Federalism and Constitutions

There are three basic ways or choices of ways to govern a state: confederation, federation or unitary. Canada is a federation. This means that its constitution has divided governing power between two orders of government, federal and provincial.

The federal government deals with state wide problems such as defense, foreign affairs and monetary policy, while the provinces deal with regional and local matters such as property, marriage, and so on.

Although there are disadvantages, federalism is an appropriate form of government to accommodate Canada’s enormous land area, dispersed population, cultural diversity, and its population divided up into several nations, and our level of education.

Canada’s cultural diversity makes federalism accommodating. It allows provinces to effectively meet the needs of its particular citizens. The provinces are free to legislate within their powers. Theoretically, change is easier because you have a choice between federal and provincial governments. We can argue this or ask for clarification, but these are undergrad notes, not great expository tomes.

During the earlier part of the 20th Century, one of the western provinces elected socialist parties of office influencing the evolving of our welfare system. Federalism makes it possible for the provincial people to have a government of their choice quite different from the one in Ottawa.

The disadvantage is overlapping between the two levels of government. It discourages the development of nationalism: matters assigned to one level may later be more suited to the other, but federal constitutions are difficult to change–particularly if a member in the negotiations is disingenuous; it promotes nationalism at the provincial level and can lead to separatist pressure, as with Quebec.

When Prime Minister Harper called Quebec a “nation,” he was not as off as the media would have it. Cries of encouraging separatism ensued. Yet, in the historical political evolution between the terms and realities of nations, nation-states, countries, territories and colonies, he was not being anything of the kind. I am not a big fan of much of his political policies, but we need to remain objective as painful as that may be at times.

Indeed, the media and others misstating the separatist tag invited the Quebec populous and other francophones in Canada to revisit what Harper said and to take on the media interpretation/reporting of separatism. Another case of the media creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if we let it.

Constitutions and their classifications

The constitution is the framework for a state, the basic law. It spells out the organisation of the state, how power is divided, what rights if any are guaranteed, has a amending process, and specifies the limits to government authority and when and how elections are to be held.

Constitutions can be classified in various ways: rigid/flexible, written/unwritten/party written.

A rigid constitution is hard to change. Its amendment process is very difficult and requires a near consensus of everyone interested.

A flexible constitution is easy to change, possibly through the legislative process. The United States has a rigid constitution, the United Kingdom has a flexible one.

A written constitution is a visible one in a law or paper. It has concrete form which spells out in great detail how the state is to be organized and run, such as the United States.

The UK has an unwritten constitution, not based on a specific document, but on a state framework of tradition, convention and precedent.

Canada is sandwiched between the two with both a written and unwritten constitutional document. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example, is a document subject to a formal amending process. The unwritten part reflects the British origins of our governmental system; there is actually no document which describes the role of the prime minister, or indeed mentions the job at all.


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