The Global Promise of Federalism, edited by Grace Skogstad, David Cameron, Martin Papillon and Keith Banting, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2013, 312pp.
Though its title does not indicate as such, the Global Promise of Federalism is a well-deserved Festschrift for political scientist Richard Simeon, the distinguished scholar of Canadian and broader federalisms. Simeon, whose career coincided with the great challenge to Canadian federalism represented by the nationalist and separatist impulses in Quebec, the rise of the New West, and the mega-constitutional politics from the 1970s to the early 1990s resulting in the Charter, patriation and failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, has been a keen scholar, advocate and critic of federalism for nearly 50 years.
Indeed, during this period, at a time when the study of Canada seemed to have existential implications, Simeon produced from his perch at Queen’s, and then the University of Toronto, a steady stream of important and ground-breaking works, not the least of which were a series of studies for the 1985 Macdonald Royal Commission. Simeon also played a key role in the “comparative turn” in Canadian political science starting in the 1990s, wherein that discipline’s scholarship took a much more expansive and global approach in its methodology and focus.
As a collection on federalism, this book is a useful and practical contribution. The introduction is a thoughtful overview of some ofthe key issues that have shaped Simeon’s scholarship and driven the field in recent years: the “chicken and egg” debate over societal values vis-à-vis founding institutions as a key determinant for a federation’s causation; the question of the importance of democracy and trust within a polity as a basis for whether or not federalism can root itself successfully; and, of course, federalism’s capacity to evolve over time.
Many of these themes are reflected, and expounded, upon in the collection’s 10 chapters, all of which are very good. Topics touch upon a broad range of fields and issues, from federalism and democracy, and theology and identity, to case studies on Cyprus, Spain and comparative Canadian-Australian federalism. A highlight is Alain Noel’s forceful argument about the importance of politics, ideology, identities and majority/minority relations within a federation; here, we have a sharp reminder that the often messy politics of a place needs to be “brought back into” studies of the state and federalism, and that the bloodless mechanisms of federalism are often shaped by people. Using the Quebec-Canada example, Noel’s chapter acts as a sobering reminder of federalism’s limitations.
The global perspective within the collection echoes not only Simeon’s academic evolution, but that of the broader Canadian discipline, and speaks to the importance that Canadian scholars and practitioners of federalism, such as Simeon himself, have played in international debates and the evolution of federations around the world. This shift in focus is also present when one thinks of the collection as a Festschrift; a very interesting addendum by Simeon himself, “Reflections on a Federalist Life,” personalizes some of his thinking as his scholarship (and some of his political views) evolved, and is both provocative and informative. Simeon’s comments on “public engagement” and his role in the Meech Lake Accord remind readers that the scholar can be an activist as well. The anecdotes, stories, and, yes, even limericks contained in this addendum reveal a man of humour and commitment, and it is easy to see why so many scholars – both from Canada and abroad – were part of this tribute.
With a shift in so many disciplines in both the social sciences and humanities away from the study of Canada (though not away from Canadian-taxpayer supported funding), larger questions about the policy implications of no longer focusing solely upon Canada are salient. The broader question such a book asks, is: Where to now? Questions around Canadian federalism will continue to remain central to the evolution of this nation state, but with the retirement of so many giants of Canadian political science (along with Simeon, Peter Russell and Alan Cairns come to mind), is the discipline up to the task of exploring not only the global promise of federalism but federalism’s ongoing evolution, right here at home? This collection, whose editors and contributors are ably taking up the task, suggests that the discipline, and the study of federalism – in all its forms and spaces – is indeed in good hands.
Professor (History), Trent University