Harper without Jeers, Trudeau without Cheers: Assessing 10 Years of Intergovernmental Relations featured image
Évolution de la communautĂ© fĂ©dĂ©rale canadienne

L’hĂ©ritage de Stephen Harper pourrait contrarier la volontĂ© de Justin Trudeau de redĂ©finir les relations intergouvernementales

Christopher Dunn 8 septembre 2016
  • En matiĂšre de relations intergouvernementales, l’approche de Stephen Harper s’est progressivement Ă©loignĂ©e du « fĂ©dĂ©ralisme ouvert » de ses premiĂšres annĂ©es au pouvoir au profit d’un plus fort engagement multilatĂ©ral auprĂšs des provinces, ponctuĂ© ici et lĂ  de poussĂ©es d’unilatĂ©ralisme.
  • Gouvernement rĂ©duit et autonomie provinciale accrue sont deux Ă©lĂ©ments clĂ©s de l’hĂ©ritage de Stephen Harper.
  • Justin Trudeau privilĂ©gie la collaboration et les partenariats, y compris avec les peuples autochtones, mais il est encore trop tĂŽt pour mesurer les rĂ©sultats de sa dĂ©marche.

What has happened to intergovernmental relations in Canada? Surprises. In October 2015, we had an election with a surprise ending. The Liberal Party, which had been third in the polls for months, won a clear majority. The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, provided more surprises, engaging in a whirlwind of talks with first ministers as a group and with social partners that the previous government, led by Stephen Harper, had largely ignored. He promised a new covenant with Indigenous peoples, the extent of which surprised even them. Change was in the air. The biggest surprise is that this was a surprise. That may well be because we stopped paying attention to intergovernmental relations in Canada years ago. It is time to get back in the saddle.

The end of a prime minister’s term in office often provokes calls for an assessment of what was achieved and predictions as to what the new government will do. Before the latter can be developed, we need an accurate and balanced account of what the Harper government stood for and accomplished. In general, Harper is said to have practised a strict constructionism: Ottawa and the provinces would keep to their own constitutionally defined areas. He was also said to prefer limiting his contacts with provinces to ad hoc bilateral (one-on-one) meetings with premiers.1 The principles he outlined before and during his first mandate were said to indicate his enduring style: adherence to the distribution of powers, limited use of the spending power, granting Quebec participation in UNESCO, fixing the fiscal imbalance. In fact, as the first part of this article explains, it is more accurate to say that his approach to intergovernmental relations reflected three different sets of values at three different times.

Trudeau, for his part, has emphasized a return to multilateral processes (notably First Ministers’ meetings), a willingness to work with the provinces on joint solutions and engagement with Indigenous leaders. In order to assess this approach, it is important to ask the right questions. With Trudeau, as with every other prime minister, one can use the following template: Where does he want to be? What is he doing about it? What is in his way? What are his chances of succeeding? These questions are the focus of the second part of this article.

It is a time for realism. A year after the 2015 election, we are at a point where partisan passions have calmed somewhat. Harper’s effect on federalism can be more dispassionately considered without bitterness, and Trudeau’s sunny ambitions for intergovernmental harmony assessed without undue optimism. It is a time, in brief, to consider Harper without jeers and Trudeau without cheers.

Harper’s Approach to Intergovernmental Relations

Although there is an element of truth in the claim that Harper stuck to the approach to federalism he outlined in the 2006 election, this was not entirely the case. In fact, he practised three versions of federalism, with the following broad characteristics:

Evolutionary, not stationary: There was an evolution in the focus of Harper’s approach to federalism, from domestic politics to the economy to legacy. There were also shifts in motivation.

  • Contradictory: The early Harper was less recognizable in his later approach to federalism. Instead of fully respecting provincial jurisdiction, he would intrude on labour market, securities and Senate reform matters, among others.
  • Impact: At least some aspects of Harper’s approach to federalism can be expected to have an enduring impact.

“Open federalism,” a description often applied to Harper’s approach throughout his time in office, provides only a partial explanation of what he did on the intergovernmental scene. In the face of turbulent economic and political forces, his approach to intergovernmental relations changed. Open federalism was the first phase, oriented to disentangling the federal and provincial orders of government. The second was what may be termed “recession federalism,” which entailed significant engagement with provinces in the face of the post-2008 economic crisis. The third was “deficit federalism,” a mixture of bilateralism and federal unilateralism, including in areas of provincial jurisdiction. These approaches coincided with the Harper minority governments of 2006-08 and 2008-11 and the majority government of 2011-15, respectively.

Open federalism

The open federalism phase (2006-08) was foreshadowed in a 2004 op-ed piece by Harper, a speech to the 2005 Conservative policy convention, an appeal to Quebecers and the 2006 Conservative election platform.2

The Quebec aspects of open federalism were important. As outlined in a speech Harper gave in Quebec City on December 19, 2005,3 a key objective was to strike a balance between federal Liberal centralism and the demands of Quebec sovereignists. The 2006 Conservative election platform promised “recognition of provincial autonomy and of the special cultural and institutional responsibilities of the Quebec government,” and a “Charter of Open Federalism” committing governments to “a more efficient and balanced federation” while facilitating “provincial involvement in areas of federal jurisdiction where provincial jurisdiction is affected.”4

The corresponding language in the 2007 budget5 was less general and more operational:

  • clarification of the respective roles and responsibilities of federal and provincial governments;
  • using excess federal revenues primarily to reduce taxes rather than to launch new federal programs in areas that are primarily provincial and territorial responsibility;
  • focusing new spending on areas of federal responsibility and, to the extent that new initiatives are introduced in areas of primary provincial and territorial responsibility, doing it in a respectful manner, at the request of provinces and territories;
  • limiting the use of the federal spending power by ensuring (1) that new cost-shared programs in areas of provincial responsibility have the consent of the majority of provinces and (2) that provinces and territories have the right to opt out of cost-shared federal programs with compensation if they offer similar programs with comparable accountability structures; and
  • aiding transparency by reporting, in all future budgets, on new investments (1) in areas of core federal and shared responsibility and (2) in transfers to support provinces and territories.

Several initiatives in the first two years of Harper’s term reflected open federalism at work. The first were Quebec-oriented.

  • A May 5, 2006, agreement between the governments of Canada established the Quebec government representative as part of the Permanent Delegation of Canada to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The representative was to “communicate and defend” Quebec’s positions in the decision-making and advisory bodies of UNESCO.6
  • On November 22, 2006, the Prime Minister moved the following motion, which was adopted by the House of Commons: “That this House recognize that the QuĂ©bĂ©cois form a nation within a united Canada.”7 He was quick to add that QuĂ©bĂ©cois do not form an “independent nation.”

Then there were fiscal and economic manifestations of open federalism.

  • Explicit attention to the fiscal imbalance was next. Provinces that had been complaining of a mismatch between federal and provincial revenues were relieved by a multiyear increase in the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) and the Canada Social Transfer (CST) (see figure 1), and by a boost in Equalization payments from $12.9 billion in 2007-08 to $16.7 billion in 2014-15.8 These increases were due to escalator clauses in the transfers and a broadened basis for calculating revenues for the purpose of Equalization.
  • Devolution of labour market policy, which had begun under the ChrĂ©tien Liberals with the labour market development agreements (LMDAs), was accelerated substantially by the introduction of labour market agreements (LMAs) in 2007. The latter covered non-LMDA-qualifying clienteles and the decentralization of funding and staff.9 By 2008-09, provincial governments were responsible for more than three-quarters of workforce development programming in about 1,000 locations. The federal government had transferred over 2,600 of its staff to provincial governments.10
  • Although no initiatives specifically aimed at limiting the federal spending power11 emerged during this first period, neither were significant new -federal programs related to areas of provincial jurisdiction introduced. Graham Fox argued early in the Harper era that Harper was continuing the collaborative tenor of the previous decade, based on substantial continuing federal support in such areas as post-secondary education, health and infrastructure.12

Dun Figure 1

Recession federalism

The following period, recession federalism (2009-10), featured extensive multilateralism and joint programming in certain key fields. This approach was brought on by a serious worldwide recession and responded in part to calls from the opposition parties, who, as minority government continued, could exercise pressure.

  • Federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) collaboration was evident on infrastructure matters. In 2007 the new Harper government decided to make the infrastructure file one of the mainstays in its policy arsenal and devoted $33 billion over seven years to the Building Canada Plan (BCP).13 This formed the base for later initiatives.
  • In early 2009, Harper met all the premiers to discuss joint action to mitigate the effects of the recession. Most remember this session for its agreement on joint action to accelerate BCP infrastructure projects where provinces agreed to simplify associated federal regulatory and environmental processes in time for the 2009 and 2010 construction seasons. The meeting also pledged further federal-provincial -consultation on the availability of credit, federally regulated pensions and the development of a common framework to facilitate the recognition of immigrants’ foreign credentials.
  • Harper further augmented the BCP in 2009 by launching Canada’s Economic Action Plan. Under it, the federal government established the $4-billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund (ISF) to provide funding to provincial-territorial-municipal construction-ready infrastructure projects. The ISF complemented existing federal infrastructure funding by focusing on short-term spending. This brought total infrastructure funding to $37 billion.
  • The federal government engaged in close collaboration with the provinces in the negotiation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union.14 This entailed direct involvement by provinces and territories during the negotiations on topics falling within their jurisdiction.15 European negotiators wanted provincial involvement in order to secure access to subnational procurement, which would broaden the scope of potential benefits of an agreement with Canada and help ensure its implementation.

Deficit federalism

The last Harper period was deficit federalism (2011-15). Here the purpose was to eliminate the deficit and bring about long-term changes in institutional (Senate), social (pensions, medicare, crime) and economic (securities regulation, training) policies. The approach included fairly extensive bilateral relations with the provinces and unilateralism in certain priority areas, a good many of them involving provincial jurisdiction. This phase was marked by a certain impatience with provincial governments that would not align themselves with this vision and an increase in the number of non-Conservative governments.16

There were a number of high-profile unilateral moves during this period.

  • The Canada Job Grant (CJG) took some distance from the hands-off approach to labour market programming enunciated in 2007 with the LMAs. Introduced in the 2012 budget, the CJG was a federally designed training program (announced without consultation), to be -funded a third each by the federal government, the provinces and employers. The federal share would be financed by cutting $300 million from the $500 million allocated to the LMAs; provincial governments would have to come up with an additional $300 million to fund their share. An impasse between the federal and provincial authorities ensued, but it was resolved a year later when Ottawa announced it would fund the provincial share.17 Such unilateralism and involvement in a provincial jurisdiction was, needless to say, not in keeping with the spirit of Harper’s open federalism phase.
  • Rather than negotiating the next phase of key intergovernmental transfers through FPT summitry, Finance Minister James Flaherty simply announced the post-2014 arrangements to his fellow finance ministers on December 19, 2011.18 Instead of the 6 percent annual escalator, which applied until 2016-17, starting in 2017-18 the CHT will grow in line with a three-year moving average of nominal gross domestic product (GDP) growth, with funding guaranteed to increase by at least 3 percent a year. The CST will continue to grow at 3 percent annually.
  • Pension changes were also announced unilaterally. The federal government raised the age of eligibility for the Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement from 65 to 67, beginning in April 2023, directly affecting those born after March 31, 1958. This change had implications for the provinces, which would be forced to pay two extra years of social assistance and related supports to certain clients.19
  • The crime agenda was still another case of unilateralism. Approximately three-quarters of expenditures for the quasi-unitary Canadian criminal justice system are made by provinces and territories, and only a quarter by the federal government.20 Consequently, broad federal chang-es proposed in the 2012 omnibus crime bill, C-10, had deep financial impacts. Quebec announced it would not implement some aspects of the bill because of the enormous ensuing costs ($750 million for new prisons, and up to $80 million in operating costs21). Similar complaints came from other provinces, notably Ontario.

One of the ironies of the Harper government was that, despite its aversion to using the courts as an instrument for social engineering, it resorted to references to the Supreme Court of Canada in the place of intergovernmental negotiation in two important cases. Although both were unsuccessful, they reflected a kind of unilateralism that created friction with provincial governments.

The Harper government planned to establish a single national securities regulator to replace the relatively uncoordinated system of provincial and territorial regulators.22 The legislation was opposed by Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba. The federal government’s reference to the Supreme Court was informed by what Eric Spink calls “centralist constitutional rhetoric.”23 It refused to accept its defeat in the Securities Act reference and salvaged a secondary role for itself based on obiter in the case.24 It moved to establish the Cooperative Capital Markets Regulatory System, which provinces and territories could opt into. British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Yukon have agreed to do so, and a board of directors has been named.25 The opposition of Alberta and Quebec to even a voluntary national system continue unabated.

Another reference instead of negotiation involved Senate reform. Harper was responsible for five bills that would have changed the tenure of senators and introduced consultative elections for candidates prior to appointment (S-4, 2006; C-19, 2007; S-7, 2009; C-10, 2010; and C-7, 2011). The legislation, particularly the plan to institute so-called Senate elections, was criticized as unconstitutional by a number of senators and constitutional experts26 and by the Quebec government (which launched a legal challenge). The Senate initiative demonstrated unilateralism in two respects. First, it reflected a reluctance to engage with provincial governments on reform of an institution that was founded in part to protect regional interests. Second, when the Supreme Court concluded in 2014 that the proposed changes required amendments involving the provinces, Harper, instead of opening negotiations with them, refused to make further Senate appointments. The purpose, he said, was to “force the provinces over time
to either come up with a plan of comprehensive reform or
[agree to] abolition” (emphasis added).27

Bilateralism and multilateralism

I noted earlier that Harper’s approach to intergovernmental relations had been painted as primarily bilateral in nature. Bilateralism was in fact the dominant mode for relations with other first ministers. According to Harper’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall, there were more than 250 bilateral meetings or calls between Harper and individual premiers between 2006 and 2012.28 One senior provincial official listed a dozen programs or intergovernmental arrangements that had been agreed by the Prime Minister and the premier of the province in question.29

There was nevertheless significant multilateralism at the ministerial and deputy ministerial level, as table 1 shows. One should not be surprised that, at the level of ministers and senior officials, multilateral meetings were frequent. Multilateralism is so entrenched in Canadian federalism that one cannot conceive of the country operating without a certain degree of it.

Dunn Table 1

Harper and the commentators

A number of commentators have defined Harper’s intergovernmental approach as stationary and internally consistent. For example, certain Canadian politics textbooks have claimed that open federalism was Harper’s enduring approach.30 As for leading journalists, John Ibbitson stresses fiscal matters in his description of Harper’s “three-pronged approach” aimed at “lowering the temperature” in intergovernmental relations: “reducing the federal fiscal footprint [federal revenues as a percentage of GDP], transferring funds to provinces without strings, and stripping equalization out of programs other than equalization.”31 Paul Wells makes only passing reference to open federalism, emphasizing adjustments to the fiscal imbalance (notably increasing transfers to provincial governments) and allowing direct Quebec participation in UNESCO.32

For Harper advisers Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer, open federalism was classical federalism in action. It consisted of four steps: establishing stable, predictable long-term transfer payments with no new conditions; equal per capita funding to provinces, especially for the CST and CHT; not negotiating the successor to the 2004-14 Health Accord but simply announcing the federal contribution with no new conditions; and a deficit elimination plan that concentrated on federal discretionary spending while leaving major federal transfer payments untouched.33 Bruce Carson, an early senior adviser in the Harper Prime -Minister’s Office, is one of the rare commentators to focus on post-2011 “Harper federalism” (a term he uses instead of “open federalism”). He identifies only two elements of it: addressing the fiscal imbalance and Budget 2012’s strict respect for the division of powers, for example in health care.34

After an initial burst of attention to open federalism, most academics and commentators lost interest. For example, two edited volumes on centralization and decentralization in Canada published in 2010 scarcely mentioned the concept, with the exception of one article.35 The same year, James Bickerton wrote that, in light of contemporary policy challenges, “new federalisms” that preach disentanglement are unrealistic; the trend instead is toward shared policy-making and multilevel governance.36

By the 2011 election, even the Conservatives hardly spoke about open federalism: it merited only one line in the platform. One Conservative insider said this was because the expected electoral advances in Quebec, for whom it was largely designed, had failed to materialize.

Clearly there was no simple or consistent definition of Harper’s open federalism. As well, several of the generalizations commentators have made about his vision of federalism need to be highly qualified.

Assessing Harper as Prime Minister

What general points can be made about intergovernmental relations during the Harper decade?

First, we are reminded that governments at each level have power resources that allow them to pursue their aims in isolation from, as well as in cooperation with, one another. The ease with which Harper could switch strategies reflects this flexibility.

Second, perhaps it is time to question the textbook characterizations of eras of federalism. A typical textbook tends to paint each prime minister as exemplifying one or another school of federalism (such as open federalism); sometimes even two PMs will be said to be exemplars of a certain intergovernmental approach (Chrétien and Martin and collaborative federalism, for example).37 We should instead be alert to shifts that take place in the life of a premiership, as events and environmental forces dictate.

Third — probably the most important — is that in intergovernmental relations, prime ministers seldom end up where they intended. Harper is only the latest in a long list of prime ministers to experience this. Analysts of federalism can dress up the terms, but basically the intergovernmental challenges are similar for most prime ministers: Where do they want to be? What are they doing about it? What is in their way? What are their chances of succeeding? The -dynamics may not in fact unfold in this order due to the weight of circumstances and events — such as, for the present discussion, the post-2008 recession. Sometimes one stage will affect another: what is in the way can force a reevaluation of where the prime minister wants to be.

In some respects, Harper did not end up where he expected to be. A key element of his approach to intergovernmental relations was that governments should stick to the responsibilities they are assigned under the Constitution. This principle was initially respected — for example, in the avoidance of new programs based on the federal spending power. This was consistent with Harper’s strategy of avoiding measures that would antagonize the Quebec government or revive support for sovereignty. However, as we saw, he ended up acting counter to classical federalism in some key areas and selectively coerced provincial governments in others. He is not the first prime minister to experience such reversals, nor will he be the last.38

The Trudeau Vision

Justin Trudeau’s language on the election trail and early in office promises substantial change from the Conservative government’s intergovernmental approach. What we have so far are the first two stages: where he wants to be, and what he is doing about it. Since this paper aims to be realistic about intergovernmental relations, after outlining the vision I will examine constraints Trudeau faces and discuss the likelihood of overcoming them.

The Trudeau vision is simultaneously general and specific, and both aspects have intergovernmental implications. The general vision rejects the Harper intellectual framework in favour of collaboration with the other orders of government and key partners. Trudeau also represents the spirit of the age, while embracing Liberal traditions — grand narratives of the party that demand to be honoured.

In a June 2016 interview with Paul Wells, Trudeau talked about “the intricacies of rebuilding a working relationship between the federal government, the provinces and municipalities.” Trudeau said he is working on a wholesale change in relations among levels of government in Canada, after several years when Harper met rarely with the provincial premiers and preferred not to meet directly with municipal governments.39

Dunn table 2

Trudeau uses a variety of phrases to describe how his government will relate to provinces, municipalities and Indigenous communities: “working with,” -“partnering with,” “collaborating with,” “supporting.” Liberal electoral and public policy documents are filled with cooperative language, as table 2 demonstrates. This partly reflects the basic fact that in health and social policy areas, provinces are the policy and infrastructure leaders. The government commits to “work with provinces and territories” on labour market training, post-secondary education infrastructure, health care, early childhood education and daycare, law and order, and housing.

Federal leadership is mentioned only twice in the 2015 Liberal platform, and both mentions are qualified. “Federal leadership” in the health sector is bookended by a comment about “collaborative federal leadership that has been missing during the Harper decade.”40 Although the promise to “provide national leadership” is linked to action on climate change, it is immediately followed by a litany of “work with,” “partner with” and similar phrases. Both the platform and the mandate letters mention “targeted federal funding” for addressing climate change, but with no further details. Budget 2016 states that “the Government has committed to provide leadership” in greenhouse gas reduction but qualifies this commitment by “recognition” of the importance of “a collaborative approach between provincial, territorial and federal governments.”41

Almost all the specific “priorities” announced in the 2016 budget have significant implications for intergovernmental relations help for the middle class, growth for the middle class, a better future for Indigenous peoples, a clean-growth economy and an inclusive and fair Canada. Middle-class growth involves intergovernmental collaboration in infrastructure and innovation, Indigenous peoples need significant FPT cooperation and nation-to-nation relationships, clean economic growth involves an intergovernmental climate change agenda, and inclusion involves governments cooperating on social transfers.

There are other broad intellectual differences between Trudeau’s approach and Harper’s, two of which are almost certain to affect future intergovernmental agreements: unlike Harper, Trudeau favours a commitment to evidence-based policy and a results orientation.

The 2015 Liberal Party election platform makes several references to “evidence” and “evidence-based decision making,” as opposed to “ideology” and science in the service of economic growth — a clear swipe at the Harper years. Budget 2016 reflects this approach, notably in science policy, the role of universities, air pollution, oceans, environmental assessment, the North, the impact of cultural policy, public sector advice and women’s issues.

The Liberal platform and mandate letters were apparently heavily influenced by a “results approach” to policy, based on the work of Michael Barber, the first head (2001-05) of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit.42 This orientation, in turn, influenced the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government in Ontario and was brought to the federal level by senior Ontario public servants, including the former deputy minister of intergovernmental relations, Matthew Mendelsohn.43 The Trudeau administration now has the Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications (formerly the Priorities and Planning Committee), chaired by the Prime Minister himself.44 However, the impact of this move is not yet clear.

It is unlikely that future intergovernmental agreements will ignore such a results orientation. For example, Health Minister Jane Philpott has asked aloud “whether it’s appropriate for some of the [federal] funding to be tied to

Justin Trudeau represents the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times. So do a number of the rookies named to his cabinet, most of whom are about the same age (in their 40s).46

Trudeau’s experience includes high school teaching (1999-2002) and chairing Katimavik, a youth volunteer program (2002-06). In 2006, he was recruited as chair of the federal Liberal Task Force on Youth Renewal,47 which recommended that a future Liberal prime minister also serve as minister of youth; Trudeau now does. Engaging with university audiences is his forte.

It would have been surprising if the concerns of the newer generation had not been absorbed: feminism, environmentalism, indigeneity, inclusion, youth and an expansively defined rights-based society. Indeed, a number of these concepts help structure his intergovernmental priorities. Environmental/infrastructure and Indigenous initiatives were the two major intergovernmental elements of the 2016 budget. (I consider nation-to-nation relationships a form of intergovernmental relations.)

Liberal Party traditions also figure in the Trudeau vision. The Liberal Party eschews ideology in favour of grand political narratives. Indeed, it has been said that the Liberal Party reinvents itself from generation to generation to reconcile the tensions that beset the country — reinventions that often have implications for federalism and intergovernmental relations.

The Pearson and Pierre Trudeau governments were oriented to balanced and equitable “place prosperity,” some of it achieved through regional development agencies.48 Provincial governments were often enlisted to support this vision. Provinces were also essential parts of the iconic social programs the Liberals initiated during this period, such as medicare and the Canada Pension Plan.

The ChrĂ©tien and Martin governments somewhat downplayed their relations with provinces and cultivated a network of other subnational contacts. This was in pursuit of what might be called the “innovation agenda,” which saw the globalizing world more in terms of “clusters” and less in terms of specific geographical areas. There was a need for institutional adaptation, knowledge creation and sharing, networks, partnerships, alliances and institutional learning.

The Chrétien/Martin focus on clusters meant that relationships were struck not only with cities and metropolitan areas but also with other regional and local actors such as universities, community economic development agencies, industry associations, research institutes and so forth. This meant that federal resources went where the clusters and economic payback were most significant, not to provinces equally.49 It was intergovernmental relations of a different sort: provinces if necessary, but not necessarily provinces. During this time, despite the fact that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported, Chrétien did not take major initiatives on Indigenous issues (or engage directly with Indigenous leaders), a stance reversed by Martin during the negotiation of the short-lived Kelowna Accord.

What is Trudeau Doing to Act on His Vision?

Trudeau’s multilevel style of intergovernmental relations stresses inclusion. Multilevel federalism is the enlisting of other levels and forms of government — and I include Indigenous communities in this designation — in a social and economic vision (environmentalism, feminism, indigeneity, youth). With Trudeau’s multilevel federalism, the mechanisms of intergovernmental relations are dramatically different than Harper’s. It is the difference between narrowcasting and broadband.

Harper’s approach reflected a tendency to negotiate separately, not jointly, with provincial premiers50 and to avoid engagement with municipal and Indigenous leaders. In contrast, Trudeau moved quickly to restore multilateral First Ministers’ Meetings while broadening the forums for engagement. The following meetings took place in his first three months in office:

He met twice with all first ministers to discuss climate change (November 27, 2015, and March 3, 2016).

  • He invited all provincial and territorial first ministers to the COP 21 environmental conference in Paris, November 30 to December 10, 2015. In addition to the 10 first ministers who attended, the Canadian delegation included representatives from national Indigenous organizations, youth, nongovernmental organizations and business.
  • He met one-on-one with Premiers Wynne, Notley, Couillard, Ball, McNeil, MacLauchlan and Clark in Ottawa or their provincial capitals.
  • He met the leaders of five national Indigenous organizations — the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the MĂ©tis National Council (MNC), the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Native Women’s Association of Canada — on December 16, 2015, to discuss how to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report; then he met with the leaders of the AFN, the MNC and the ITK on March 2, 2016. (Although it was not explained why the second meeting involved only three organizations, one national leader suggested it was because Indigenous or treaty rights were involved and the three are the “rights and title holders.”51)
  • He held a meeting on February 5, 2016, with the Big City Mayors’ Caucus — part of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) — to discuss potentially greater federal-municipal institutionalization, a theme that had been foreshadowed in a pre-election speech to the FCM.52

Within the Trudeau vision, an intergovernmental agenda is particularly central in two areas: the environment and climate change, and Indigenous affairs. Both received significant new resources in the 2016 budget. The infrastructure plan will invest $11.9 billion over five years to modernize public transit, water and wastewater systems; provide affordable housing; and protect infrastructure systems from the effects of climate change. Phase 1 of the infrastructure plan will focus on public transit, water and wastewater systems, and affordable -housing. Together with the new $2-billion Low Carbon Economy Fund, this phase marks the first step toward what Budget 2016 calls a clean-growth economy. There will also be “historic investments” for Indigenous peoples of $8.4 billion over the next five years, almost half of them in education. Nearly $2 billion will be invested in water and wastewater infrastructure and drinking water monitoring on First Nations reserves over the same period.53

In order to set a new tone and strengthen relationships, Trudeau is introducing new sectoral processes alongside existing intergovernmental machinery. This is evident in, among other areas, climate change, Indigenous affairs and relations with municipalities.

Climate change

One of the notable results of the March 2016 Vancouver summit on climate change was the commitment of the first ministers to establish four working groups to address how to meet Canada’s COP 21 targets: on clean technology, innovation and jobs; on carbon pricing mechanisms; on specific mitigation opportunities; and on adaptation and climate resilience. The working groups have federal and provincial-territorial cochairs, will be overseen by relevant ministerial tables, will commission research on reducing emissions while growing the economy and will report by September 2016 to ministers, who will then report to first ministers.

Indigenous affairs

A new type of intergovernmental relationship is being established by the Trudeau government — a relationship with Indigenous peoples. The recommendations of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), all of which the Prime Minister has pledged to honour,54 reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown in Canada and call for various commitments to ensure that Indigenous peoples are full partners in Confederation. The need to institutionalize further the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous organizations is mentioned throughout the TRC recommendations.

The ministerial mandate letters and Budget 2016 give the impression that the new relationship will be built at the sectoral level as well as the national level. The mandate letters state that provinces and territories, municipalities and Indigenous peoples will be consulted, worked with or partnered with, to establish a national early learning and child care framework, “co-manage” the three oceans, design an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada, design school criteria and amend environmental assessment legislation. The budget also commits Ottawa specifically to engage with Indigenous peoples on later iterations of infrastructure plans, a national housing strategy and the national early learning and child care framework. All this constitutes an ambitious program of sector-specific institutional and programmatic partnerships.

One sign of growing institutionalization came in June 2016 with the founding of the Federal, Provincial, Territorial and Indigenous Forum (FPTIF) composed of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for Indigenous affairs and the leaders of the AFN, the MNC, the ITK, the Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly of Canada and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In establishing the forum, ministers confirmed “a new approach in support of improving outcomes for Indigenous peoples and promoting reconciliation in Canada.”55

Federal-municipal relations

Some steps toward federal-municipal institutionalization could be coming. In his pre-election speech to the FCM, Trudeau promised regular meetings with municipal leaders; a renewed federal role in housing; more money for public transit and transportation, with “provincial and federal partners at the table”; and a federal government that would be a “strong partner” as municipalities prepare to be “smart cities.”56

In February 2016, following his meeting with the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, Trudeau said that “we are restarting a relationship that had been significantly neglected over the last 10 years.”57 Budget 2016 commits Ottawa to working in partnerships on developing an innovation agenda and on green infrastructure projects.

Ottawa will nevertheless walk a fine line in these ventures. Parliamentary Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs Adam Vaughan notes that although the Liberals will be less reluctant than the Conservatives to engage with cities on a wide variety of measures, infrastructure money to municipalities will, as before, flow through provincial governments.58 Moreover, this will involve not only the Prime Minister: so far the Finance Minister and the Ministers of Immigration and Environment have consulted with the big city mayors on matters within their portfolios.

What Stands in Trudeau’s Way?

There is plenty in Prime Minister Trudeau’s way as he seeks to implement the vision and initial commitments reviewed above. Three factors in particular -substantially restrict his marge de manoeuvre: the Harper legacy, province building and the declining federal presence.

The effect of the Harper legacy on Trudeau is not to be discounted. Harper left Trudeau with a smaller government. The corporate tax rate was cut by 6 percentage points and the GST by 2, leaving less money to fund the federal public sector and transfers. Direct program spending was also cut, and the intergovernmental capacity of the Privy Council Office severely constrained. In general, his policies fostered a growing sense of provincial self-reliance and interprovincialism. The Council of the Federation, although established shortly before Harper was elected, came into its own during his tenure by establishing a secretariat and providing useful policy alternatives.

Another factor Trudeau will have to deal with is “province building.” For Matt Wilder and Michael Howlett, “the provinces are often the primary actors responsible for the formulation, implementation and financing of policy programs in Canada.”59 They identify two measurable variables of government strength: policy capacity (measured by personnel numbers, bureaucratic professionalism and financial resources) and policy action (measured as targeted expenditures). Most of these metrics show that provinces are in fact the primary actors.

The declining federal presence is another constraint Trudeau will face. This is especially notable in matters of infrastructure, health and economic development. The Mowat Centre, using OECD data, reported that “subnational governments in Canada play a larger role relative to the federal government in public infrastructure investment than is the case in other peer federations in the OECD, such as Germany, Australia, and the US.”60

The federal share of total health care spending, according to a 2015 report by Hugh Mackenzie, declined from 37 percent in the 1970s to the 10 to 11 percent range in the wake of the Canada Health and Social Transfer under ChrĂ©tien and Martin.61 The 2004 Health Accord and its 6 percent escalator advanced the federal share to around 23 percent.62 Mackenzie, however, estimates that as a result of the 2011 changes, the federal government’s share of health care costs will drop from 23 percent to between 18 and 19 percent by 2024.63

The net effect of these factors — the Harper legacy, province building and declining federal presence — has been to deprive federal actors of the type of leadership role within the federation they used to assume routinely. At a federal-provincial meeting I once attended, I was reminded of the “golden rule”: the one who has the gold, rules. The federal government’s gold has been less and less in evidence; it consequently has less capacity to set national standards and a greater incentive to work in partnership with provincial and territorial governments.

Trudeau’s Challenges and Options

Barring a change in strategy, Prime Minister Trudeau’s chances of reaching his proclaimed objectives for intergovernmental relations are mixed. The June 2016 federal-provincial agreement on reform of the Canada Pension Plan is a clear early success. All provinces except Quebec signed on to a 50th-anniversary reform of the plan, which garnered the praise of social policy experts for the federal leadership involved.64 However, for the better part of Trudeau’s period in office there has been an impasse on climate change; provincial leadership has guided energy and pharmaceutical policy; and federal inaction is evident on some major intergovernmental files.

Climate change is one of the few areas where the Trudeau government uses the language of leadership. Trudeau entered the First Ministers’ Meeting on March 3, 2016, hinting at federal leadership, aiming in particular for a national carbon pricing minimum. (Carbon pricing is commonly understood to be a blanket term that includes both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade arrangements.) However, several first ministers balked, and Trudeau had to compromise. The ensuing Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change65 states that when an agreement is reached on carbon pricing it will be “adapted to each province’s specific circumstances and in particular the realities of Canada’s indigenous peoples and Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.”

Some provincial intergovernmental actors interpret the working group structure as a sign of impasse — an admission by Ottawa that a national carbon price was not acceptable, at least not so early in the mandate. Some provincial officials have also suggested that their federal counterparts could have taken greater account of the work on this issue done by the Council of the Federation over the past few years. By June 2016, the impasse was still evident in the carbon pricing working group, with Ottawa’s push for a federal carbon tax meeting particular resistance from Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nova Scotia, and Ontario not wanting a federal carbon price with its cap-and-trade system.66

There are also examples of the federal government following provincial leadership. This is evident with regard to the Canadian Energy Strategy (CES) and pharmaceuticals. The CES was first broached by Alberta Premier Alison Redford in 2012 and adopted by premiers at a Council of the Federation meeting in 2015. The Liberal platform used the same term in its commitment to work with provinces and territories in this field. The Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change referred to “the leadership shown and actions taken by the provinces and territories.” Provincial energy ministers are working with the federal Minister of Natural Resources on implementation of certain elements of the CES (even though it remains a Council of the Federation initiative).

On pharmaceuticals, in January 2016, Health Minister Jane Philpott said the federal government would join the provincial and territorial pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance (pCPA) to negotiate lower prices on brand name and generic drugs for the drug plans it administers.67 Ottawa was not part of discussions in 2010 when the alliance started, although apparently it was invited to participate.68 (The pCPA is an example of the useful initiatives emanating from the Council of the Federation.)

Finally, there is inaction — or lack of stated intent — on some major intergovernmental files with big price tags. In this context, the Trudeau government’s first budget predicted a deficit of $19.4 billion for 2016-17,69 which leaves little room for major initiatives. For example, prior to the January 2016 meeting with her provincial and territorial counterparts, Philpott indicated her wish to discuss principles, not finances, with regard to the CHT, the opposite of the order that her provincial colleagues preferred.70 She resisted accepting a provincial and territorial target of 25 percent federal funding for health care, instead committing the federal government to work collaboratively “toward a long-term funding arrangement which would include bilateral agreements.”71 The Minister later indicated that any new federal spending on health would probably be allocated not to the CHT but to “specific domains” through agreements with individual provinces.72 The federal government’s intent with regard to the CST, LMDAs and Equalization is also not yet clear (although with Equalization, the relevant legislation is in force until 2019).

Looking forward, Trudeau may turn to other intergovernmental strategies. Three alternatives, which stem from his own approach, are possible.

A “medicare approach”

In a 2015 speech in Calgary, Trudeau spoke about a “medicare approach”: provincial experimentation, with federal leadership at key moments. He referred in particular to climate change policy:

So we will set a national standard in partnership with provinces and territories, one that gives them the flexibility to design their own -policies to achieve those targets, including their own carbon pricing policies. And we will provide targeted federal funding to help the provinces and territories achieve their goals, in the same way that federal funding through the Canada Health Transfer is designed to support provinces and territories in achieving the goals of the Canada Health Act.73

According to University of British Columbia environmental expert Kathryn Harrison, this approach would involve Ottawa taking a more active leadership role. She believes the Vancouver model is flawed because, despite three decades of pledges of FPT “collaboration,” emissions have continued to increase. In her view, now is the time for the “medicare moment in Canadian climate policy.”74 If successful, this approach could be applied in other areas. However, its broader applicability may be limited.

Low-hanging-fruit option

Another option is to act on issues where provincial resistance is lower and federal involvement would be less controversial. These might include clarifying roles for innovation policy,75 being an umpire in pipeline disputes, elaborating bilateral approaches to improve relations with Indigenous peoples (as opposed to more ambitious initiatives involving provincial and territorial governments)76 and involving provincial governments in future international trade negotiations.

This option would see Ottawa acting less as a leader and more as a bridge or facilitator. It still involves federal activism and is reflected in certain commitments in the Liberal platform, such as re-establishing the federal government’s role in supporting affordable housing and creating a single online point of contact for all government services. On another more contentious issue, the expansion of pipelines, political commentator John Ivison has written that “Trudeau has made much of openness, evidence-based policy and acting as a referee, not a cheerleader.”77

Collaborative consent

A third option involves following the logic of Liberal policy documents and deepening the collaborative model. The documents are not clear about what in fact “collaborating with,” “working with” and “partnering with” actually look like in practice. Some inspiration may come from processes involving Indigenous peoples, who are of course now more fully part of the intergovernmental universe.

The “collaborative consent” principle originated with the government of the NWT and has been mentioned by Trudeau as a promising approach for Canada’s implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).78 It involves what Phil Fontaine, Merrell-Ann Phare and Michael Miltenberger called “consent through collaboration” at multiple stages of interaction between government and Indigenous peoples: development of legislation; development of policies and plans; negotiations regarding ownership and use of lands and waters; sector-specific agreements for resource management; and resource revenue-sharing agreements.79 As Trudeau noted, “It shouldn’t ever even come to the decision, is it a veto or not a veto. We should be working together from the very beginning.”80

The collaborative consent principle, suitably modified, could be applied to a wider intergovernmental zone. Federal and provincial governments are no stranger to collaborative ventures, but are less associated with working toward consent at multiple stages of the policy process. Such an approach could help build support for policy change in stages rather than leaving most major decisions for a summit meeting of ministers or first ministers at which political (or partisan) considerations can derail an agreement that seemed close to approval.


In their efforts to manage the Canadian federation, prime ministers seldom end up where they thought they would. Harper’s open federalism was motivated by his long-standing view that the federal and provincial governments should stick to their respective areas of jurisdiction and his assessment that Canada was ready for economic liberalism. With recession federalism, Harper found it necessary to join the international front of countries adopting a quasi-Keynesian recovery strategy, and in so doing he outflanked the opposition leaders who nearly toppled his government and focused public attention on “building Canada.” With deficit federalism, Harper was committed to proving (and leaving as a legacy) that small government and balanced budgets went together and to pursuing market-enabling federalism.

Trudeau has enunciated a view of intergovernmental relations centred on collaboration and partnership (including with Indigenous peoples). He has laid the groundwork for results- and evidence-based intergovernmental agreements. His approach also shows the imprint of a generational change.

The Harper legacy, ongoing province building and the smaller federal presence will weigh heavily upon the Trudeau government. Trudeau will also be mindful of the legacy of previous Liberal prime ministers and, not unlike them, will probably pursue an eclectic mix of multilateral, bilateral and federal-municipal approaches. On relations with Indigenous peoples, he shows signs of going considerably beyond his predecessors. It is also realistic to expect that Trudeau’s intergovernmental approach will change, as events dictate. Depending on the policy field, he may be galvanized into a “medicare moment,” act as a bridge or facilitator, or practise collaboration at different phases of a particular policy process. Or he could, on certain key issues, adopt a more assertive approach, as did many of his predecessors.

When one examines Harper without jeers and Trudeau without cheers, new impressions emerge. Harper left a legacy of a less intrusive federal government while deviating in some respects from the classical federalism that was initially so central to his approach to intergovernmental relations. As for Trudeau, it is too early to know whether his harmonious relations with other governments will endure and, in particular, what concrete results will be achieved.

I am deeply grateful to the persons I interviewed in the preparation of this article for providing valuable insights: the Parliamentary Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs (Adam Vaughan, MP), one Harper insider, three present or former provincial deputy ministers of intergovernmental relations, four present or former Privy Council Office officials and two officials from the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat. I also benefited from the considerable insights of IRPP research director Leslie Seidle. Any errors or misinterpretations are my responsibility.

  1. D. McGrane, “National Unity through Disengagement: The Harper Government’s One-Off Federalism,” in How Ottawa Spends 2013-2014, The Harper Government: Mid-term Blues and Long-term Plans, ed. C. Stoney and B. Doern (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 114-26. See also A. Lecours, “Justin Trudeau and Canadian Federalism,” blog post, Centre on Constitutional Change, October 27, 2015,
  2. S. Harper, “My Plan for ‘Open Federalism,’” National Post, October 27, 2004; Conservative Party of Canada, Policy Declaration March 19, 2005,; Conservative Party of Canada, For Real Change: The Conservative Party of Canada’s Commitment to Quebecers (2005); Conservative Party of Canada, Stand Up for Canada: Federal Election Platform (2006),
  3. Noted in P. Leslie, “The Two Faces of Open Federalism,” in Open Federalism: Interpretations, Significance, ed. K.G. Banting, R. Gibbons, P.M. Leslie, A. Noel, R. Simeon, and R. Young (Kingston, ON: Queen’s University Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 2006).
  4. Conservative Party of Canada, For Real Change.
  5. Canada, Budget 2007,
  6. Quebec, QuĂ©bec’s Presence as a Member of the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO (2015),
  7. House of Commons, Debates, no. 084, November 22, 2006, p. 1510,
  8. Department of Finance Canada, Federal Support to Provinces and Territories (October 30, 2015),
  9. A. Bramwell, Training Policy for the 21st Century: Decentralization and Workforce Development Programs for Unemployed Working-Age Adults in Canada, Mowat Publication 26 (Toronto: University of Toronto School of Public Policy and Governance, 2011); D.E. Wood, “Hollowing Out the Middle: Recasting Federal Workforce Development Programs under the Harper Government,” in The Harper Record 2008-2015, ed. T. Healy and S. Trew (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2015).
  10. Wood, “Hollowing Out the Middle,” 186.
  11. See R. Young, “Open Federalism and Canadian Municipalities,” in Open Federalism: Interpretations, Significance, ed. K.G. Banting, R. Gibbins, P.M. Leslie, A. Noel, R. Simeon, and R. Young (Kingston, ON: Queen’s University Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 2006).
  12. G. Fox, “Harper’s ‘Open Federalism’: From the Fiscal Imbalance to ‘Effective Collaborative Management’ of the Federation,” Policy Options 28, no. 3 (March 2007): 44-7,
  13. Infrastructure Canada, Building Canada Plan (October 26, 2011),
  14. P. Goff, Canadian Trade Negotiations in an Era of Deep Integration, CIGI Papers 88 (Waterloo, ON: Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2016); C.J. Kukucha, “Canadian Sub-federal Governments and CETA: Overarching Themes and Future Trends,” International Journal 68, no. 4 (2013): 528-35; and S. Paquin, “Federalism and the Governance of Trade Negotiations in Canada: Comparing CUSFTA with CETA,” International Journal 68, no. 4 (2013): 545-52.
  15. P.M. Johnson, P. Muzzi, and V. Bastien, “The Voice of Quebec in CETA Negotiations,” International Journal 68, no. 4 (2013): 561.
  16. There were Liberal governments in Nova Scotia (2013) and New Brunswick (2014); NDP governments in Nova Scotia previously (June 24, 2009) and in Alberta (May 5, 2015); and a Liberal government in Ontario, which acted like an opposition to the federal Conservatives, especially under Kathleen Wynne, chosen Liberal leader and hence premier in February 2013 and elected with a comfortable majority on June 12, 2014. By the end of Harper’s third mandate, there were no other Conservative governments in power.
  17. A year later, it was resolved when Ottawa announced it would fund the provincial share, up to $10,000 of each $15,000 grant, with large employers responsible for the remainder. Still, 10 percent of the existing LMA would now be shifted to the CJG in the first year, and for three years after that, for a total of 40 percent. This was the result of a combined provincial counteroffer on January 28, 2013. Specific arrangements would be arrived at by bilateral negotiations. S. Mas, “Canada Job Grant Notably Different from Take It or Leave It Offer: Ottawa to Finalize Details with Provinces and Territories on a One-on-One Basis,” CBC News, February 28, 2014,
  18. Department of Finance Canada, Backgrounder on Major Transfer Renewal (December 19, 2011),
  19. Canadian Press, “Budget Move on Old Age Security Will Cost Provinces,” CBC News, March 26, 2012,
  20. Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Expenditure Analysis of Criminal Justice in Canada (March 20, 2013). “Criminal justice expenditures are split between the federal government and the provinces and territories 27% and 73% respectively ($5.5 billion and $14.8 billion in 2012),” the report states at p. 23.
  21. A. Blatchford, “Quebec Refuses to Implement Harper’s Crime Bill,” The Globe and Mail, March 13, 2012.
  22. Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66.
  23. E. Spink, “Federalism and Securities Regulation in Canada,” in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011; The Changing Federal Environment: Rebalancing Roles, ed. Nadia Verelli (Montreal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 117-19.
  24. Reference re Securities Act, paras. 105, 117, 121-5.
  25. Cooperative Capital Markets Regulatory System,; A Willis, “National securities regulator plows ahead despite holdouts,” The Globe and Mail, August 22, 2016.
  26. See various chapters in The Democratic Dilemma: Reforming the Canadian Senate, ed. J. Smith (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).
  27. T. Milewski, “Abolition or Attrition? Mulcair and Harper Offer Different Paths to Senate End Game,” CBC News, July 25, 2015,
  28. T. Harper, “Comparing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Marty the Calgary Stampeders Horse,” Toronto Star, November 23, 2012,
  29. Confidential interview, March 2016.
  30. S. Brooks, Canadian Democracy, 8th ed. (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2015), 248, defines open federalism in terms of what was said in the 2005 Conservative Policy Declaration; R. Dyck, Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches (Toronto: Nelson, 2014), 451, equates it largely with “classical federalism,” keeping each level of government in a separate compartment; A. Marland and J.J. Wesley, Inside Canadian Politics (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2016), 105-6, also stress the classical federalism elements. D. Lenihan contrasts the classical style of Harper with Trudeau’s antipathy to unilateralism in “Harper: The End of Classical Federalism?” iPolitics, March 26, 2013,
  31. J. Ibbitson, Stephen Harper (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2015), 271.
  32. P. Wells, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- (Toronto: Vintage, 2013).
  33. K. Boessenkool, “Ordered Liberty: How Harper’s Philosophy Transformed Canada for the Better,” Policy Options (December 1, 2015), Classical federalism was one tool that could serve multiple purposes, including reducing the size of government, accommodating regional interests and decentralizing decision-making to the individual and family. It was also a way of avoiding the excesses of the Liberal governments before 2006.
  34. Bruce Carson, 14 Days: Making the Conservative Movement in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 202-3. Budget 2012, he says, dealt with matters within federal jurisdiction in an economic context: innovation, EI, immigration and OAS eligibility.
  35. Brooke Jeffrey, “Prime Minister Harper’s Open Federalism: Promoting a Neo-liberal Agenda?) in The Case for Centralized Federalism, ed. G. DiGiacomo and M. Flumian (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010), 108-136; the companion volume, The Case for Decentralized Federalism, ed. R. Hubbard and G. Paquet (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010), x, 236, had only passing references to the term.
  36. J. Bickerton, “Deconstructing the New Federalism,” Canadian Political Science Review 4, no. 2-3 (2010): 56-72.
  37. J.M. Simmons and P. Graefe, “Assessing the Collaboration That Was ‘Collaborative Federalism’ 1996-2006,” Canadian Political Science Review 7, no. 1 (2013): 25-36.
  38. Pierre Trudeau began with more cooperative efforts (constitutional conferences, joint general development agreements). Certain initiatives in his last term (1980-4) were more unilateral: for example, economic and regional development agreements, the 1984 Canada Health Act, reductions to transfers with no consultation, the National Energy Program and an aborted attempt to patriate the Constitution with the agreement of only two provinces. Brian Mulroney worked to obtain Quebec’s agreement to the 1982 constitutional reform (Meech Lake Accord), and Ottawa negotiated certain energy and agricultural initiatives with the provinces. However, Mulroney later took certain unilateral moves, for example on federal transfers and deficit reduction. J. Stillborn and R.B. Asselin, Federal-Provincial Relations (Ottawa: Library of Parliament, 2001),
  39. P. Wells, “Justin Trudeau Vows ‘Big’ Infrastructure Announcements Coming Soon,” Toronto Star, June 9, 2016,
  40. Liberal Party of Canada, Real Change: A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class, 2015, 9,
  41. Finance Canada, Budget 2016, Chapter 4
  42. M. Barber, How to Run a Government So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy (London: Allen Lane, 2015) and Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services (London: Methuen, 2008).
  43. M. Hepburn, “Trudeau at Crossroads on Two-Year Anniversary,” Toronto Star, April 4, 2015, See also K. May, “Delivering the Goods: Why Matthew Mendelsohn Is Trudeau’s Go-To Guy,” Ottawa Citizen, January 15, 2016,
  44. Every mandate letter contains virtually identical language on results. Cabinet committees and individual ministers are to “track and report on the progress of our commitments; assess the effectiveness of our work; and align our resources with priorities, in order to get the results we want.”
  45. C. Cullen, “Health Minister Talking ‘Priorities’ but Provinces Expected to Press on Funding,” CBC News, January 20, 2016,
  46. “Get to Know Justin Trudeau’s First Cabinet,” Maclean’s, November 4, 2015,
  47. S. Morales, “Teacher, Actor, Boxer, Prime Minister: A Justin Trudeau Timeline,” Global News, October 20, 2015,
  48. P. Leslie, Federal State, National Economy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).
  49. C. Dunn, “Urban Asymmetry: The New Reality in Intergovernmental Relations,” Policy Optons, November 2014. A.M. Okun, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1975).
  50. McGrane, “National Unity through Disengagement.”
  51. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, quoted in E. McSheffrey, “Indigenous Leaders Shocked by Exclusion from Climate Change Meeting,” National Observer, March 7, 2016.
  52. J. Trudeau, “Speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference,” June 10, 2015,
  53. B. Morneau, “Restoring Hope for the Middle Class: Federal Budget 2016,” March 22, 2016,
  54. J. Trudeau, “Real Change: Restoring Fairness to Canada’s Relationship with Aboriginal Peoples,” speech to Assembly of First Nations, July 7, 2015,
  55. Indigenous and Northern Affairs, “First Meeting of Ministers and Leaders at New Federal, Provincial, Territorial and Indigenous Forum (FPTIF),” June 10, 2016,
  56. J. Trudeau, “Speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference.”
  57. “Justin Trudeau Restarts ‘Neglected’ Relationship with Canada’s Mayors,” CBC News, February 5, 2016,
  58. Author’s interview with Adam Vaughan, MP, March 15, 2016.
  59. M. Wilder and M. Howlett, “Province-Building and Canadian Political Science,” in Provinces: Canadian Provincial Politics, ed. C. Dunn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 89.
  60. C. Cautillo, N. Zon, and M. Mendelsohn, Rebuilding Canada: A New Framework for Renewing Canada’s Infrastructure (Toronto: Mowat Centre, August 2014), 5.
  61. H. Mackenzie, The Canada Health Transfer Disconnect: An Aging Population, Rising Health Care Costs and a Shrinking Federal Role in Funding (Ottawa: Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, 2015), 2.
  62. Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Renewing the Canada Health Transfer: Implications for Federal and Provincial-Territorial Fiscal Sustainability (January 19, 2012). Similar effects are noted in the main report of the Council of the Federation Working Group on Fiscal Arrangements, titled Assessment of the Fiscal Impact of the Current Federal Fiscal Proposals (July 2012).
  63. Mackenzie, Canada Health Transfer Disconnect, 26.
  64. See, for example, M. Mendelson, S. Torjman, and K. Battle, Canada Pension Plan: The New Deal (Caledon Institute, June 2016), The government of British Columbia subsequently announced that it would hold a public consultation on the reform before ratifying it. At the time of writing, the online consultation had not yet been completed.
  65. Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat, Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change, March 3, 2016),
  66. S. McCarthy, “Finance Canada Eyes Federal Tax on Carbon,” Globe and Mail, June 12, 2016,
  67. Health Canada, “Government of Canada Partners with Provinces and Territories to Lower Cost of Pharmaceuticals,” news release, January 19, 2016,
  68. In July 2015, Health Minister Rona Ambrose sent a sharply worded letter to provincial and territorial health ministers, which was obtained by the Canadian Press. In it, she indicated that the federal government had “repeatedly expressed interest” in participating in the Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance. K. Kirkup, “Rona Ambrose Urges Provinces to Let Feds into Pharmaceutical Alliance,” Canadian Press, July 15, 2015, The Council of the Federation in fact decided to ask Ottawa to join the pCPA, but Ambrose declined.
  69. Canada, Budget 2016: Growing the Middle Class (March 22, 2016).
  70. Cullen, “Health Minister Talking ‘Priorities.’”
  71. Health Canada, “Statement of the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers of Health,” news release, January 21, 2016,; see also “Health Ministers Agree to Tackle Drug Prices, Home Care and Mental Health,” CBC News, January 21, 2016,
  72. V. Brousseau-Pouliot, “Ottawa envisage des ententes individuelles pour chaque province,” La Presse, June 14, 2016,
  73. J. Trudeau, “Justin Trudeau Pitches a Medicare Approach to Fight Climate Change in Canada,” speech to the Canadian Club of Calgary, February 6, 2015,
  74. K. Harrison, “Opinion: Federal Leadership Is Essential for a Working Climate Change Policy,” Vancouver Sun, March 15, 2016, Environmental expert George Hoberg echoes Harrison: “It’s time for the federal government to do what federal governments are supposed to do: show real leadership on vitally important national policies.” “Time for the hard work on meaningful climate policy,” Policy Options, July 22, 2016,
  75. T. Creutzberg, Canada’s Innovation Underperformance: Whose Policy Problem Is It?, Mowat Publication 34, October 18, 2011, Creutzberg argues for a clearer division of policy roles for federal and provincial governments in innovation policy.
  76. After a meeting in December 2015 with Prime Minister Trudeau on making advances on reconciliation, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde stated: “It was clear at today’s meeting that working nation-to-nation means that First Nations, the Metis Nation and Inuit peoples each need their own approach with the federal Crown. We are distinct peoples with our own unique rights, approaches and priorities. We will stand with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in calling for action and engagement but the ongoing relationship must be bilateral, not multilateral.” Quoted in MĂ©tis National Council, Office of the President, “Prime Minister Meets with National Aboriginal Leaders to Begin Reconciliation,” January/February 2016,
  77. J. Ivison, “Trudeau Convinced That Pipeline Strategy Must Be Top Priority,” National Post, April 11, 2016,
  78. J. Barrera, “Trudeau Government Eyeing NWT’s ‘Collaborative Consent’ Model as Part of UNDRIP Implementation,” APTN National News, May 9, 2016,
  79. P. Fontaine, M.-A. Phare, and M. Miltenberger, Collaborative Consent: A Nation-to-Nation Path to Partnerships with Indigenous Governments (Ishkonigan Inc., Phare Law Corporation and North Raven, 2015).
  80. Barrera, “Trudeau Government Eyeing NWT’s ‘Collaborative Consent’ model.”

About the author

Christopher Dunn is professor of political science at Memorial University. His research covers comparative provincial politics, Canadian public administration, federal and provincial cabinet studies, federalism, and constitutionalism. He has also been an education consultant and a provincial cabinet-level planner. He is the author and co-author of many books, most recently Canada’s Politics: Democracy, Diversity and Good Government, with Eric Mintz and Livianna Tossatti (2015), and Deputy Ministers in Canada: Comparative and Jurisdictional Perspectives, with Jacques Bourgault (2014).

L’hĂ©ritage de Stephen Harper pourrait contrarier la volontĂ© de Justin Trudeau de redĂ©finir les relations intergouvernementales

MontrĂ©al – Le gouvernement Trudeau cherche Ă  mettre en Ɠuvre une vision plus collaborative des relations intergouvernementales, mais sa marge de manƓuvre est limitĂ©e par l’hĂ©ritage Harper, soit celui d’un gouvernement rĂ©duit et d’une autonomie provinciale accrue, observe Christopher Dunn dans une publication de l’Institut de recherche en politiques publiques.

« Justin Trudeau se heurtera Ă  la contrainte d’une moindre prĂ©sence fĂ©dĂ©rale. La TPS et le taux d’imposition des sociĂ©tĂ©s ayant Ă©tĂ© rĂ©duits par les conservateurs, les coffres de l’État comptent moins d’argent pour financer la fonction publique canadienne et les transferts, sans parler de la rĂ©duction des dĂ©penses de programme directes », soutient l’auteur, dont l’analyse apporte un nouvel Ă©clairage sur la vision et la pratique des relations intergouvernementales des premiers ministres Harper et Trudeau.

Selon l’auteur, Stephen Harper s’est ainsi quelque peu Ă©loignĂ© du « fĂ©dĂ©ralisme ouvert » qu’il professait au dĂ©part, encore convaincu que les deux ordres de gouvernement devaient s’en tenir Ă  leurs pouvoirs constitutionnels respectifs. Au lendemain de la crise Ă©conomique de 2008, le « fĂ©dĂ©ralisme de rĂ©cession » nĂ©cessitait toutefois de mobiliser les provinces dans certains domaines clĂ©s. Mais la troisiĂšme phase, amorcĂ©e en 2011, celle du « fĂ©dĂ©ralisme de dĂ©ficit », a donnĂ© lieu Ă  des poussĂ©es de bilatĂ©ralisme et d’unilatĂ©ralisme fĂ©dĂ©ral dans des domaines de compĂ©tence provinciale comme la rĂ©glementation des valeurs mobiliĂšres et la rĂ©forme du SĂ©nat.

De son cÎté, Justin Trudeau privilégie la collaboration et les partenariats en matiÚre de relations intergouvernementales, y compris avec les peuples autochtones, mais il est encore trop tÎt pour mesurer les effets de sa démarche.

On peut tĂ©lĂ©charger le texte Harper without Jeers, Trudeau without Cheers: Assessing 10 Years of Intergovernmental Relations, de Christopher Dunn, sur le site de l’Institut (


L’Institut de recherche en politiques publiques est un organisme canadien indĂ©pendant, bilingue et sans but lucratif, basĂ© Ă  MontrĂ©al. Pour ĂȘtre tenu au courant de ses activitĂ©s, veuillez vous abonner Ă  son infolettre.

Renseignements :    Shirley Cardenas    tél. : 514 594-6877

Is it time to pin Trudeau down?

Trudeau wants to change relations between Ottawa and different levels of government, but the details are hazy.

When it comes to intergovernmental relations, prime ministers seldom end up where they said they would. Realism collides with idealism. It happened to Stephen Harper, and to many prime ministers before him; it may yet happen to Justin Trudeau — or not. It’s a tendency, not predetermination. But Canadians are starting to wonder if recent carbon pricing and health transfer ultimatums are harbingers of a shift in Trudeau’s federalism.

Stephen Harper talked about sweeping change before taking office and then progressively abandoned his project called “open federalism,” which was meant to disentangle the federal and provincial orders of government. Unilateral federal action in many areas of provincial jurisdiction was his response to his exasperation over slow provincial take-up of his vision of small government, balanced budgets and market-enabling federalism.

Trudeau also has a vision for wholesale change in relations among levels of government in Canada. Collaboration is to be the approach with the provinces, consultation with municipalities and nation-to-nation partnerships with Indigenous peoples. But he has provided little detail on what collaboration actually means.

One can understand why Trudeau opted for collaboration early on. Ottawa had slipped in power and prestige, as the provinces took on a leadership role in policy development and implementation in a range of areas. Harper’s tax cuts and deficit reduction programs left little in the public purse for activist governments that followed his.

Confidence in a more assertive federal role gradually overtook Trudeau’s initially modest approach. Public tolerance for deficits had grown in the wake of Harper’s drastic public service reductions. Trudeau as prime minister has accumulated significant national and international political capital. Provincial consensus on climate policies has proved elusive, apparently requiring the federal government to end the impasse.

So, on the one hand, there are grounds to be skeptical about Trudeau’s commitment to collaborative intergovernmentalism. I use the word intergovernmentalism here rather than federalism because Trudeau sees the enlisting of other levels and forms of government (including Indigenous people) as part of his social and economic vision, an implication that might be missed with the narrower term “federalism.”

Sceptics might see a trend in recent moves.  Trudeau announced that the provinces have until 2018 to adopt a carbon pricing scheme or Ottawa will impose one. He risked nation-to-nation relations with Indigenous peoples by green-lighting Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and the Pacific NorthWest LNG project. Moreover, Ottawa recently dictated the terms of a deal on health care spending. Unilateralism seems the order of the day.

On the other hand, cooperation and bargaining hint at a “collaborative” vision. The complex suite of programs in the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change was intergovernmentalism in action. Trudeau has accommodated the needs of provinces for flexibility on pipelines, liquefied natural gas, coal-equivalency agreements and comparative climate indicators. He channelled Indigenous views on rejecting the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Has Trudeau shifted away from collaborative federalism? Hard to say. Unlike Harper, Trudeau has never enunciated the operational details of his federal vision. His platform and mandate letters are maddeningly vague.

Instead he has offered only partial approaches. One option is a “collaborative consent” model for cooperating with Indigenous peoples (collaborating at multiple stages of the policy process, building consent at each stage, rather than all-or-nothing decisions at the end). Trudeau has also talked about a “medicare model” for climate change, which entails collaboratively setting national standards, then providing targeted federal funding for provincial experimentation.

These are partial outlooks on specific dossiers. They are not a general approach to dealing with other orders of government, at least on the face of it. Governments and civil society do not know what to expect from Ottawa as a public policy partner.

Until we have a fix on what Trudeau means by collaboration, we will have a hard time determining if he has changed or not. It’s time to pin him down. In Canada, the outcome of many important files — climate change action, Indigenous affairs, health care and more — depends on what game plan governments are following.

Christopher Dunn is a professor of political science at Memorial University. He has published widely on constitutionalism, federalism and public policy. He was an invited witness before the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.