Federalism, Nationalism, and Multiculturalism

  • Will Kymlicka


Many commentators argue that federalism provides the most appropriate mechanism for accommodating the increasingly “multicultural” nature of modern societies. Federalism, it is said, respects the desire of groups to remain autonomous, and to retain their cultural distinctiveness, while nonetheless acknowledging the fact that these groups are not self-contained and isolated, but rather are increasingly and inextricably bound to each other in relations of economic and political interdependence. Moreover, since federalism is a notoriously flexible system, it can accommodate the fact that different groups desire different levels or forms of self-government.1


National Identity Immigrant Group Federal System Mainstream Society National Minority 
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  1. 1.
    See, for example, Daniel Elazar’s Federalism and the Way to Peace (Kingston, Ontario: Institute of Intergovernmental Affairs, Queen’s University, 1994); and his Exploring Federalism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1987).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    African-Americans are an important example of an ethnocultural group which does not fit these categories. They do not fit the voluntary immigrant pattern, not only because most were brought to America involuntarily as slaves, but also because when they arrived they were prevented (rather than encouraged) from integrating into the institutions of the majority culture (e.g., racial segregation; laws against miscegenation and the teaching of literacy). Nor do they fit the national minority pattern, since they do not have a homeland in America or a common historical language. They came from a variety of African cultures, with different languages, and no attempt was made to keep together those with a common ethnic background. For further discussion of this case as well as other atypical minority groups, see Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, eds., Citizenship in Diverse Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 18–24. A recent survey of ethnocultural conflicts around the world suggests that the two broad categories I have outlined do cover most groups involved in these conflicts—seeGoogle Scholar
  3. Ted Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflict (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Peace Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Other characteristic features of federalism include the existence of a bicameral legislature at the federal level, with the second chamber intended to ensure effective representation for the federal subunits in the central government. Thus, each federal subunit is guaranteed representation in the second chamber, and smaller subunits tend to be overrepresented. Moreover, each subunit has a right to be involved in the process of amending the federal constitution, but can unilaterally amend its own constitution. In defining federalism in this manner, I am following Wheare’s classic account (K.C. Wheare, Federal Government, 4th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), chapters 1–2; cf.Google Scholar
  5. Jonathan Lemco, Political Stability in Federal Governments (New York: Praeger, 1991), chapter 1. For a typology of various “federal-type” arrangements—which distinguishes federations from confederations, consociations, federacies, legislative unions, associated states, and condominiums—see Elazar, Exploring Federalism, chapter 2, and Ronald Watts, “Comparing Forms of Federal Partnerships” [reprinted in this volume].Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    On non-territorial forms of minority rights, see J.A. Laponce, “The Government of Dispersed Minorities: From Constantinople to Ottawa,” in Divided Nations, ed. Tamas Kozma and Peter Drahos (Budapest: Educatio Publishing, 1993). On the millet system, see my “Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance,” Analyse & Kritik, vol. 14/1, 1992, pp. 33–56.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    For a defense of this claim, see Joseph Carens, “Membership and Morality: Admission to Citizenship in Liberal Democratic States,” in William Brubaker (ed.), Immigration and the Politics of Citizenship in Purope and North America (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), pp. 31–49.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Hence Nathan Glazer is quite wrong when he says that the division of the United States into federal units preceded its ethnic diversity—see N. Glazer, Ethnic Dilemmas: 1964–1982 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 276–277. This is true of the original thirteen colonies, but decisions about the admission and boundaries of new states were made after the incorporation of national minorities, and these decisions were deliberately made so as to avoid creating states dominated by national minorities.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Madison, Federalist no. 10, pp. 54, 61. The belief that federalism helps prevent tyranny was one reason why federalism was imposed by the Allies on Germany after World War II. It was supposed to help prevent the re-emergence of nationalist or authoritarian movements. For a critique of the claim that federalism is inherently more protective of individual liberty, see Martha Minow, “Putting Up and Putting Down: Tolerance Reconsidered,” in Mark Tushnet (ed.), Comparative Constitutional Federalism: Europe and America (Greenwood, New York, 1990), pp. 77–113; Franz Neumann, “Federalism and Freedom: A Critique” [reprinted in this volume].Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Philip Resnick, “Toward a Multination Federalism,” in Leslie Seidle (ed.), Seeking a New Canadian Partnership: Asymmetrical and Confederal Options (Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1994), p. 71.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    If the United States is the paradigm of territorial federalism, what is the prototype of multinational federalism? Elazar argues that Switzerland is “the first modern federation built upon indigenous ethnic and linguistic differences that were considered permanent and worth accommodating,” in D. Elazar, “The Role of Federalism in Political Integration,” in D. Elazar (ed.), Federalism and Political Integration (Turtledove Publishing, Ramat Gan, 1987), p. 20. Yet, as Murray Forsyth notes, the old Swiss confederation, which existed for almost 500 years, was composed entirely of Germanic cantons, in terms of ethnic origin and language. While French and Italian-speaking cantons were added in 1815, the decision to adopt a federal structure was not primarily taken to accommodate these ethnolinguistic differences. According to Forsyth, the Canadian federation of 1867 was the first case where a federal structure was adopted to accommodate ethnocultural differences. This is reflected in the fact that the 1867 Constitution not only united a number of separate provinces into one country, it also divided the largest province into two separate political units—English-speaking Ontario and French-speaking Quebec—to accommodate ethnocultural divisions (see Murray Forsyth, “Introduction,” in M. Forsyth (ed.), Federalism and Nationalism (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    On English-Canadian opposition to special status, see Alan Cairns, “Constitutional Change and the Three Equalities,” in Ronald Watts and Douglas Brown, eds, Options for a New Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 77–110; David Milne, “Equality or Asymmetry: Why Choose?” in ibid, pp. 285–307;Google Scholar
  13. Andrew Stark, “English-Canadian Opposition to Quebec Nationalism,” in R. Kent Weaver (ed.), The Collapse of Canada? (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1992), pp. 123–158; Stephane Dion, “La fédéralisme fortement asymétrique,” in Seidle (ed.), Seeking a New Canadian Partnership, pp. 133–152, who cites a poll showing 83% opposition to special status.Google Scholar
  14. 25.
    Elazar, Exploring Federalism, p. 229. For the relation of Indian self-government to federalism, see Frank Cassidy and Robert Bish, Indian Government: Its Meaning in Practice (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1989);Google Scholar
  15. J.A. Long, “Federalism and Ethnic Self-Determination: Native Indians in Canada,” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 29/2 (1991): 192–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 26.
    To reduce this danger, federal governments have encouraged national minorities to identify with, and feel loyalty towards, the federal government. This new identification, it is hoped, would then compete, and possibly even supersede, their original national identity. However, the historical record suggests that these efforts have limited success. See, on this, Kenneth Wheare, “Federalism and the Making of Nations,” in A. MacMahon (ed.), Federalism Mature and Emergent, pp. 28–43; Robert Howse and Karen Knop, “Federalism, Secession, and the Limits of Ethnic Accommodation: A Canadian Perspective,” New Europe Law Review (1993) vol. 1/2, pp. 269–320;Google Scholar
  17. Wayne Norman, “Towards a Normative Theory of Federalism,” in Judith Baker (ed.), Group Rights (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); and my Multicultural Citizenship, chapter 9.Google Scholar

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© Dimitrios Karmis and Wayne Norman 2005

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  • Will Kymlicka

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