Open Federalism

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Click for Boessenkool/Speer article

Concept description

Open federalism is a term associated with the approach to Canadian federal-provincial relations espoused by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Writing in 2007, Adam Harmes (reference below) characterized the approach by quoting Harper’s National Post article of 2004 (reference below) as one that:

“would involve a “renewed respect for the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments”; one based on the re-establishment of “a strong central government that focuses on genuine national priorities like national defence and the economic union, while fully respecting the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces.”

“The rationale for this open federalism, according to Harper, was based on the populist tradition “that stresses democratic reform and the accountability of government to the people” as well as the national unity need for “new ideas that address Quebec’s unique demands in ways that strengthen its place in Canada.” In other words, open federalism was to be about democratic reform and national unity and, as such, is meant to address issues arising out of the Canadian federation’s regional and linguistic cleavages.” (p. 417)


Writing in Policy Options in 2015, Michael Atkinson argues that open federalism hobbles the country’s ability to address major policy challenges:

“There is no institutional obstacle to policy change as large and potent as federalism. Harper’s “open federalism,” in which his government gives the provinces a wide berth and expects the same in return, is a recipe for policy stasis, or at least for change confined to areas that are exclusively the preserve of the provinces or the federal government. That leaves large areas in which policy change is highly desirable and likely to be suboptimal if it occurs at all. Let’s consider three areas in which comprehensive policy change would be welcome but unlikely without federal-provincial collaboration. …

“These three issues [climate change, Aboriginal relations, child care] are serious policy challenges that require bold federal actions. Because they belong to policy areas that are not the preserve of either order of government, however, a structured dialogue between Ottawa and the provinces is needed to properly address them. This reality goes against the logic of open federalism so dear to Harper. Policy change is hard to achieve under any circumstances, but in these policy areas at least, we must say farewell to open federalism and refuse to look back.”

Writing in Maclean’s in 2015, Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer (reference below, link to article above) conclude that, notwithstanding the aspirations of policy activists, open federalism was a signature achievement of the Harper government:

“There are few areas in which the Right Honourable Stephen Harper reshaped Canada more significantly than federalism. Federalism has been at the heart of his conservative vision from early intellectual development. He came to see it as the basis to reduce the size of the federal government, to accommodate different regional interests and priorities (including Quebec nationalism), and to further decentralize decision-making closer to the individual and family. It was one of the issues that most animated him, and his record in restoring a conception of classical federalism stems from this deep personal belief. …

“The result of Harper’s vision of classical federalism is that Ottawa was no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health care, education, and other provincial responsibilities. The separatist threat has never been at a lower level, and, as a result, national unity is stronger than it has been in several decades. Harper’s own conservative coalition has not frayed along regional lines as Mulroney’s did. It is a good example of his intellectual and political aptitudes and the useful marriage of his traditional conservative and classical liberal philosophical underpinnings.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Federalism (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Adam Harmes (2007), The Political Economy of Open Federalism, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Jun., 2007), pp. 417-437.

Stephen Harper (2004), My plan for ‘open federalism,’ National Post, 27 October 2004.

Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer (2015), How Stephen Harper’s open federalism changed Canada for the better, Maclean’s, 1 December 2015, at, accessed 20 May 2018.

Michael Atkinson (2015), Farewell to Open Government, Policy Options, 9 September 2015, at, accessed 20 May 2018.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 20 May 2018.

Image: Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer (2015), How Stephen Harper’s open federalism changed Canada for the better, Maclean’s, 1 December 2015, at, accessed 20 May 2018.