Constitutional Federalism

… a core term used in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Simeon et al. (reference below, p. 79) use the term constitutional federalism to describe the attempts in the 1980s and early 1990s to reform federalism through amendments to the 1982 constitutional settlement.

They write (p. 79-80):

“By the early 1980s, Canadian federalism had come to be dominated by the “high politics” of the Constitution. The 1982 constitutional settlement, while excluding Quebec, was otherwise a compromise: the nation-centred view was reflected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to be enforced by the Supreme Court; the province-centred view was reflected in the amending formula, which ensured a strong provincial role in future amendment. After 1982 there was a brief hiatus in the conflict; a more harmonious federal provincial relationship seemed likely when the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney were elected in 1984. The Mulroney government had all the authority of a sweeping mandate, with the most seats in every province. Moreover, by winning over many Quebec nationalists while maintaining its Western base, the Mulroney coalition seemed to bridge the fundamental divide in Canada.

“… [But, in English Canada, the] advent of the Charter had shifted the constitutional discourse: now it was less about governing the relations among governments than a vehicle for popular sovereignty, defining the relations between citizens and governments. It was a Constitution more for citizens than for governments. The constitutional agenda broadened vastly, and the legitimacy of making constitutional change in the closed-door setting of first ministers’ conferences was fundamentally challenged. So was the idea that compromise carefully crafted by elites could not be allowed to unravel in the legislative ratification process.

“The changed climate in English Canada threatened key elements of the Quebec agenda . Many groups rejected any form of asymmetry or special status for Quebec: the Constitution should reflect the equality of citizens and the equality of the provinces; there should be no hierarchy of rights in which the rights of language groups would be privileged over the rights of women, multicultural groups, or Aboriginal peoples; Ottawa’s ability to establish and enforce national standards in areas of provincial jurisdiction should not be limited. Moreover, there were new items on the constitutional agenda, notably the call for a “Triple E Senate ” – equal, elected, and effective.

“The federal-provincial process was renewed in 1991. Now the leaders of the Aboriginal peoples and of the two territories were at the table. The resulting Charlottetown Accord sought to respond to the diverse forces at play, but the divisions were too wide to bridge and the process had lost its legitimacy. The consequence was the defeat of the Accord in the referendum of October 1992.”

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.

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