The concept of federalism has been a notable source of political tension between Canada’s provinces and its federal government in Ottawa.

While it has been most prevalent in the discourse surrounding climate action, specifically regarding the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA), the topic has also been on full display with concerns about housing, education, and healthcare.

But what is federalism, and why is it so important to understand and fully grasp the ongoing discourse between jurisdictions in Canada?

Federalism is the division of legal powers between jurisdictions, typically with a broader central government and regional subgovernments. In Canada, these powers are granted by the Constitution and are divided between the Federal and Provincial governments.

Section 91 of the Constitution Act lays out the powers of the Canadian federal government, including legislative authority over matters such as the regulation of trade, military defence, criminal law and banking. On the other hand, section 92 of the Constitution Act outlines the exclusive powers of provincial governments, such as the maintenance of hospitals and municipalities and the management of non-renewable natural resources.

To this day, federalism is not an exact science in how these powers are observed, and it is constantly scrutinized by legal scholars across the country.

Going back to the example of the GGPPA, questions regarding the constitutional legality of setting a price on pollution were raised by three provinces in 2018: Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

One of many legal questions raised included whether the “carbon tax” breached provincial jurisdictional authority over non-renewable natural resources. Hopefully, it has become clear how tricky the concept of federalism truly is.

Covering the whole saga of the GGPPA would be impossible in just one blog post, and truth be told, the saga is still ongoing in the political realm. The short story is that the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately ruled that the GGPPA was constitutional, citing that cooperative federalism was being observed. The critical thing to note is that the GGPPA’s mechanisms only kick in for provinces that do not enact their own carbon pricing or reduction measures and, therefore, do not technically impose a unilateral carbon reduction scheme across the country.

Taking the time to appreciate how federalism plays a key role in governance and politics in Canada is critical when keeping tabs on such matters.

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