… a core term used in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Writing in the Canadian Encyclopedia (reference below) Garth Stevenson defines federalism as a political system in which government power and responsibility is divided between a federal legislature and a number of state or provincial legislatures.

Stevenson writes:

“Although imaginative efforts have been made to trace the history of federalism back into antiquity, the United States Constitution (1787) is the earliest example of a modern federal constitution. The possibility of establishing a federal union among the remaining British colonies of North America was considered sporadically early in the 19th century, and more seriously from 1857 onwards. Negotiations among political leaders from the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia resulted later in the Imperial Parliament’s adoption of the British North America Act, which united those three colonies into a federal state in 1867.”

“… Although Canadian politicians have articulated a variety of different concepts of Canadian federalism. Differences of opinion have been sharper in Canada over a longer period than in most federations, and no consensus has ever been achieved regarding the appropriate relationship between the two levels of government. National and provincial politicians tend to espouse different views, and these have become associated with partisan conflict when one party has held office at the national level for a long period while enjoying less success at the provincial level.”

“… Canadian federalism, in practice, has fluctuated between the extremes of centralization and decentralization in response to a variety of political, economic and social circumstances. Macdonald’s preference for a highly centralized regime seems to have triumphed for a few years after Confederation, but by the 1880s the provincial governments were becoming as powerful as their US counterparts, if not more so. Provincial control over natural resources, especially after 1930, facilitated the development of largely self-contained provincial economies, and the concentration of secondary manufacturing in Ontario made its government particularly important and influential.”

Simeon et al. (reference below, p. 66) say:

“Federalism … is at heart an institutional structure – joining parliamentary or Cabinet government and, since 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as one of the three institutional pillars of Canadian government. Each of these pillars embodies a somewhat different conception of democracy; they coexist in a dynamic tension (Cairns, 1992).”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

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


Garth Stevenson (2006), revised by Julie Smyth (2013), Federalism, at http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/federalism/, accessed 1 September 2016.

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 cited is: Alan C. Cairns (1977), “The Governments and Societies of Canadian Federalism.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 10 (04): 695-725.

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