Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
26 February 2001

The Pendulum Theory


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

According to the pendulum theory the balance of power, in a federation, is said to swing back and forth between the federal government and the provinces, resulting in alternate periods of centralization and decentralization and an increase in their fields of jurisdiction. In particular, the theory is found in P.E. Trudeau's book on Federalism and the French Canadian Society. The theory seems to imply that one should not be overly concerned with intense periods of centralization (or decentralization) as the pendulum is likely to swing right back in a subsequent period. Hence, over a long period of time, the centralizing and the decentralizing forces would cancel each other out and no permanent major alteration in the functioning of the federal system and the relative importance of each level of government would occur.

Stated in these terms, the theory is much too simplistic to provide an adequate framework of interpretation to follow the evolution of the Canadian federal system since 1867. On the face of it, there seems to have been an alternation, since the days of Confederation, between periods of centralization and periods of decentralization. Generally speaking, the theory distributes the periods as follows: 1867 to 1885 was a period of centralization followed by a period of decentralization that lasted until the Great Depression, the period of the Depression, the war and the post-war was again one of centralization, while we would have entered, since 1960’s, another period of decentralization.

The theory does not describe very well the drastic changes that have occurred since 1867. What characterizes Canadian federalism since its beginning is not so much that perhaps it has alternated between periods of centralization and decentralization but rather that the functions and roles of governments have changed and expanded so much since the days of Macdonald and Cartier that both levels of government are now found to have enhanced considerably their position since 1867.

Of course, there remains to consider whether the expansion of one level of government has been out of proportion to that achieved by the other level of government. In this respect, the federal government seems to have done very well since 1867. The powers granted to the federal government in 1867 were rather remote from the daily life of the citizens of Canada and the situation is obviously quite different today. The unlimited spending power of the federal government has put it at a clear advantage vis-à-vis the provincial governments and the periods of decentralization can be seen as periods where provincial governments attempted to regain some of the ground lost during the former period of centralization.

Thus, the impression that remains, after an examination of the pendulum theory, is that: 1) it is not the most appropriate description of what has happened to Canadian federalism since 1867 and 2) that as a working hypothesis one can reasonably suggest that in a period of centralization Ottawa took two steps forward while it took one step backward during the periods of decentralization. In the long run, the unlimited spending power of the federal government would lead it to play the preponderant role in Confederation, if that position has not already been reached.

For a discussion of the validity of the pendulum theory see Claude Morin, Le combat Québécois, 1973, Chap. VI, pp. 126-140.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College