Competing Claims for Federalism in Complex Political Settings. A Canadian Exploration

  • Alain-G. GagnonEmail author


Politics being what it is, one should not completely exclude the possibility of a rapprochement between partners that have been constitutional rivals. This has been the case in Canada where independentist forces have had strong influence for a long time.

The future of Canada depends on a variety of factors, among which are the imagination of its leaders, the will to accept Québec’s special place in the federation and, more importantly, leaders’ capacity to find devices that subsume application of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms under a territorial formula to take into account Québec’s special, unique needs in the area of language politics. This will be difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons: (1) the demise of the first ministers’ conferences (and executive federalism), which are perceived as too elitist; (2) profound distrust of traditional forms of representation (for example, the major political parties), complicated by the regionalization of the party system; (3) the acquired faith in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, combined with Québec’s cultural insecurity; and (4) the equality of provinces precept that gained prominence with the growing popularity of province-building in the 1970s.

All of these factors have coalesced to make recognition of Québec as a central partner in the federation difficult to achieve. The combination of these elements makes a solution to the ongoing political tensions difficult to find. First, Québec will never agree to define itself as a province like the others. Second, Québec cannot accept that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms constantly undermines the supremacy of Québec’s National Assembly. Finally, Québec, as the only province that has a francophone majority, cannot accept having English-speaking Canadians decide the fate of the largest, most viable French-speaking community in North America. The situation is further compounded by the fact that Québec’s conventional right of veto was denied by its Canadian partners when the time came to patriate the Constitution in 1982, and that so far no substantial corrective measures have been implemented. It is difficult to imagine that, nearly three and a half decades after implementing its new constitutional order, a country such as Canada has not been able (or willing) to obtain the consent of its second most populous province for its primary symbolic document: the Constitution Act, 1982. The legitimacy of the 1982 Act is put in question due to the fact that Québec is the only region where French has a majority status. An important caveat, though, is that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has weakened parliamentary supremacy, leaving the notwithstanding clause as the main instrument available to the Québec government to protect its distinct character. In the process, the Canadian parliament has become more responsive to special interests that are not territorially based (e.g. women, ethnic communities, environmentalist groups), and less responsible to voters.

There remain several intangibles that could still have a crucial impact on the future of Canada. First, the capacity of political leaders to craft political institutions that tackle Québec’s distinct status in a serious way so as to find a territorial solution to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Second, circulation of political leaders, both provincially and federally, should bring some fresh air into the process of political (and potentially constitutional) reforms. Whatever happens, negotiated boundaries are essential for re-establishing genuine trust between Québec and Canada outside Québec. In the Canadian context, boundaries take the shape of competing forms of federal arrangements.


Federalism Quebec-Canada relations Politics of recognition 



Alain-G. Gagnon, President of the Academy of Social Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, has held the Canada Research Chair in Québec and Canadian Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal since 2003. He is the incoming director of the Centre d’analyse politique: Constitution—Fédéralisme also at UQAM. His most influential books include, as author, The Case for Multinational Federalism (Routledge 2010) and Minority Nations in the Age of Uncertainty (University of Toronto Press 2014); as co-author, Federalism, Citizenship, and Québec (University of Toronto Press, 2008); and, as co-editor, Federal Democracies (Routledge 2012), Political Autonomy and Divided Societies (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), as well as Multinational Federalism (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and Understanding Federalism and Federation (Ashgate 2015).


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université du Québec à MontréalMontrealCanada

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