Chapter 3 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives


Federalism is one of the most distinguishing features of Canadian democracy. It allows government to be both responsive to local concerns yet unified by a set of common overarching objectives. Provincial governments have the sovereignty to deal with local concerns, while the central government may respond to broader, nation-wide concerns. As such, federalism stands in sharp contrast to alternative political arrangements such as unitary government and confederal government.

After noting the historical origins of Canadian federalism, the authors review each of the particular features of federalism as found in Canada. These features include the notion of divided sovereignty, the division of powers, the power of reservation, the power of disallowance, and the “Peace, Order, and Good Government” clause. Also examined are the federal government’s residual, spending, and appointment powers.

Despite the presence of these fundamental constitutional features, the working of Canadian federalism has evolved greatly across time. This is most evident with the major models that have been used to interpret Canadian federalism that the authors describe as the classical, co-operative, collaborative, emergency, symmetrical, asymmetrical, and treaty models.

Lastly, the authors discuss a central dimension of Canadian federalism that pertains to the politics of fiscal federalism. The presence of fiscal gaps amongst the governments has led to the emergence of various transfers from the federal government to the provincial governments. In turn, equalization payments and vertical grants have raised issues of accountability. The chapter ends with a review of the two main sets of actors in Canadian federalism: inter-state institutions and intra-state institutions and a brief history of the evolution of Canadian federalism.  This week’s professor profile is on Loleen Bedahl, a professor in Canadian federalism, regionalism, and public policy and this chapter’s discussion is on the overall operation of federalism in Canada.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:

  • comprehend the essence of federalism as a form of government and understand why it was chosen as a foundation of Canadian democracy;
  • identify and understand the different models and features of federalism;
  • explain how federalism works in Canada and identify the respective roles of the main actors; and
  • understand how and why Canadian federalism evolved over time.
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