Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a housing announcement in Ajax, Ont. on Nov. 30, 2023.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The devil made them do it. That current wave of lawless behaviour among the premiers? One claiming the right to ignore any federal law she finds inconvenient, another already defying the law on carbon pricing, still another unilaterally amending the Constitution to annex bits of federal jurisdiction? It’s not their fault.

According to some of my Globe colleagues, the premiers can’t help themselves. They have been provoked beyond endurance, and cannot be held responsible for their actions. And the name of the devil that cast this spell on them? Why, Justin Trudeau, of course.

The Prime Minister “has put the federation under greater threat of schism than at any time since the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty,” writes John Ibbitson. How has he done that? Well, for starters, there are those provocative and insulting new social programs – child care, dental care, pharmacare, all the cares. Maybe the premiers haven’t struck you as being all that unhappy about taking their share of the federal cash for these. But inwardly, I assure you, they’re seething.

Okay, so the lesson is stay off of provincial turf. Stick to federal jurisdiction. Something like, say, carbon pricing, which no less an authority than the Supreme Court found was unimpeachably federal. No, that’s out, too: federal it may be, but the “political friction” is too “intense.”

Why, even Alberta is upset with the federal government, if you can believe it. Maybe its Premier has a habit of doing things, like blowing up the Canada Pension Plan or declaring federal law does not apply in Alberta, that are a wee bit “unconstitutional.” But here again the fault lies with Mr. Trudeau, who “has unquestionably driven federal-Alberta relations to the brink.”

As for Quebec, Colleague Ibbitson notes that the Bloc Québécois has 32 seats today, whereas in Mr. Trudeau’s first election as Liberal Leader it only won 10. True, the bulk of those seats came at the expense of the NDP, whose support in the province imploded – falling from 25 per cent of the vote to 11 per cent – but obviously the Prime Minister must accept full responsibility for the NDP’s unpopularity.

What should he have done instead? Colleague Ibbitson is in no doubt. “The trick,” he writes, “is to work co-operatively with the provinces.”

Ah yes, co-operative federalism. Back in Cold War days, the Soviets were fond of invoking a doctrine they called “peaceful co-existence.” On closer inspection, this turned out to mean “we do what we like and the West, in its turn, does what we like.” Co-operative federalism works on much the same lines. It’s all about the proverbial give and take: the feds give, and the provinces take.

None of this is to let Mr. Trudeau off the hook. The government he leads is administratively incompetent, ideologically doctrinaire, and politically tone-deaf. It richly deserves its current odium.

And yes, it has been needlessly antagonistic on the climate change file, not because it has relied on carbon pricing, but because it has not: emissions caps, pipeline bans and the like are not only costlier than carbon pricing, but both selective and intrusive, where carbon pricing is neither. They were bound to cause hard feelings.

But none of this justifies what the provinces have been up to. For a government, of all things, to defy the law is indefensible. And the premiers have agency: nobody made them do anything. Whatever their differences with the feds, it is within them to act within the law.

The thesis, more broadly, that peace with the provinces is the highest aim of federal policy, and that the way to achieve it is to give them everything they want – or at least to never give them any offence – is a recipe for national paralysis. There are issues on which federal leadership is essential; inevitably, some of these will involve doing things the provinces don’t like.

Most federal governments, it is true, have preferred the quiet life, which is why the federation is in such comically dilapidated shape, a patchwork of “asymmetric” arrangements with no common market or, increasingly, common rights as citizens.

Did this buy peace? Don’t make me laugh. The more the feds have yielded to the provinces’ demands over the years, whether for more powers or more money or ideally more of both, the more the provinces have been emboldened to further and more reckless adventures. The Constitution itself is rapidly becoming a dead letter – and the Trudeau government does nothing, precisely for fear of offending those delicate provincial sensibilities.

That’s how we got here – not because the federal government has been too hard on the provinces, but because it has been altogether too indulgent of them.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe