Federalism has always been a struggle in Canada. Our constitution gives power primarily to the federal government, and we recognize the benefits of a strong shared government to unify us, but it can be difficult for people in, say, Vancouver to identify closely with people in rural Newfoundland. The sheer breadth of our country lends itself much more to regionalism.
This is why so much of federal politics involves building strong relationships between the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of the provinces and territories. While the ability to tax the people belongs mostly to the federal government, the programs and infrastructure that govern most of our daily life are generated and implemented at a provincial or even municipal level. So when the provinces want to improve healthcare, they must go to the federal government for funding; and when the federal government wants to mandate a national program, they need to get the buy-in of the provinces. This becomes a delicate dance, because what appeals to the premier of BC might not appeal at all to the premier of Saskatchewan: their people live in very different geographical regions, face different economic and social issues, and even have cultural differences.
The way forward for a federal government with plans that require the buy-in of the provinces, then, is to be flexible. A good example of this is the recent decision to impose a price on carbon on any province that has not already done so, while giving the provinces the ability to do so in whatever manner works best for their own context. So while the federal government has set an explicit goal (reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) and a baseline requirement (a minimum price on carbon), it has left the mechanisms by which these goals and requirements are met entirely up to the provinces. If Saskatchewan wants to maintain its coal power plants, for example, they can – so long as they meet the requirements in other ways (they are currently exploring carbon capture and storage technologies that, combined with other emissions reductions and methods of pricing carbon, will meet the same targets).
The Green Party has upheld this as the best way to approach not only federalism in Canada, but all problems. Recognizing that local or regional economies and ways of life vary as much as local or regional ecosystems, we have long recognized that real life does not accept one-size-fits-all solutions. Centralized governments with standardized solutions cannot hope to address regional or local problems in ways that will help or satisfy everyone. That’s why Green policies function on the premise of concentrating as much decision-making power at the lowest possible level, so that people are empowered to solve problems in ways that best suit their communities.
Contrast this with the way that we tend to work with other nations. The constant refrain from Canadian politicians has long been that we must align our environmental goals with those of the United States. I have even been contacted by international movements that promote a system in which no nation implements necessary changes until all other nations have also agreed to do so – a recipe for inaction if I’ve ever seen one, even if the ultimate goal is working together. On the other hand, the international climate treaties (such as Paris and Kyoto) allow nations to set their own targets and build their own strategies to meet those targets, coming together to agree on the scope of the issue and the general distribution of responsibility for it before going home to build their own solutions.
So why do we allow for such regionalism in setting targets, and then come home and insist on unified strategies when it’s time to implement them?
Globalization has come with both good and bad effects, but I would argue that many of the worst effects came from the imposition by colonial powers and financially dominant nations of their own solutions onto other nations. For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is supposed to be working toward economic development around the world, but it does so through Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that impose western economic ideals on non-western nations and cultures, often with terrible consequences for the local culture. The Green Revolution in agriculture in the west is currently being exported around the world, and despite the good intentions of those promoting it, the result in rural India at the moment is that farmers are so indebted to the producers of GMO crops that when those crops fail they commit suicide by drinking pesticide. The United States is known for its promotion of democracy around the world through invasions, secretly toppling regimes, etc., and the current state of the Middle East is a testament to the impossibility of imposing our cultural norms on others. Slowly, we are learning that it’s okay to let people solve their own problems in their own ways – and that it is in fact much more effective, even if it does not always result in the exact solution we were hoping to see.
I believe in a Canadian federalism that is aimed at bringing our regions together and empowering them to invent their own solutions to our shared problems. I believe in a globalism that brings the world together to share knowledge and ideas with the aim of empowering each other to adapt and adopt the ideas that best fit our regional contexts and issues. As such, I don’t believe that Canada needs to wait for the US to take climate action in order to align our solutions to theirs. As much as it can be helpful to have compatible targets and solutions with our closest ally and trading partners, it is much more important that our targets be based on our responsibilities, and that our solutions be based on what works best for Canadians in whatever regions we live.
The role of the Canadian federal government, then, is to lead by example by continuing to empower our provinces to address climate change and other global issues regardless of what the US is doing.