‘Sleepwalking to disaster’

Ottawa’s proposed power loss causes concern

NANCY WOOD August 3 1992

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’

Ottawa’s proposed power loss causes concern

NANCY WOOD August 3 1992

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’


Ottawa’s proposed power loss causes concern

Every year, when the federal government prepares to table its annual budget, housing advocates across the country express a shared anxiety: that Ottawa will try to extricate itself from the housing field by abolishing the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which gives grants and loans to housing projects for Canadians who would otherwise not be able to afford adequate accommodation and insures mortgages for home buyers who pay small deposits. Abolition, they claim, would leave the housing field to a patchwork of smaller programs administered by the provinces. This year, housing advocates said that they were relieved when the budget appeared in February—leaving the federal corporation untouched. But that reaction may have been premature. The constitutional deal reached early this month between Ottawa and nine provinces would give provinces “exclusive jurisdiction” over housing, as well as several other policy areas including culture. Declared Sylvia Haines, executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association: “I

think Canada Mortgage and Housing is under the biggest threat it has ever been under right now. It seems like we are just a grain of sand in this whole constitutional thing.”

The federal-provincial power-sharing aspects of the new agreement received less initial attention than other elements of the deal, such as aboriginal rights and Senate reform. But Ottawa’s willingness to give more power to the provinces is now under attack from various quarters. Although the provinces would in part exercise their new powers using federal money, many analysts question the depth of Ottawa’s commitment to continue its current levels of funding—and willingness of the provinces to honor the new obligations. Said University of Western Ontario constitutional law professor Errol Mendes: “I think this country is sleepwalking towards a disaster.”

Quebec has led the charge for greater decentralization of power. That province’s governing Liberal party last year adopted a report prepared by Quebec City lawyer Jean Allaire that recommended such a dramatic power shift

to the provinces that Ottawa would retain jurisdiction only over defence, customs and tariffs, monetary policy, debt management and equalization payments to the poorer provinces, including Quebec. The current agreement is far less dramatic. But in addition to culture, it would give the provinces jurisdiction over labor market development and training, and it would also reinforce provincial control over forestry, mining, tourism, housing, recreation and municipal and urban affairs. Those areas are constitutionally under provincial jurisdiction even though Ottawa has gradually intruded by spending money and establishing programs, at times without provincial consent.

One of the most sensitive issues is culture. Throughout the 20th century, the federal government has played an increasingly vital role by creating and funding many national institutions such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the National Film Board, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canada Council, which provides funds for, among other things, symphony orchestras, opera companies and theatre groups across the country.

The proposed devolution of cultural jurisdiction has traditionally been a concern of many Canadian arts representatives. Keith Kelly, director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, an umbrella group, said that he was shocked when he first learned of the draft accord. Kelly noted that it granted exclusive power over culture to the provinces, with no mention of national institutions or a continuing

federal role. He added: “Needless to say, I was very concerned because we had just had a letter from Joe Clark on June 30.” In that letter—and in a preceding letter in late May— Clark had clearly stated his determination to maintain a “continued strong federal presence in cultural matters.”

One week later, a final text based on the premiers’ meeting was released with the wording changed to reflect Clark’s wishes.

The text recognized the “continuing responsibility of the federal government in Canadian cultural matters.” It added that the federal government should retain responsibility for “national cultural institutions, including grants and contributions delivered by these institutions.” Kelly said that the revised wording provided some relief.

But constitutional experts claim that the agreement could still result in a greatly diminished federal role.

Mendes, for one, notes that the agreement says that the provinces have “exclusive jurisdiction over cultural matters within the provinces.” It is difficult, he added, to imagine a cultural event taking place outside of the provinces. And he claimed that the use of the word “responsibility” to describe the federal government’s involvement in culture is puzzling. Declared Mendes: “Responsibility is such a weasel word. It could mean anything to anybody. It does not have a sound constitutional meaning. How long before the federal government is going to say, ‘Look, we cannot really keep on spending?’ ”

Representatives of other organizations are also expressing concern— largely because the cultural field extends well beyond the arts. Members of heritage groups are clearly worried that their activities would be curtailed under the new agreement. Although provinces are responsible for heritage properties such as historical homes, the federal government has funded national projects. Among them is Heritage Canada’s Main Street Canada, which has spent more than $5 million on refurbishing central thoroughfares in cities and towns across the country.

Now, critics such as Douglas Franklin, director of government relations at Heritage Canada, say that the words “continuing responsibility” in the tentative agreement may mean that Ottawa will only have the right to continue current projects— not start new ones. Said Franklin: “Does this mean that the federal government can no longer undertake any initiatives in the cultural sphere which may be of national significance?”

Other observers voiced similar fears. Notes David Schneiderman, executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta: “Sure, it could mean freezing the current arrangements.” And Schneiderman said that the federal government,

intent on slashing its deficit, may well use the constitutional deal to justify cutting funding to arts-related fields. He added: “I would have thought that was the objective of this.”

Some experts say that the federal government may also curtail spending on multiculturalism programs under the new deal. Robert Howse, an assistant law professor at the University of Toronto law school, said that under

the agreement, it would be difficult for Ottawa to continue some of its support for ethnic groups, such as paying for multicultural centres. Said Howse: “All that is up for grabs.” Even the definition of culture itself seems unclear—and could lead to further complications. Quebec negotiators have stated repeatedly that culture extends beyond art and music. They insist that it must include aspects of Quebec life such as institutions, language and business practices. The recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, contained in the new agreement, could result in that province de-

manding—and perhaps getting—even more powers from Ottawa, according to retired B.C. constitutional expert Melvin Smith. “I can see the distinct society clause, if it is in the main body of the Constitution, resulting in special status for Quebec in terms of legislative powers,” said Smith, a former constitutional adviser to the B.C. government. “And the list of powers that that could affect is virtually endless.” Among the possible demands from Quebec: the right to establish its own radio, television and telecommunications commission, which could have supervisory power over the French-language CBC.

While culture remains one of the most contentious areas of the new agreement, other aspects of the deal are also under fire. Among them is labor market training. Although the agreement now expressly states that the national unemployment insurance plan remains under Ottawa’s control, some experts such as Alberta’s Schneiderman say that some administrative agreements under the accord, such as a commitment to “ensure effective coordination of federal unemployment insurance and provincial employment functions,” could still result in provinces delivering unemployment programs and payments. Said Schneiderman: “Essentially, federal manpower offices could close down and responsibility could be assumed by provincial governments.”

The debate revolves around two critical issues: whether Ottawa will—or even should—continue to fund the provinces’ exercising of their new powers and whether provincial governments should do as much as the federal government has. Smith commented that the most contradictory part of the deal is that Ottawa is supposed to keep “picking up the tab” for programs that will become clearly provincial. Declared Smith: “That is not the way to control the federal deficit.” Others claim that the long-term result will be a withdrawal by Ottawa from certain areas of funding. Said Mendes: “They are looking for every single excuse to get out of funding programs— right across the board.” Clearly, what at first appeared as a dry legal arrangement might, in fact, be a blueprint for fundamental change in the way that Canada is governed.

NANCY WOOD in Ottawa