Monday, June 27, 2022

Book Notes: Wardlaugh and Ferguson on Rowell and Sirois

I like to think the range of my interests in Canadian historical topics has been pretty broad. But for quite a long time, I might have said that a Venn diagram would show no overlap whatsoever between "Christopher Moore's Historical Interests" and "the Rowell-Sirois Royal Commission on Dominion Provincial Relations."

I kinda thought I knew the commission met in the 'thirties, failed to solve the depression (or improve federal-provincial relations!), and was swept into irrelevance by the war and then by postwar prosperity. And that seemed to suffice.  Now my Venn boundaries are shifting. 

I'm finding Robert Wardlaugh and Barry Ferguson's The Rowell-Sirois Commission and the Remaking of Canadian Federalism pretty interesting. Evidently Rowell-Sirois did not end the depression or produce love and harmony among the first ministers. But it did train a generation of policy-makers, and the ideas it spawned did indeed have profound impact on federal relations. 

Not right away. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, they argue, "the commission recast ideas about the foundations of the federal system and the nature of government in ways that would be at the core of public life for the next forty years." I think they are right.  Equalization, medicare, and the provinces' ability in that era to begin launching big initiatives in education and social services were belated consequences of ideas floated by the commission.

Mary Janigan, whose own books first sparked my interest in these matters, also thinks Wardlaugh and Ferguson are on to something. She reviews them in the current Canadian Historical Review (paywalled). She says it's a "superb analysis" and "their prose is a delight." And she emphasizes the longterm impact. Guided by Rowell-Sirois:

Politicians moved their focus from rigid constitutional boundaries to deals that benefited the general welfare. Under the tax rental deals with the provinces, which extended from wartime to 1962, Ottawa collected key provincial taxes in return for a portion of the proceeds and compensatory grants for the poorer governments. Equalization, which passed in 1956, redistributed federal revenues to poorer provinces, formally ending the fiction of provincial equality. The report aimed for a new era of “full employment, social welfare, and trade liberalization,” which was based on “Keynesian fiscal policy and the so-called welfare state” (310). In effect, the commissioners “rose above the conventional views of their time” (303) to focus government policy on the welfare of all citizens through redistribution. This important book rescues that contribution from obscurity.

I'm still working through this big, serious book, so I'll refer you to Janigan's review, or Wardlaugh and Ferguson directly, for the full story. But they are expanding my categories already.

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