New Dimensions of Canadian
Federalism by Gregory S. Mahler, Associated University Presses, Cranbury, New
Jersey. 1987, 195 pages.
During the 1960s Professor Donald
Smiley noted that a mild state of chaos was the normal condition of the
Canadian federation. This is even more true in 1988. A Constitutional Accord (signed
by the Prime Minister and Premiers of ten provinces but not yet approved by the
legislatures), a free trade agreement negotiated but not yet implemented with
the United States, and a Supreme Court beginning to interpret legislation in
light of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Liberties have added to the regularly
scheduled chaos that derives from federal-provincial negotiations on various
To some extent this book has been
overtaken by events since it was published before the Meech Lake Agreement
which envisages a number of changes in the nature of Canadian federalism
including the method of appointing Senators and Supreme Court Judges.
Nevertheless the book does provide
a brief and well written overview of some traditional themes of Canadian federalism
and compares it with other federal systems, mainly Australia, the Federal
Republic of Germany and Switzerland.
For an American, teaching at an
American University, the author demonstrates admirable ability in understanding
and summarizing the complicated series of events that led to the 1982
patriation of the Canadin constitution. He then moves on to three chapters
examining the way policy issues are handled in Canada. He looks specifically at
health policy, foreign policy and energy policy. In all three instances he
finds that in Canada debate seems to focus more on process than on policy. For
example "at times in the recent past more attention has been paid to the
question of which level of government will make energy-related decisions than
to the question of what policies those decisions ought to recommend" (p.
The final chapter offers a
comparative perspective in which he attempts to explain why Canada is less
efficient in making social policy than the other federations. His explanations
are grouped into four categories: historical patterns of behaviour, the
constitutional balance of powers, governmental institutions and attitudes of
political leaders. In each case he makes at least one astute observation. For
example he suggests, perhaps too politely, that Canada suffers "from
certain ambiguities in its constitution which were not addressed during the
1982 constitutional changes."
His conclusion that Canada has its
own brand of federalism "and it is unlikely that anything is going to
happen of a radical or drastic nature... " will offer food for thought to
both the proponents and opponents of Meech Lake.