Melvin Smith spent 26 years attending federal-provincial conferences. He obviously was not impressed. “They meet solemnly, say ‘Yes, yes, we will do this and that'— and then forget about the whole thing,” said Smith, who retired in May as British Columbia’s top constitutional adviser. Deciding that it was time for a change, Smith’s last undertaking for the B.C. government was a wide-ranging search for new approaches to managing the relationship between Ottawa and the provinces. Last April, he released a report recommending the creation of a permanent body that he called the Council of the Federation to decide questions of federal-provincial importance. That recommendation quickly caught Ottawa’s imagination—and last week the federal government included it in
its far-reaching'proposals for constitutional change.
Presenting it as a means of overcoming the often fractious relations among Canada’s governments, the federal blueprint laid out plans to create a new body bringing together delegates from the federal, provincial and territorial governments. The council, whose composition is unspecified, would review federal activity in critical areas such as new social policies affecting the whole nation and initiatives to strengthen the economic union of Canada. Its decisions, however, would require the approval of the federal government and the legislatures of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population—a measure that would, in effect, give the provinces a collective veto over many new federal programs. Even with that ratification, any dissenting province could refuse to implement a new policy.
For his part, Smith claims that empowering the provinces would result in greater intergovernmental co-operation—not confrontation. He points to Germany’s upper house, the
Bundesrat, which is made up of state delegates who can veto certain federal policies. “The veto is very rarely used,” said Smith, who visited West Germany in 1977 to study the system. “The fact that it is there causes the federal government to come to the state governments and say, ‘Look, we want this policy, we want your input, we want your support.’ ”
Some analysts, though, say that other avenues exist for redefining federal-provincial relations. Richard Simeon, a constitutional expert at the University of Toronto, for one, questioned whether an entirely new government body is required for that purpose. An elected Senate, Simeon added, might be better equipped to assume a more important role within the federation. That debate will intensify over the coming months—spurred on by the lack of visible results from the current, often chaotic system of federal-provincial discussions.
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