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Collaboration between feds and the provinces is key for federalism to work in Canada

A new study finds that creating shared institutions alone is not enough, there must be a willingness by both the feds and the provinces to collaborate for Canadian federalism to work effectively. (Photo by Don Campbell)

For intergovernmental programs and policies to operate effectively, simply creating institutions is not enough—there must be a shared commitment to make them work, according to a new study authored by a pair of U of T Scarborough political scientists.

“Federal and provincial relations play a major role in key policy areas, from health care and education to the environment and energy,” says Robert Schertzer, lead author of the study and assistant professor in UTSC’s department of political science.

“How effectively both these levels of government work together can have important consequences for many programs that matter a great deal to Canadians.”   

The study, commissioned by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, is co-authored by U of T political scientist Andrew McDougall and Professor Grace Skogstad, chair of UTSC’s Department of Political Science. They explored intergovernmental relations in Canada by focusing on the agriculture, labour market and immigration policy sectors during Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister.

When Harper came to power in 2006 he promoted a different approach to intergovernmental relations, what he called open federalism, where both levels wouldn’t have to work as closely together on certain areas of jurisdiction. But as Schertzer notes, despite the stated preference of disengagement, there was still quite a bit of collaboration and negotiation going on behind the scenes.

“They weren’t able to escape it,” says Schertzer. “Despite wanting to do separate things, there was still a lot of collaboration on policy. We wanted to know why this was the case.”

The authors found that both unilateral and multilateral approaches to intergovernmental relations were used. They point to the Harper government’s inability to implement the Canada Job Grant in the face of provincial opposition as a unilateral policy attempt that failed.

“They broke with what had been in past, but their attempt was blocked by the provinces,” says Schertzer. He adds the policy, which outlined a program to retrain workers for the labour market, was only approved only after the provinces were brought in to collaborate.

The authors also found that it wasn’t merely enough to create multilateral institutions; there had to be a willingness and commitment to collaborate for shared institutions to work.

The study identified two key factors that accounted for differing approaches to intergovernmental relations. For one, it’s important how both levels of governments understand their separate and shared responsibilities. Secondly, there are established norms and institutions in place that pull in both levels of government in order to negotiate. When those processes are ignored or bypassed, it can prevent collaboration.

“When governments want to do something like pass an innovative policy or do something for Canadians, the collaborative model of negotiation has benefits and costs,” says Schertzer.

“The benefit is a broad, pan-Canadian policy goal that can meet the needs of different regions. The cost is that it can dilute a policy objective, so that in the end no one really wins.” 

Collaborating on a national policy objective can also be messy and combative as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is finding out in negotiating a new climate change policy, notes Schertzer, who recently wrote a column exploring the issue.

While the current study explored three policy areas, Schertzer plans to expand the analysis to include how federal and provincial relations are affected across many different policy sectors. 

 




© University of Toronto Scarborough