Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces by Ed Whitcomb

Fed Vs. Prov

Ed Whitcomb

Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces. Toronto, Lorimer & Company, 2017

Review by Geoff Norquay

Ed Whitcomb is a retired federal public servant whose foreign service career exposed him to four different federal states around the world: Yugoslavia, Indonesia, India and, of course, Canada. In a subsequent career, he was the federal government’s senior intelligence analyst for Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, all of which “suffered from serious regional, religious, and ethnic divisions that cried out for decentralized government.”

Clearly, Whitcomb is eminently qualified to write a history of Canadian federalism, and he has done a fine job. Rivals for Power is a meticulously researched book that begins with a quick introduction to the theories of federalism.

As Whitcomb notes, academics have used at least 15 adjectives to describe Canadian federalism over the years: “asymmetrical, authentic, classical, collaborative, competitive, confederal, confrontational, constitutional, co-operative, flexible, genuine, mixed, open, quasi-, subordinate, symmetrical, and unilateral.”

Thankfully for the reader, Whitcomb does not get bogged down in these definitions, and lets the history tell the story, which he describes in completely accessible language. Much later in the text, he does arrive at a working definition of the realities of federalism as practised in Canada: “Federalism is characterized by competition between the centre and the provinces as each regime strives to maintain or increase its power, ensure its re-election, and satisfy the needs and demands of its constituents.” That’s a pretty accurate summation!

After several chapters that describe the creation of confederation, Canada’s federal state and the Constitution, he plots the tortuous process through which the next three provinces—Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island—joined Canada, and the governments of Sir. John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which began the task of defining how confederation would work.

If there is a central theme to this book, it is a familiar one—the imbalance created in 1867 between the respective revenues and responsibilities of the federal government and the provinces. In Macdonald’s and Laurier’s time, the fights between Ottawa and the provinces were all over federal subsidies to make up for the fiscal difference, but in 1927, the modern era of federalism began with Ottawa’s creation of the Old Age Security program.

The response of the provinces to the federal use of its spending power to enter provincial jurisdiction was predictable: some opposed it, others deferred and Québec argued the new program was unconstitutional, but all ultimately joined on “because they could not remain aloof.” As Whitcomb summarizes, “Exclusive’ provincial responsibility for welfare ceased to exist and the most significant precedent for changing the constitution had been established, but the spending power was never legitimized by a formal amendment to the BNA Act.”

The imbalance between fiscal resources and responsibilities was hugely exacerbated by the Second World War: “To help finance the war, the provinces allowed Ottawa to collect their taxes and return a fixed amount to cover their expenses, which were basically frozen. During the war, Ottawa’s revenue and spending vastly increased, creating an enormous shift in the balance between the budgets and the power of the provinces and Ottawa,” writes Whitcomb.

Through the rosy lens of history, today we tend to see the 1960s as a golden age of federal-provincial relations, as a time of tremendous creativity when the architecture of the modern welfare state was put in place: the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, hospital insurance and ultimately Medicare, and the Canada Assistance Plan. As Whitcomb describes it, the process was halting, acrimonious and painful to watch. In some situations, the policy capabilities of the provinces exceeded those of the federal government, and Ottawa was forced to yield. At the same time, while the Medical Care Act was passed by Parliament in December 1966, several provinces had to be dragged kicking and screaming to adopt Medicare, and it took until 1971 for all to join the program that has become the hallmark of Canadian citizenship.

As Whitcomb notes, Prime Minister Trudeau did much to please the provinces when he released them from the straight-jacket of shared cost programs in 1976-77 by moving to a new financing formula based on “a combination of 50 per cent grants and 50 per cent tax abatements. The money still had to be spent on the three shared cost programs, but in effect the provinces could spend the half that came from tax abatements almost any way they chose….The new system gave all the provinces greater flexibility and met many of their concerns.”

By the time Pierre Trudeau took office, the social policy reform era was largely over and the Constitution and natural resource issues took centre stage in federal-provincial discussions for the next 25 years. While fighting a pitched battle over Alberta’s oil revenues, Trudeau successfully repatriated the Constitution, albeit without the consent of Quebec. That failure led directly to Prime Minister Mulroney’s two unsuccessful attempts to complete Canada’s Constitution through the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, all of which proved that “constitutional amendment had become virtually impossible” as Whitcomb notes.

In reading a new history, it’s always fun to learn something you never knew. The gem in Rivals for Power is the ways in which the British Crown and Canadian politicians put their thumbs on the scale to “rig” the first elections in Canada and Ontario in 1867: “Two months before Confederation, Governor-General Monck…called on John A. Macdonald to form a government. The appointment gave him and the pro-federalists control of the government, the election machinery, and patronage….” Once prime minister, Macdonald appointed the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and asked him to designate John Sandfield Macdonald as interim premier. In the first elections after the formation of the new country, the two Macdonalds sailed to victory!

Contributing writer Geoff Norquay, a principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was social policy adviser to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.