Monday, August 23, 2021

Book Notes: Janigan on equalization and federalism

Several years ago, the journalist Mary Janigan began to take an interest in the historical background to some big questions about how the Canadian federation actually functions.  In Canada's History, back in 2013, I profiled her and a book of hers with the provocative title Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark. It's about regional alienation and federal-provincial power struggles, and her analysis goes way back before the recent decades of conflict over Alberta's oil. It emphasizes early twentieth-century attempts to accommodate the rise of western Canada to a full(er) share in Confederation. It was a daunting topic -- she joked that her agent and publisher said, more or less, "a book about whaaat?..." -- handled in bold, vigorous and confident fashion.

Janigan, now with a Ph.D. in hand, is back with a second book, The Art of Sharing. This one is on another potentially daunting subject: the history of  financial tensions within the Canadian confederation. She goes back to the 1920s again, but the book highlights the history of equalization payments since their beginnings under John Diefenbaker in 1957. I still have not read it, but it gets a very positive review in the current Canadian Historical Review (requires subscription) from Douglas Brown.  Equalization, Brown notes:

was to proceed with a relatively generous program of funding by the federal government alone, drawn from tax revenues collected by the federal government in all of Canada, made to those provinces with a below average fiscal capacity. It did not require any formal agreement by any province, and the funds would be without condition. These principles continue to be applied today, despite the misinterpretations of political leaders such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. As Janigan so nicely puts it at the end of her book, in 1957, it amounted to an “unnoticed revolution”; providing no-strings cash to the poorer provinces enabled all provinces to afford national social programs, including health care.

If I understand Brown's summary correctly, Janigan demonstrates that Australia (and the United States), faced with regional disparities of their own, opted for centralization, placing health care and other fundamental social programs under federal jurisdiction. Equalization (and other joint-spending programs) enabled Canada to retain broad provincial jurisdictions, through federal funding rather than full federal control. 

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