Department of History,
is a system of government where two levels of government exist, each sovereign
in its sphere of jurisdiction. The federal or central level takes care of all
of those things that are common to the whole of the country while the other level
of government (provincial, state or canton) has jurisdiction over those things
that are of local concern. Federalism is to be contrasted to the other two types
of political systems: the unitary (sometimes called legislative union in Canada)
and confederal systems. The unitary system is characterised by the fact that sovereignty
resides exclusively with the central government and that local governments, when
they exist, are entirely subordinated to the central authority. In the confederal
system, sovereignty entirely resides with the member-states and the central government
that has been created is subordinated to them. In a confederation, because the
member-states have retained the entirety of their sovereignty, they may pull out
of the union at any time. The federal system borrows some features from the other
two systems: from the unitary system it adopts the idea that the central government
must have some sovereign powers while it retains from the confederal system the
principle that the local governments have preserved for themselves some sovereign
powers. This is why the main feature of federalism is the distribution of sovereignty
between two levels of government in such a way that neither level is entirely
subordinated to the other.
is usually adopted in countries that display differences of climate, geography,
religion, language, culture and economies; it is especially suited for multinational
and multicultural states that wish to preserve these characteristics. The system
is also found in countries that are too large for a single government to handle effectively.
Essentially, the federal arrangement, or compact, is the result of conflicting
pressures among its constituting parts. On the one hand, groups have found good
reasons to join with others and to form with them a new political entity; this
is often done for defence (they may fear some common enemy), or for economic reasons,
as joining with others may enhance their hopes of prosperity; sometimes, there
has been in the past common experience of union together and, always, there are
some common shared values. On the other hand, the same groups who wish to unite
find equally good reasons to remain apart perhaps because they have had a long
heritage of self-government that they do not wish to forsake, or because they
take pride in their group distinctiveness and wish to retain their individuality.
Federalism is so designed as to reconcile these conflicting feelings. The groups
will agree to come together on those things that they deem to be in their mutual
interest, and entrust to the central government power to act in all such cases
while, at the same time, they will continue to exist separately and retain for
themselves full power over the things that they wish to continue to control and
which are usually related to their individuality. This is why federalism has sometimes
been described, in a broad sense, as an organisational system that unites separate
groups within a single political system so as to permit each group to maintain
its fundamental political integrity. Thus, essentially, the federal system is
adopted where it is felt that the preservation of the individuality and separateness
of the constituent parts is as important as the preservation of the nation as
a whole. In some circumstances, it might even be argued that the preservation
of the nation as a whole is dependent on the maintenance of the constituent parts:
one would not exist if the other was not guaranteed.
federalism is the result of centralising and decentralising forces which are at
play at the time of the formation of the union and that continue to affect the
union long after the system has been created. When the reasons to come together
are extremely powerful, the tendency is to entrust the central government with
large and extensive powers, indeed to make it the "main" government.
When the reasons to remain apart are stronger than the reasons to come together,
the result will be that the local governments will be entrusted with the largest
powers. Each federation finds its balance somewhere along the line and the resulting
distribution of power between the two levels of government is witness to the respective
strength of the centralising and decentralising forces at the time of the union. So long as some sovereignty is deposited in each level of government, then we
are dealing with a federal system.
federations there is no standard distribution of powers since each country must
find its own balance between the centralising and decentralising forces and, in
this respect, no two countries are quite alike. Thus, comparisons between the
distribution of powers in federal systems of different countries are useless to
determine their federal nature and can only be used to measure more adequately
whether one's federal system is more centralist than others are. Yet, notwithstanding
the above, there remains a certain pattern in the distribution of powers in many
federations. At a minimum, the central government will receive the external signs
of sovereignty (foreign affairs, treaties and defence) and economic powers of
an international or interprovincial nature; each level is also given an autonomous
tax base. The rest is subjected to a process of bargaining and power allocation
whose ultimate outcome is determined by the respective strength of the centralising
and decentralising forces at the time of the union.
Canada's case, federalism was, without a doubt, the result of pressures from Quebec,
and to a lesser extent of the Maritime colonies. Quebec wished to share with the
other colonies in the development and the resources of the continent; the province
also desired to gain access to the market of the other provinces and to achieve
the security that a larger union would provide for all. Quebecers were not unmoved
by visions of creating, in the northern half of the continent, a vast dominion
that they would share with their anglophone compatriots. But, at the same
time, Quebec greatly feared the minority position in which a unitary state would
have placed it. The people of Quebec took pride in their separateness, in their
sense of nationality. They wished to preserve their faith, their language, their
laws and their culture, all essential constituting elements of their distinctiveness,
of their existence as a separate people; above anything else, these components
they wished to preserve and to safeguard in the future. Ultimately, they thought
that their separate or distinct existence would be best assured by joining together
with the other provinces in a union that recognised and supported their autonomy.
For better or for worse, they believed that the survival of French Canada was
linked to the creation of a federal system, that as long as Canada would continue
to exist French Canada would also continue to survive.
federal system was thus adopted as the only acceptable solution despite the fact
that many of the Fathers of Confederation (John A. Macdonald and George Brown for example)
did not believe the system practicable and thus opposed it and would have preferred
a unitary state. The example of the American Civil War, which struck at the heart
of the problems inherent in federalism, led the Fathers of Confederation to adopt
a particularly centralised form of federalism, leading one expert in federal governments,
K. C. Wheare, to call the Canadian system "quasi-federal".
has been said that federalism, if applied properly, is incompatible with dictatorship
as dictatorship implies the absolute control of power by one somewhere while federalism
diffuses power between various units. Federalism also denies the application of
simple majority rule since the purpose of federations is to recognise that the
rights of small units have to be acknowledged and respected. In essence, by creating
local units, and empowering them with sovereignty, the federal system creates
a majority out of what would have been otherwise a minority; such a group can
adopt for itself within its sphere of jurisdiction the legislation that it desires to assure its own survival and
development. The federal system is difficult and costly to operate; it frequently
leads to tension but provides, as well, the mechanism to resolve these. It is
a system particularly suited for large and diverse countries where cultural, religious
and linguistic differences are pronounced. It makes of peoples, who might otherwise
be strangers, if not enemies, partners in development and allows them to co-exist
in peace while learning from one another.
features of federalism
following are the main features of federalism:
levels of government created and protected by the Constitution, with sovereignty
stemming neither from above, nor from below, but distributed between the two,
in some fashion by the Constitution.
level of government is entirely subordinated to the other; each has powers and
these are guaranteed by the Constitution.
rests in the Constitution. Formal changes in the relative position, or powers,
of each level of government cannot be achieved by one level alone, but are subjected
to some form of mutual consent; the method for effecting such changes (amendments)
is outlined in the Constitution.
levels of government enact legislation affecting the same citizens; the central
government enact laws in certain fields for the whole (or possibly part) of the
country; the provincial government enacts legislation on other subjects for the
residents of their respective provinces.
legislation of the provincial government can only apply to the people of their
province. Provincial law does not have the power of extraterritoriality.
of jurisdiction (so-called "grey areas") is inevitable within a federal
system. When such overlapping exists, there is a need to determine, in the Constitution,
which of the two levels of legislation shall prevail if the laws are found in
- Federal constitutions
must be, at least, partly written so that the allocation of fields of jurisdiction
is made clear and guaranteed. Such constitutions are also said to be rigid since,
for the most part, it would require more than a simple majority of the legislatures
to change it.
disputes between the two levels of government are decided upon formally by a Supreme
or Constitutional court. Such a Court finds its existence guaranteed in the Constitution.
Ordinarily, the court is also beyond the control of any one level of government.
may also be resolved by bypassing the court system if the two levels of government
so desire; the issues can be resolved politically or administratively through
processes and institutions of intergovernmental co-operation.
interests of the member-states in a federation are not only protected by a formal
distribution of power, guaranteed by the constitution, but, as well, by some form
of local representation in the institutions of the central government. In Canada,
this is done in the Senate and, to a lesser extent, in the distribution of federal
cabinet positions. Where local interest is not well represented in the institutions
and processes of the central government, the role of the provincial governments,
to carry out that task, is that much more emphasised and important.
level of government is not only allocated a list of fields of jurisdiction but,
as well, given autonomous revenue sources to finance its operations. A government
without revenues of its own, would not really be a sovereign entity.
of the two levels of government has substantially complete governing institutions
with power to modify these unilaterally.
countries, especially lately, have developed elaborate structures and devices
of intergovernmental co-operation, blurring increasingly the division of powers
that normally separates them. In the process they have multiplied "grey areas"
and rendered it difficult for citizens to determine who is responsible precisely
Such intergovernmental bodies, frequently working in the background,
away from the scrutiny of the public, have lessened the control that citizens
wish to have over the system.
federations, such as Canada, have developed, through the existence of the central
government, an elaborate system through which the wealthy regions contribute substantially
for the support of the less fortunate parts of the country. In Canada's case,
this is done principally through the equalization payments and shared costs programmes.
1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College