People-first Federalism

We need to foster a more covenantal approach to how we provide the conditions for human flourishing across Canada.

When I moved from Edmonton to Ottawa in 1993 I made a promise that, whatever else I would do in Ottawa, I would try to help “Easterners” better understand the real Alberta – the one beyond the stereotypes of cowboys, large pick-ups and anti-Ottawa slogans. I promoted the can-do, community spirit of Edmonton, the rich multicultural and artistic festivals, the innovative and nature-loving initiatives – why I still miss Edmonton. These days the conversations are harder, in light of the Sovereignty Act, the Freedom Convoy, and what seem like deliberate distortions of how Canada works. That pains me.

It feels like the atmosphere before the 1995 Quebec referendum on national unity, when part of my job on parliament hill was countering distortions inside Quebec about the “rest of Canada.” Experience has taught me that how we talk about each other matters during political tensions as much as during family fights.

In Canada it is easy to weaponize issues that involve federal-provincial relations for partisan political advantage and polarize the population against Ottawa, against Quebec, or against “the West.” The harm done to real people is buried under reams of misinformation or missing information. One example is equalization, one of the current, contested public policies. Only a few people fully understand how it actually works. It has become a war about dollars, far from its intended purpose to ensure some equity in basic people services. That is a problem because it takes active civil society engagement to prevent destructive conflicts between power brokers.

People-first Federalism

What would happen if Canadians talked about federalism as a covenant between the peoples of Canada instead of just a power struggle between premiers and the Prime Minister? I think most Canadians would support the core objective of equalization, for example; most want other Canadians to have good opportunities to flourish, regardless of where they live. That is not how we talk about federalism and cost-sharing agreements right now.

We need a federalism that puts people first. We, the people, can insist on a stronger focus on outcomes for people than on dollar amounts. Children’s health policy, one example I know well, is a constant blame game between provincial and federal governments. Meanwhile, Canada’s children do worse than children in comparable countries, and where a child lives can pre-determine their future. There are tools to measure real outcomes for children across Canada, report them publicly, and use them as a basis for ensuring basic opportunities for all Canadian children. Other steps are much higher transparency, practical means for on-going public accountability to citizens between elections, and practical ways for civil society groups to be active participants in policy decisions made between elections. Given the current intentional polarization by our political leaders, it is dangerous to leave the future of our Canadian covenant to wars between strong personalities.

Am I dreaming in technicolor? Today it feels like it, partly because there are so few civil society networks that connect people who care about the state of our common well-being across Canada. That could change quickly; it has in the past when our future was threatened. I hope that faith-based communities across Canada will be active players in fostering a more covenantal approach to how we provide the conditions for human flourishing across Canada.


  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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