The Canadian federal structure devised in 1867 proved remarkably effective and adaptable during its first century in adjusting incrementally to the many changing conditions within Canadian society and in the external world. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, however, it clearly came under increasing stress. Indeed, Donald Smiley, a leading scholar of Canadian federalism, writing a book about the problems facing Canada in the 1970s, was driven to choose the title Canada in Question. In 1992, after 54 per cent of its people and six of its ten provinces had said ‘No’ in the referendum of October 26 to the set of constitutional proposals constituting the Charlottetown Agreement on which they were asked to vote, fundamental constitutional issues were left unresolved, and the future of Canada seemed again to be in question.
The Unresolved Structural Problems of Canada
By most standards, Canada during the 125 years since Confederation, had been up to 1992, a country of extraordinary accomplishment, admired and envied throughout the world. That year a United Nations report ranked Canada as the best country in the world to live in. But the question is if Canada had been a land of such achievement, why did it appear to be in such constitutional disarray? The answer to that question lay in four sets of structural problems that Canadians had difficulty to resolve.
THE RELEVANCE OF THE CANADIAN EXAMPLE
In a book aimed at exploring the role of federal political systems and autonomy arrangements in the management of ethnic differences and conflicts, this chapter focuses on the lessons, positive and negative, provided by the Canadian experience. While, in many respects, there are significant contrasts between Canada and other federations that must always be borne in mind, there are some features of the Canadian federation which make it particularly relevant to the examination of the interface between federalism and ethnic diversity. Unlike some other federations, such as the United States and Switzerland which were created by the aggregation of pre-existing states and cantons, the formation of Canada involved a substantial devolutionary process. A major part of its creation as a federation in 1867 was the splitting of the formerly unitary Province of Canada into two new provinces (Ontario, predominantly English-speaking and Protestant, and Quebec, predominantly Frenchspeaking and Roman Catholic), each autonomous and responsible for its own affairs in those areas where the two communities were sharply divided. To these provinces were added two smaller provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia).
The Canadian founders, concerned about maintaining effective unity, in 1867 adopted a predominantly federal structure that combined provincial autonomy with some constitutional quasi-unitary central controls over the provinces. Thus, the Canadian federal constitution, like those later established in India and Malaysia, and most recently in South Africa, was a hybrid combining a basically federal form with some unitary features.
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