Coordinating Federalism: Intergovernmental Agenda-Setting in Canada and the United States

  • National agenda-setting is a primary objective of Canada’s Council of the Federation and the National Governors Association in the United States.
  • American Governors have proven more effective at influencing the national agenda than Canadian premiers.
  • Hiring full-time staff specifically to engage the media and the federal government would help the Council of the Federation raise its national profile.

Creating an Independent Commission for Federal Leaders’ Debates

 Since the first one was held in the federal general election of 1968, leaders’ debates have become important moments in our country’s democratic life. In recent elections, technological advancements and changes in the conduct of politics have challenged the way in which the debates have been organized as well as their importance in the democratic process. These issues came to a head during the 2015 general election: more debates were held, but they were distributed across smaller platforms and reached fewer voters than in previous elections. Voters were confused about which debates they should watch and how to access them. The “debate about the debates” became part of the story of the 2015 election, and the experience highlighted the need to review how debates are managed during elections.

In response, Canada’s Minister of Democratic Institutions was mandated by the Prime Minister to create an independent commission to organize political party leaders’ debates in federal election campaigns. As part of the consultation exercise launched by the Minister, the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) facilitated five round tables ─ in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver ─ to seek the views of experts and stakeholders on this reform. Although there were disagreements, many points of convergence emerged from the discussions. The following is a summary of recommendations, based on the IRPP’s assessment of what was heard throughout this consultation exercise:

1. The Government of Canada should proceed with the creation of an independent body to oversee leaders’ debates during federal election campaigns.

Based on the discussions held throughout the round table process, there is clear support for the idea of creating an independent body. The proposal received broad support at every round table, often enthusiastically so. Even those participants who supported the status quo over any proposal for reform seemed to agree that it was the reform option they preferred. In fact, no other reform option was raised in any meaningful way at any of the round tables 

2. The government should opt for a commission over an individual commissioner.

Most participants agreed that the independent body would be more effective if it were led by a small group rather than a single individual.

3. The independent commission should have, and be seen to have, broad support from political parties, and it should report to the public, not to the government.

The process of creating such a commission should include some opportunities for political parties to express their opinions and ultimately their support for this reform. Moreover, while most round tables did not go as far as to declare that the commission must have the status of an agent of Parliament, there was strong support for the importance of having similar independence, authority and accountability mechanisms.

4. The commission should be fully supported by public funds.

Consistent with the important role debates play in an election campaign, as well as the established practice of publicly funding elections themselves, the commission should be fully supported by public funds. Of course, measures must be put in place to ensure this is done prudently and in the interests of taxpayers, but the principle of supporting this public process with public funds is sound. 

5. The core mandate of the commission should be to organize a few key debates and should not preclude other organizations from producing similar activities or events that would fall outside that mandate.

The diversity in the format of debates in 2015 was widely viewed as a positive innovation that should be preserved in future. The mandate of the commission should focus on one or two debates in each official language and ensure its highest possible value to voters and widest possible distribution. It should not, however, bar other organizations from organizing other debates, be they with party leaders or other spokespersons.  The aim of this reform should be to “universalize” access to one set of comprehensive debates, and then allow others to pursue their own initiatives. 

6. The process led by the commission should seek input from media organizations and political parties, but also academics, stakeholders and citizens, in an open and transparent manner.

In establishing rules, timetables and formats for leaders’ debates, the commission should seek input in a transparent way. Eligibility criteria and other principles that will guide the commission’s work should be communicated to the public at the outset, and deliberations should be conducted in full view of the voting public.

7. In matters related to the participants, timing and format of debates, the commission should be the only decision-making authority and should be held to account for its performance after each election cycle.

Once advice from outside groups has been received, the commission should decide how debates will be conducted on its own. It should proactively disclose the rationale for the decisions it makes regarding debates prior to an election, and then be held to account for its results after an election.

8. Beyond persuasion, the commission should not compel the participation of party leaders.

While this was not a unanimous view, the majority of participants felt that participation in debates was a political decision best left to the party leaders and their campaign teams. The penalty for failing to do so should therefore also be political in nature. Let voters decide the price of not participating. 

9. The commission can consider making the distribution of the debates mandatory for some media outlets, while encouraging others to follow suit.

While not unanimous, and in contrast to the views on party leaders’ participation, there seemed to be greater support for the notion that some media outlets could be compelled to carry the debates to ensure wide access. Many believed that this could come with some financial compensation for those on whom it has been imposed. Other outlets that simply chose to carry the debates should be encouraged to do so and should have access to the feed at no cost, but in these cases, compensation would not be required.

10. The leaders’ debate feeds should be made available free of charge to media organizations that wish to carry them, but this must come with strict terms and conditions to protect their integrity.

To encourage the largest number of media platforms to carry the debate feed, the commission must move away from the copyright protection model and allow free access. However, strict terms and conditions must be attached to allow the commission to control the use of feeds and maintain the integrity of debates.

11. Accessibility issues related to geography, language and ability must be paramount.

These issues must be explicitly included in the commission’s mandate. Related performance indicators must be made public prior to an election and must be reviewed specifically when the commission’s performance is assessed.

12. The commission should be a permanent operation.

While the intensity of its activity is likely to vary, the commission should be allowed to maintain its operations throughout the election cycle. This will allow it to keep up with technological advancements and best practices and be ready should an election be required sooner than anticipated. This would also allow the commission to play a public education role in support of what is already being done by Elections Canada.

In addition to the recommendations outlined above, a few concluding observations can be made from the comments and advice received from participants in all five cities. First, the interests of voters must be at the centre of this reform, outweighing all other considerations. This principle should be reflected not just in the decisions made on debate format and content, but on the governance of the commission itself. Second, journalistic ideals should continue to shape the exercise, even if the mechanics of media participation in debates evolve. Voters will need a high quality debate focused on content and with high production value to attract their interest. Third, as a core component of election campaigns, debates are political exercises. Any new process must be open and transparent — and the commission’s decisions must be depoliticized — but it is neither possible nor desirable to completely remove politics from what is in essence a political event. Rather, politics should be framed and channelled appropriately, but not ignored.

Finally, the commission should be built to last. It should be adaptable to evolving voter preferences, party configurations, and social context. It is more important, therefore, to get it right than to get it soon. This does not mean that no reforms can be implemented before the next federal election, in October 2019. But it might mean that it is worthwhile to consider some changes that can put us on the path of reform prior to the election, with other changes coming after the vote to consolidate the changes already made.

Les services de garde subventionnés : l’exception du Québec dans le contexte fédéral

Compared with other Western countries, Canada has devoted far fewer resources to child daycare services. In contrast, since the late 1990s, Quebec has invested a significant amount in an accessible daycare program, initially limiting the fee paid by parents to $5 a day for each child. Twenty years later, Quebec is still a leader among the provinces in this field.

Until now, researchers have focused on understanding why the federal government has failed to implement an ambitious daycare program. Very few have looked at why the provinces, aside from Quebec, have not acted in this domain, even though some studies have compared Quebec with Ontario or British Columbia. This study is the first to attempt to explain “Quebec’s exceptionalism” in child care services.

Based on an exhaustive and critical survey of the literature, Gabriel Arsenault, Olivier Jacques and Antonia Maioni find that three factors explain Quebec’s distinct path: (1) the presence of a centre-left party that could act as the “protagonist” by introducing a major reform in child care; (2) a party system in which no right-wing party was able to form the government and act as the “antagonist” to abolish the progressive program created by a left-wing party; and (3) the fact that child care is considered a provincial responsibility by all political parties and civil society actors.

Quebec is the only province where all three conditions exist. Thus, the Parti Québécois was able to implement an ambitious child care reform, which the Quebec Liberal party has largely maintained. In Quebec, interest groups in the area of early childhood voice their demands to the provincial government. In the rest of Canada, civil society actors tend to turn to the federal government.

This study also advances our knowledge of public policy in a federal context. In this respect, the debate over the mixed results of Quebec’s child care policy has hindered the adoption of a similar policy by the other provinces. As well, the fiscal imbalance between the federal government and the provinces and the structure of federal tax credits probably do not encourage the provinces to invest in child care services. Finally, this study evaluates the role of cooperation between the state, unions and employers in the field of child care. Such cooperation does not seem to have played a major part in the implementation of Quebec’s child care policy.

British Columbia-Indigenous Nation Agreements: Lessons for Reconciliation?

  • There are few historical or modern treaties with Indigenous nations in British Columbia.
  • Since the early 2000s, the BC government has signed several hundred bilateral agreements governing relations with more than 200 Indigenous nations.
  • Although these agreements do not have the constitutional protection of treaties, they are steps toward reconciliation in an evolving relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Interpreting Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying Legislation

Uncertainty about the meaning of specific terms in the Canadian medical assistance in dying (MAiD) legislation puts Canadians at risk in a number of ways. Eligibility for MAiD may be determined too broadly or too narrowly, and there may be arbitrary inequality of access when the various MAiD assessors and providers interpret the law differently, say Jocelyn Downie and Jennifer A. Chandler.

Until the courts step in with definitive interpretations, they propose interpretations of six key phrases in the current law that urgently need clarification. The authors do not seek ways to expand or restrict access to MAiD but rather to determine the most defensible interpretations of the legislation, using the tools of statutory interpretation supported by the relevant clinical and other forms of expertise.

In conclusion, they invite all responsible authorities to adopt, endorse and/or disseminate the proposed interpretations in the report, in an effort to provide needed guidance to patients and health care practitioners and move the public discussion toward potential consensus on the meaning of the terms in the legislation.

In particular, they call on:

  • The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada to publicly state that the proposed interpretations are consistent with (or not inconsistent with) the government’s policy intentions when crafting the legislation.
  • The federal government to reflect the proposed interpretations in an update to the glossary that the Department of Justice posted on the Internet to accompany the legislation when it was introduced.
  • The federal government to reflect the proposed interpretations in the regulations establishing the federal monitoring system.
  • The directors of public prosecution and attorneys general in each province and territory to reflect the proposed interpretations in guidelines for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in the context of MAiD.
  • The regulators of physicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists to reflect the proposed interpretations in their MAiD practice policies or standards.
  • Regional health authorities and hospitals and their MAiD teams to reflect the proposed interpretations in their MAiD policies and standards.
  • Professional liability protection providers to reflect the proposed interpretations in their advice to physicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists.
  • The Canadian Association of MAiD Assessors and Providers to reflect the proposed interpretations in their clinical practice guidelines and educational programs.
  • The Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association to reflect the proposed interpretations in their educational programs and guidance documents.
  • Civil society groups such as Dying With Dignity Canada to reflect the proposed interpretations in their public education materials and programs.

The Emerging Policy Relationship between Canada and the Métis Nation

  • The Supreme Court of Canada decided in 2016 that the federal government’s jurisdiction over First Nations and Inuit people extends to the Métis.
  • Initiatives such as the 2017 Canada-Métis Nation Accord suggest the federal government is committed to deepening its relationship with the Métis.
  • A true government-to-government relationship will require an ongoing commitment to respect the Métis as partners in policy-making.

A Federation within a Federation? Devolution and Indigenous Government in the Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories (NWT) is on the leading edge of political, constitutional and administrative changes that are fundamentally redefining the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state. In this study, Jerald Sabin shows how the territorial and Indigenous governments of the NWT have been developing institutions with executive, fiscal and regulatory functions to mediate and regularize intergovernmental relations, in what is becoming, in effect, Canada’s first federation within a federation.

Two forms of government restructuring have taken place concurrently in the NWT. First, the devolution of land and resource management from the federal government to the territory, completed in 2014, has expanded the executive, legislative and administrative scope of the public territorial government. Second, new governance and fiscal arrangements within the territory have empowered communities and brought decision-making power closer to the local population. For Sabin, the speed of federalization and the peaceful means through which power has been dispersed have been striking. The emergence of constitutionally entrenched Indigenous governments has nevertheless created a complex policy environment with shared and overlapping responsibilities.

Sabin examines three instances of institution building that affirm the political authority of public and Indigenous government while facilitating their policy interdependence: (1) the creation of the Intergovernmental Council, (2) the introduction of significant resource revenue sharing with Indigenous governments, and (3) attempts to harmonize regulatory oversight in the territory. His analysis relies on a review of government reports, court documents, budget material and secondary sources, interviews with key participants, and communications with federal, territorial and Indigenous government officials and political observers. The study also compares the political development of the NWT with those of Canada’s two other northern territories — Yukon and Nunavut.

The study provides several lessons for the understanding of Indigenous-settler and intergovernmental relations in Canada. The accomplishment of northern peoples in peacefully negotiating, designing and implementing this model of power sharing should be underscored. These developments are a further example of how the Canadian federation is incorporating diverse nations within its borders. Internationally, this model is unprecedented.

However, the NWT model may not be appropriate for all jurisdictions across Canada. The statutory basis for territorial government makes its structure more malleable, and the model is politically viable — even necessary — in the NWT due to its large Indigenous population. More broadly, the NWT’s federation within a federation is a significant step toward embedding Indigenous and treaty rights in the public governance framework as well as the reconciliation of Indigenous and settler societies.

Redesigning Canadian Trade Policies for New Global’s Realities

International trade and investment are central to economic prosperity. But new global realities, including rising antitrade sentiment, are challenging long-held policy approaches in these areas. With the global trading system at a critical juncture, now is the time to examine new trade realities and explore appropriate responses. In this volume, the culmination of a comprehensive interdisciplinary research initiative, the Institute for Research on Public Policy has brought together groundbreaking contributions from more than thirty experts in eight different countries. Together, they analyze how longer-term changes and emerging trends in international commerce, technology and economic power are affecting Canada, and what these changes mean for public policy.

The authors take an in-depth, firm-level look at Canada’s trade, and assess its integration in global value chains. They provide a rigorous analytical framework, supported by new empirical evidence, that will help readers better understand the global economy. Among the topics they examine are the new business models driving the more fragmented and global nature of production; the technological developments that are allowing new traders to expand their reach; and the shift in economic activity toward emerging markets that is dispersing power and raising new challenges for trade negotiations. The editors’ conclusion distills the research findings into a forward-looking policy agenda for more inclusive trade.

Given the profound transformations taking place in the international trade environment, this volume is essential reading for all those interested in the high-stakes debate over globalization and the best way forward for Canada.

A Road Map for More Inclusive Canadian Trade Policy

International trade and investment are central to economic prosperity. But new global realities, including rising antitrade sentiment, are challenging long-held policy approaches in these areas. With the global trading system at a critical juncture, now is the time to examine new trade realities and explore appropriate responses. In this volume, the culmination of a comprehensive interdisciplinary research initiative, the Institute for Research on Public Policy has brought together groundbreaking contributions from more than thirty experts in eight different countries. Together, they analyze how longer-term changes and emerging trends in international commerce, technology and economic power are affecting Canada, and what these changes mean for public policy.

The authors take an in-depth, firm-level look at Canada’s trade, and assess its integration in global value chains. They provide a rigorous analytical framework, supported by new empirical evidence, that will help readers better understand the global economy. Among the topics they examine are the new business models driving the more fragmented and global nature of production; the technological developments that are allowing new traders to expand their reach; and the shift in economic activity toward emerging markets that is dispersing power and raising new challenges for trade negotiations. The editors’ conclusion distills the research findings into a forward-looking policy agenda for more inclusive trade.

Given the profound transformations taking place in the international trade environment, this volume is essential reading for all those interested in the high-stakes debate over globalization and the best way forward for Canada.

Sovereignty at an Impasse: The Highs and Lows of Quebec Nationalism

Observers of the Quebec political scene tend often attribute the decline of the sovereigntist movement in recent years to issues about party leadership or tactical errors. However, this article shows there are deeper reasons for the drop in support. Francophones’ less favourable economic situation has given way to prosperity for the majority of the population, partly because of policies promoted by the sovereignists. Demographically, the growth of the Allophone population has weakened the Anglophone-Francophone linguistic divide that traditionally fuelled Quebec nationalism. As for Quebec’s supposed dominance by the federal government, it must be acknowledged that Canada is one of the world’s most decentralized federations. And, in Quebec as elsewhere, citizens have grown jaded about government and politics, and have serious misgivings about grand political projects such as Quebec sovereignty.

This article explores the fault lines that divided Quebec society and sent shockwaves across the country. The author’s examination of the Quebec nationalist movement over an extended period shows that it is marked by ambivalence and paradox. The ambivalence derives from the difficulty Quebecers have in piecing all the elements of their situation together into a coherent whole and the fact that, when the pros and cons are weighed, the scale never tips decisively to one side.

This analysis suggests it is likely the sovereigntist vote will continue to fragment in next year’s Quebec election and that the federalist-sovereigntist divide will be even less central.