A history of Canadian federalism

John-MacDonaldSir John’s Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada by John Boyko (Dundurn, $19.99, 213 pages)

John Boyko is the author of six books on Canadian history and his latest, Sir John’s Echo, presents the story of Canada since Confederation as a struggle between Ottawa and the provinces, with the central government often asserting itself as a force for national cohesion and necessary change in the country. Boyko says this is the legacy of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who viewed “our federal government (as) a positive force that helps define and then enhance the greater good,” and therefore it must have “sufficient power to unite, build, and speak for Canada.”

Throughout Canadian history, but especially its first 75 years, the great political questions seem to be power struggles between Ottawa and the provinces, or at least Ottawa and a province. Provinces even sought a say in early foreign policy. Foreign conflicts, most notably the Great War, were often the impetus for Ottawa enhancing its own power at the expense of provinces. From railways to social programs, Ottawa and provinces clashed over who got to make the rules and who paid for what.

R.B. Bennett’s Canadian version of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal included various programs that provided relief to those struggling to deal with the fallout of the Great Depression. The Conservative prime minister, says Boyko, “saw the welfare of individual Canadians as not a family, local, or provincial concern, but a national responsibility.” For Boyko, these programs, like earlier and later national infrastructure projects, obviously strengthened the nation, but there are legitimate arguments against making every challenge a federal issue. There is the Christian principle of subsidiarity that matters ought to by dealt with at the level of government closest to individuals that can competently address the issue. Local competence sometimes trumps central authority, but Boyko struggles to identify any such issues.

Canada, however, has largely abandoned not only this principle, but these arguments. Boyko is so convinced that centralizing decision-making always results in a stronger nation capable of dealing with the challenges of the day, that he does not really stop to consider the arguments for and against Ottawa exercising power in the stead of the provinces. Nor does Boyko consider that sometimes asserting jurisdiction is merely a power grab, failing to consider the venal nature of many politicians.

Concerns about centralizing power aside, Boyko has written a brief, fascinating, fresh take on Canadian history, seen through the lens of an idea articulated by a Canadian founding father whose influence is scarcely acknowledged 150 years after the country’s founding. That said, it might be granting too much to Sir John A., to claim he (or at least his vision of Canada) is responsible for everything from the Trans-Canada Air Lines to universal health care, from national old age pensions to the Charter.

As an introduction to Canadian political history, Sir John’s Echo rates just below historian Michael Bliss’s Right Honourable Men, a history of Canada’s prime ministers.

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