Canada is dangerously divided. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s aggressive federalism is to blame.
When Stephen Harper was prime minister, he practised passive federalism. Ottawa raised revenue and sent money to the provinces to help fund health care, education and other services. It did not try to impose programs or standards or taxes on provincial governments without their consent.
After a decade of Mr. Harper’s Conservative rule, the last separatist Parti Québécois government had come and gone in Quebec, at least for the foreseeable future. At the federal level, the separatist Bloc Québécois was virtually extinct, and after a contretemps with Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams that eventually blew over, Ottawa and the provinces were at peace – something not seen since the 1950s.
But Mr. Trudeau, when he became Prime Minister in 2015, wanted to “get things done.” And he wasn’t prepared to waste time seeking provincial consent. Aggressive federalism.
Things began well, with the Prime Minister and then-finance minister Bill Morneau convincing the premiers to increase Canada Pension Plan premiums to enhance the program.
Seas got stormier when the Trudeau Liberals promised additional funding for health care, but only if provincial governments agreed to improve the quality of mental-health services and home care. It took a while, but all provinces eventually agreed, some more reluctantly than others.
Then Ottawa demanded that the provinces impose some form of carbon tax to fight climate change. Those that refused had the tax imposed on them. This infuriated the premiers in Ontario and the Prairies.
In an effort to show Ottawa was not completely opposed to further developing the oil sands, the Liberals nationalized and forced through the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which angered British Columbia’s government.
Progressives across the country have every reason to support the Trudeau government’s record of new social and environmental programs. With more action coming on housing, what’s not to like?
Setting aside the fact these programs have contributed to record deficits and increased government debt, there is the cost to national unity. Aggressive federalism takes its toll.
Quebec is effectively self-governing. After almost voting to leave the country in 1995, the province has demanded and been given a broad range of powers by both Conservative and Liberal governments.
It now invokes the constitution’s notwithstanding clause at the drop of a hat to protect its cultural and language legislation. Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec, fresh off another election win, is demanding increased control over immigration. Quebec will get it, eventually, under this or another prime minister.
When Mr. Trudeau came to power seven years ago, the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois held 10 seats in the House of Commons. They now hold 32 of Quebec’s 78 seats. Mr. Trudeau pushed provinces on social and environmental programs; Quebec voters pushed back.
Albertans are so angry at Ottawa that premier-designate Danielle Smith is promising to introduce a sovereignty act, which would effectively nullify federal legislation in areas of the province’s jurisdiction.
It sounds wildly unconstitutional, and the NDP will probably scrap the new law if it comes to power after next year’s election. But Central Canadians should ask themselves how much responsibility they bear for supporting a Liberal government that makes Westerners this angry. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is only one step behind Alberta in demanding autonomy for his province.
“There may have not been a formal declaration, but make no mistake: Saskatchewan is at war with Ottawa,” historian Bill Waiser wrote in The Globe and Mail in August.
The only good news for Mr. Trudeau is that Ontario Premier Doug Ford has toned things down. But that province has joined with others in demanding the same control over immigration that Quebec enjoys.
It may be Justin Trudeau’s most ironic legacy if his aggressive federalism ends up leaving Ottawa weaker than when he arrived.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Liberals hold no seats from Alberta in the House of Commons. In fact they hold two.