Government gruel

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
June 4, 2005

Our federal government once ran a muscular military, packing great punch per capita in two world wars and making generations of Canadians proud. Then it merged our tradition-rich army, navy and air force, neutered the resulting “unified” force, converted it to peacekeeping and finally to a laughingstock that rivals tiny nations like Luxembourg. We no longer need a federal government to militarily protect Canada’s sovereignty because we have outsourced that responsibility to the Americans.

Our federal government once beckoned the peoples of the world to our shores. Our Minister of the Interior ran advertising campaigns in Europe to lure settlers for our west, and sent lecturers to U.S. fall fairs and to the British Isles to extol our virtues. We no longer have a federal government that opens up the country – our government is more intent on keeping foreigners out than welcoming them in to help build Canada.

Our federal government once dreamed big dreams, championed a railroad across the continent, brought the west into Confederation, and confidently sought economic union with the United States. “The new century is Canada’s,” said Sir Wilfrid Laurier a century ago; near mid-century, an outward-looking Stephen Leacock affirmed a Canadian view that Canada would become a world power, not least because of our proximity to the United States, which has not “overshadowed or endangered our institutions.” Who today is stirred by Canada, who today sees Canada as more than a sum of provincial grievances, and the federal government as more than a cringing and corrupt arbiter?

At the same time that the federal government has pulled back from the national and international arena, and let wither the constitutional powers that gave it relevance and legitimacy, it has pushed itself into provincial areas of responsibility. Through equalization grants, the federal government directly funds provincial treasuries. Through grants to social welfare programs, the federal government has become a dominant player in health care, an area that consumes some 40% of provincial budgets. Through federal government growth areas such as child-care programs and transfers to municipalities, the federal government will further fund provincial realms and further blur the respective roles of governments.

Through it all, the federal government is remaking itself into a kind of Provincial Regulator, a Superintendent of Spending in the provincial realm. Put another way, the federal government is becoming an adjunct of the provinces that also vies with them to control provincial policies and the delivery of provincial programs. The governmental gruel that comes of merging different levels of government also includes the municipalities. Where once the federal government pursued a scrupulous separation – after World War I, despite an arguable right to provide aid for returning servicemen, the federal government refrained from joint housing programs with municipalities – it now aggressively pursues municipal ties. Provinces, too, have lost inhibitions about inviting federal help. The Ontario government recently agreed to let the City of Toronto negotiate directly with the federal government.

The gruel thickens with new electoral rules to promote proportional representation that most Canadian jurisdictions are considering. A leading model for reform at the federal level involves giving control of federal seats to provincial wings of federal parties, a change thinkable by its many proponents only because it would be consistent with the federal abdication that has already occurred. This electoral reform would merely ratify the course we’re on and reinforce the federal government’s provincial character, as federal and provincial governments more formally serve common constituencies, and more explicitly acquire common interests.

The federal and provincial governments have been melding together in fact if not in name. At some point, they may meld together in name as well, particularly since some provinces set up trade missions abroad and already engage in foreign aid. To a troubling degree, the provinces also control the trade file, tolerating free trade deals with the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Israel and other countries around the world but not within the national boundaries of Canada. Whether we still have a viable federal government is debatable. That we’ll lose it if we don’t use it is not.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute;

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