Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
19 February 2001

Cooperative Federalism

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

A quiet revolution in the structure of Canadian federalism has occurred since the Second World War. Despite the fact that jurisdiction over subject matters was meant to be exclusive when the Constitution Act was drafted in 1867, the needs of modern government, the increased demands of citizens for better and more social services and the immense financial resources of the central authority have imposed a high degree of intergovernmental cooperation between provincial and federal governments in Canada.

Cooperative federalism is, in essence, a series of pragmatic and piecemeal responses by the federal and provincial governments to the circumstances of their mutual interdependence. As such, cooperative federalism is to be contrasted to a form of classical federalism in which the two levels carried out their respective responsibilities as assigned by the Constitution Act in relative isolation from one another; it is also the successor of a centralized form of federalism which emerged during and after the Second World War (some argued that cooperative federalism was just one more revised form of the same centralization movement).

In Canada, cooperative federalism has four main features: 1) the reliance on formal constitutional amendments and on judicial review was largely replaced by procedures of continuous interaction, chiefly through federal-provincial conferences between the federal and provincial governments; 2) the federal government consulted the provinces prior to committing itself to policies affecting the provinces; 3) all governments attempted to articulate policies in fiscal matters, and in devising policies for economic stability and growth; 4) the establishment of more institutionalized structures and processes of intergovernmental relations.

The heydays of cooperative federalism were those of the administration of Lester B. Pearson between 1963 and 1968. The creation of the Parti Québécois in 1968 and the advent of Pierre E. Trudeau to power in Ottawa largely put an end to cooperative federalism.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College