On 22nd October 2013 Prof Michael Burgess, Director of the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent, presented at Canterbury Christ Church University on Canada- The Fractured Federation. This was the Opening Event to Canterbury Christ Church University’s speaker series on Contemporary Issues in Canadian Federalism, which is financially supported by the Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK.
The event was well attended with students and members of the public. Prof Burgess gave a brief overview of Canadian federalism, its historical development and its current sources of discontent. He pointed out that there are three main discussions occurring in Canada at the moment about the future of federalism. First, he argued that the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society and the Quebecois as a distinct nation within Canada remains of fundamental importance to many Quebecois. While demands for secession have calmed down in recent years, there remains a deep desire to recognise the distinctiveness of Quebec with its own history, its own language and its own culture.
Second, socio-economic issues remain of key importance in Canada. While the country has gone relatively unaffected through the recent global economic crisis, there nevertheless are deep economic divisions between different provinces and also within provinces. Especially the discovery of oil in Alberta, and more recently in Newfoundland, has had an important impact on discussions about fiscal redistribution and economic solidarity throughout Canada. The contrast in Canada that can be identified is that the provinces where most of the population live and which have most political power are also less economically strong than provinces in which rich amounts of oil can be found. However, Alberta and Newfoundland may be economic giants, but they are political dwarfs within the current political system.
Third, an argument was made about the Aboriginal and indigenous population in Canada. While they have been granted a lot of rights and autonomy in recent years, they remain hard to integrate into a political system, which is based on traditional Western liberal rights and identification of nationhood and group-belonging. The many different groups that make the Aboriginal and indigenous population are hard to identify and even harder to integrate through liberal or collective rights. It remains to be seen how the federation will be able to integrate and include them in political discourses and the wider federal system.
Canada, according to Burgess, remains an important federation that can help us understand similar processes of unity and disunity in other federal and devolved systems. Quebec’s quest for independence in the 1980s and 1990s can be a useful comparison to similar processes in Scotland and Catalonia.
Soeren Keil, Canterbury Christ Church University