. Don’t they understand that the federal government must act in the interest of all Canadians, rather than simply serving as an ATM for greedy provincial governments?” That is, indeed, the conventional wisdom, especially in e.g. The Star and on the CBC.
But, the Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government (§91) and those of the provinces (§92) and those into which the federal government intrudes, sometimes (§93-§95). As Mr Ibbitson puts it: “What these fiscal centralists refuse to acknowledge is that the provincial governments are responsible for virtually every aspect of the life of any Canadian not living on a reserve. The federal government spends its time neglecting the reserves and not acquiring fighter jets … [while] … Provincial governments set the highway speed limit – and build the highway. They oversee the great cities and the family farm and everything in between, including crown lands and natural resources. They also oversee health care, education, the provincial justice system and the stock exchange. They make and run the parks you are most likely to visit outside your own community … [and] … They paid the costs of your birth, educated you, married you, set the rules in your workplace, shaped the street you live on and the buying and selling of your homes and cars – including the insurance. They shaped the commute you endure. They will help care for you as you age. You will be buried according to their rules.“
It seems pretty clear that Canada was designed to be a federation of very powerful, even fairly self-sufficient (independent) provinces “united” (more or less) under a fairly limited national government. That paralleled the thinking that had gone into creating the great union of states to our South but, just before Canada was created that great union of states endured a horrendous and bloody civil war fought, in some large measure, on the conflict between “sovereign” states and the growing nation. Surely, one might say, that lesson wasn’t lost on the Fathers of Confederation and the bureaucrats in London:
No, it wasn’t, but it was not sufficient to overcome the prevailing theory of the time that a federal state (a quite new invention in the 19th century) would work best when the provinces, the order of government which is closest to the daily lives of the people, were more powerful than the nation which was limited (§91) mainly to: managing the banking, currency and the public debt, regulating international and interprovincial trade, the postal service, the census, navigation and shipping, inshore fisheries, First Nations, the criminal law and the national defence. Now, some premiers, including Jason Kenney, want the national government to be more active on the internal, interprovincial trade file and to help break down domestic trade barriers but even then, in an area where the national government has some jurisdiction, the provinces must act on their own because they have power over licences and companies.
Theory and practice, however, don’t always coincide. John Ibbitson says that one problem is that “the federal government collects the lion’s share of the taxes …[and] … That tension between federal resources and provincial responsibility shapes the politics of our federation … [now, in fact, it is important to recognize that the imbalance came about, partly at the request of the provinces, during two world wars when the “national need” was evident, but] … That is why premiers aren’t just whining – usually – when they demand more money from Ottawa. They need that money. In a just world, the federal government would transfer much of its taxing authority [back] to the provinces. But it won’t. So we’re left with this.” But he notes, also, that “Of course, there are provinces and there are provinces. Quebec is now a self-governing dominion, as one might call it, within Confederation, about as independent today as Canada was in 1867 … [while] … Ontario and British Columbia have the population, fiscal capacity and access to markets to be as independent as they choose … [and] … A minority of Albertans want their province to secede entirely … [but] … On the other hand, the impoverished Atlantic provinces depend on Ottawa for their survival.“
The premiers have acted both rationally and responsibly … it is now up to Ottawa to react. Canada needs a rebalancing of resources so that the provinces can do their Constitutionally mandated duties for the benefit of Canadians.