At the time this article was
written Patrick Malcolmson was a Research Officer with the Ontario Legislative
The number of formal and informal
meetings between legislators from the Canadian provinces and the U.S. states
has increased remarkably in the past twenty years. These meetings may give rise
to a permanent, high-profile institution to facilitate province-state contact.
The reasons for the increased
contact between state and provincial legislators are numerous and complex. For
example, the foreign policies of the two countries have changed and there
exists today a more co-operative spirit in Canada-U.S. relations. Furthermore,
both countries are tending towards decentralisation. In Canada, the provinces
continue to become ever more powerful partners in the federal contract
asserting that power wherever and whenever they can; one need only consider the
proposal of a provincial veto over any Canada-U.S. free-trade treaty to see the
truth of this statement. In the United States, the Reagan administration has
attempted to "renew" federalism by transferring some programs from
the national to the state governments. The states also view themselves as stronger
federal partners, although the shift towards decentralisation in the U.S. is
less pronounced than in Canada. Perhaps of greatest importance today, provinces
and states face increasingly more serious regional environmental problems which
are best dealt with by officials at the local level.
There have been many studies on
province-state relations recently. They have found that not only the frequency
but also the number of types of contact between provinces and states have been
increasing steadily. These contacts are of several kinds and can be classified
as follows: ad hoc meetings of civil servants; the establishment of provincial
offices in U.S. states (and vice versa); Canadian participation in U.S.
inter-state compacts; membership of state and provincial officials in
professional organisations; membership of provinces and states in Canada-U.S.
joint organisations; meetings between governors and premiers, between other
members of the respective executive branches of government and between
legislators from both countries.
Many political scientists have
turned to the study of province-state relations because they see it as a new
and fruitful sub-field of international relations. Others, of a more practical
bent, are interested because they see such contacts, especially those between
legislators, as a hopeful sign that Canada and the United States are moving
towards a more rational, consultative mode of conducting their mutual business.
It is this contact between legislators that we examine here: we shall try to
describe its scope and nature, examine the difficulties that have arisen in
attempting to set up formal and regular legislative interaction and assess what
benefits and opportunities such interaction provides.
Defining Legislative Contact
The most vexing problem in studying
the contact between state and provincial legislators lies in defining what
qualifies as a contact between the legislative branches of the two governments
as opposed to their respective executive branches. The separation of and distinction
between these two branches is the basic feature of American government, whereas
their close union is, in Walter Bagehot's words, "the latent essence and
effectual secret" of parliamentary government. Comparisons between the two
systems are therefore difficult, and it is not always possible to find precise
equivalents for American legislators in the Canadian provincial legislatures.
For example, is the Senate majority leader or speaker of the House in the U.S.
presidential system the effective equivalent of the premier or the government
House leader in a parliamentary system? It is hard to say. Furthermore, a
provincial premier and the ministers in his cabinet are members of both the
executive and legislative branches of government. Meetings with their
counterparts in the executive branch of American state governments cannot,
therefore, be considered as being between legislators. Meetings between
premiers and governors at the U.S. National Governors' Association, the Annual
Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, or between
premiers and governors of neighbouring provinces and states (eg.
Washington-B.C. or Maine-N.B.) are instead best understood as a sort of
"mini-summitry" or "micro-diplomacy." We shall thus look at
the involvement of premiers and ministers only insofar as they meet with their
counterparts in the state legislatures.
Five organisations give state and
provincial legislators the opportunity to hold serious meetings. The largest of
these organisations is the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). It
holds numerous regional meetings, and provincial ad state legislators often
attend the annual conference. The NCSL not only offers Canadian legislators the
chance to visit and meet their U.S. counterparts at its own conference, but
also sponsors the Canada-U.S.A. Legislative Project, an organization for
This project was designed
specifically to bring together provincial cabinet ministers and U.S. state
legislative leaders. Instituted in 1979, it holds yearly meetings; the most
recent was in February of this year to discuss the issue of free trade. Its
success could indeed point the way towards the creation of a permanent
structure to which all provincial and state legislatures could belong. The
editors of the 1985 edition of Canadian Legislatures argue that the Project
"has demonstrated that when a forum is provided for legislative leaders to
meet together to review political, social and economic problems in an unfettered
and open way, fresh solutions often occur."
The Canadian Region, Commonwealth
Parliamentary Association is a third organisation that provides a forum in
which U.S. state legislators can meet their Canadian counterparts. Its 1986
annual meeting was attended by a number of state legislators, one of the
conference topics being province-state relations.
The Association Internationale des
Parlementaires de Langue Francaise (AIPLF) is an international organisation bringing
French-speaking legislators from Canada and the U.S. together. The Association
holds both an international meeting and an Americas conference each year.
Legislators from Maine, Vermont and Louisiana have attended the meetings.
Finally, there is now one regional
organisation that has begun to work seriously towards providing a forum for
regular province-state legislative exchanges. This is the Caucus of New England
State Legislatures (CNESL), in existence since 1978. The goal of the Caucus is
to disseminate information and maintain lines of communication between the
region's 1,323 legislators. Its annual meetings are usually attended by the
speakers, Senate presidents, and committee chairmen of the six New England
state legislatures. Acting upon a suggestion from the state of Maine, last
year's conference invited Canadian legislators; it is hoped that in future,
members of the legislatures from Eastern Canada will attend regularly.
Other Province-State Meetings
The provinces and states bordering
on one another have, in many cases, formed close contacts, both formal and
informal. British Columbia and Washington have sponsored legislative exchanges,
and in 1974 had a joint meeting of their legislatures. Maine and New Brunswick
have perhaps the closest working relationship. Maine has a "Canadian
Legislative Liaison Office," and has worked hard to encourage the
participation of Canadian legislators in regional conferences. New Brunswick
and Maine have been holding regular meetings of legislators for years. They
hope Nova Scotia will soon be included.
In addition to the formal,
organised meetings of legislators from the provinces and states, there are
numerous informal meetings. Members from border constituencies often meet their
U.S. counterparts to discuss local issues. On the prairies these most often
concern irrigation and transportation problems, while legislators from Ontario
and Quebec have attended numerous meetings and conferences with U.S.
legislators concerning problems regarding the Great Lakes.
The majority of Canada's
legislatures are still part-time institutions which devote few of their
resources to the work of legislative committees. The reform movement that has
brought about changes in Ottawa and Ontario to give backbenchers and committees
greater power and a more significant role in the legislative process has not
yet reached many of Canada's other legislatures. Nevertheless, committees from
the legislatures of New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec have travelled to meet
legislators in the U.S. in recent years. In Ontario, the Standing Committee on
the Legislative Assembly now regularly attends the National Conference of State
Impediments to Legislative
Having described the scope and
nature of province-state legislative interaction, we can now turn to examine
some of the problems involved in facilitating these contacts. The most
difficult problem is also the most obvious: the parliamentary system of
provincial government is very different from the congressional style of state
government. This dissimilarity makes it difficult to compare the legislative
offices in the two systems. In addition, party government is much stronger in
the parliamentary system, and provincial members cannot express their opinions
as freely as their U.S. counterparts can. State legislators are likely unaware
of how dire are the consequences that await a provincial member who contradicts
or criticises his or her party leader.
The federal division of powers in
the two countries poses a second problem for province-state legislative
contact. Foreign affairs belong constitutionally to the national governments of
both countries, and there are many in Canada who argue against provincial
activity in this area on the grounds that it serves only to divide and hence
further weaken Canada's bargaining power with the United States.
A third difficulty in encouraging
greater province-state legislative contact is that many provincial legislatures
are still only part-time operations with little interest in having their members
play a greater role in the legislative process. Their legislative committees,
for example, remain wholly dependent on the government of the day. They lack
the power to set their own agendas and the resources to travel.
Finally, there is among Canadians a
latent fear of continentalism; any move towards a continental legislative body,
even of a solely consultative nature, would be greeted by many with fear (if
not loathing). Since we believe that this fear is somewhat irrational deriving
as it does from a combination of anti-Americanism and ignorance of the benefits
of province-state legislative contact, an understanding of these benefits is
Benefits of Legislative Contact
The most important benefit
resulting from greater contact between legislators from the provinces and
states would, paradoxically, be a better understanding of the differences
between Canadian and American government. Legislators obviously know how the
procedures and structure of their own legislature determine which bills will
become law. But it is equally obvious that they often do not understand well
how institutions different from their own determine policymaking in other
countries. Nothing could be more valuable than that legislators understand
exactly the ways in which the two different systems of government affect the
formulation of public policy. The Canada-U.S.A. Legislative Project now
provides a framework for the exchange of such information. The Commonwealth
Parliamentary Association should perhaps consider jointly sponsoring this body,
thereby making it a more powerful bi-national institution.
Nor is the exchange of information
between provincial and state legislators limited to comparing their two
different systems of government. Legislators discuss new ideas, different
policy options, and what might best be called the political necessities that
govern policy choices in Canada and the U.S. Understanding the latter is
particularly important in reducing the friction between Canadian and American
legislators that results from a simple ignorance of motives.
Elected politicians represent the
interests of their constituents. One cannot understand a politician's actions
without understanding the interests he or she represents. Regular formal
meetings between legislators from the provinces and the states would thus serve
the valuable function of providing our politicians with some necessary lessons
in political education. In addition, they would raise the public profile of the
provinces and the states and would provide legislators with friendly contacts
that could prove useful when problems arise.
In sum, contact between legislators
from the provinces and states is increasing; such contact is necessary and
should, within proper limits, be encouraged. The difficulties that hinder
legislative contact can be dealt with and the benefits arising from it are
significant. For this reason, legislators in the provinces and states should
consider setting up a permanent, jointly-sponsored institution that would hold
annual meetings and encourage regional meetings. Any institution that educates
legislators about legislatures benefits the democratic process.