Classical Federalism

… a core term used in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Simeon et al. (reference below, p. 73) use the term classical federalism to describe the way the Canadian federation operated for most of the period from Confederation to the Great Depression.

They write (p. 73-74):

“Much of the new resource and industrial development took place largely under provincial jurisdiction. Provincial revenues swelled, reducing their dependence on federal subsidies. The federal government’s powers of reservation and disallowance were rarely used (though they remained in the Constitution), and in the era of the minimal state, federal and provincial responsibilities seldom overlapped. With important exceptions, such as battles between Ontario and Ottawa over resources and timber exports, intergovernmental conflict was relatively muted.

“All this ended with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The resulting crisis of the state was also a crisis for federalism. With unemployment above 20 per cent, there was enormous pressure for welfare and relief, which fell largely on the provinces; at the same time their revenues shrivelled. Several provincial governments, like Saskatchewan, were driven to the brink of bankruptcy. A variety of ad hoc federal relief programs were put together, and in 1937 the federal government established the Rowell-Sirois Commission to recommend reforms to the federal system. In the United States the primary legislative response to the crisis was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was eventually declared constitutional by the American Supreme Court. These landmark decisions, based on a broad interpretation of the American trade and commerce power, effectively established the predominance of the central government in the American federal system. In Canada the Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett sought to emulate Roosevelt with his “Bennett New Deal.”

Simeon et al. (p. 83-84) suggest that, almost a century later, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempted to move the country back to the classical federalism model:

“The drive to return to the classical model reflects the pervasive growth of neoliberal approaches to government and the state, held by federal and provincial governments alike. This neoliberal approach includes a profound distrust in the role of the state and its potential for achieving collective goals. It is also closely related to the discourse of austerity, reductions in public spending, tax cuts, deregulation and, overall , downsizing the size and scope of the state writ large. … the discourse of austerity and the image of the state in spired by neoliberalism held by the Conservative government have generated some interesting changes to the way federalism is practised in the country.

“If there is one clear change, it is the withdrawal of Ottawa from working directly to shape the operation of the federal system. Previous federal governments sought to actively mould the relations between the federal and provincial governments. Since 2006, however, a new approach has taken hold. A term coined by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “open federalism” (Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, School of Policy Studies, 2006) includes a mix of policies that are oriented toward disentangling the two orders of government. In pursuit of this new approach, Ottawa has pulled back from directly intervening in many policy areas and says that it is up to the provinces to work things out. In December 2011, for example, the federal finance minister Jim Flaherty announced a major change to the funding formula for health care, simply informing the provincial and territorial ministers over lunch.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

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


Richard Simeon, Ian Robinson, and Jennifer Wallner (2014) “The Dynamics of Canadian Federalism,” in Canadian Politics, 6th ed., eds. James Bickerton and Alain-G. Gagnon, pp. 65-91. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. The reference in the last cited paragraph is: Institute of lntergovernmental Relations, School of Policy Studies (2006), Open  Federalism: Interpretations, Significance. Kingston: Institute of lntergovernmental Relations.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 2 September 2016.