Constitutions are in the news these days. More perhaps in Alberta than the rest of the country because of Premier Danielle Smith’s separatist manifesto the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. The Act has met harsh criticism from a range of interests, from the business community to First Nations.
Among those expressing concern is the mayor of Calgary, Jyoti Gondek. Her Honour has said she prefers to work with the federal government not fight with it, and states the Act “puts us in a terrible position, especially when you consider that we may have to break federal law to align with the province.”
Ward 11 Councillor Kourtney Penner called the Act a “childish temper tantrum designed to get attention in all the wrong ways” and in one of the more sensible observations accused it of “pushing through a narrative that seeks to undermine the premise of good government—relationship building.”
Alberta isn’t the only province where the provincial level of government is exploiting its constitutional supremacy in order to arbitrarily impose on the municipal level. The Ontario government has been showing who’s boss with the Ford government reducing the number of wards in Toronto in the middle of a civic election and handing big city mayors greater clout—some say undemocratic clout—over their councils.
One cannot help but wonder about this distribution of powers. At Confederation most people lived on farms and in villages, so provinces may have seemed like the best level of government to complement the federal. But today most Canadians live in cities and increasingly in big cities. The fact that the City of Toronto has a larger population than all four East Coast provinces combined offers an idea of the relative importance of major cities and provinces.
And then there is the cultural fact that cities have always been the centre of civilization, the home of art, science, education and politics. Perhaps the best subsidiary level of government today would be the major cities, not provinces.
Indeed the creation of provinces may have been a mistake to begin with. Whenever you divide people into groups you inevitably encourage tribalism. If no provinces existed, the oil and gas produced in Alberta would be a Canadian resource, to be enjoyed equitably, not a resource to be jealously owned by Albertans alone, encouraging mischief such as separatism and sovereignty acts.
If Canada was simply too big to govern as one unit, it could have been divided into administration units rather than provinces. The units could have a relationship to Ottawa rather like cities to provinces. If the units were recognized as subsidiary and even, if necessary, temporary, the tribalism would have been minimized. And administrative units would be more concerned with responsibilities than rights.
Were provinces a constitutional mistake? Quebec would have had to be given some degree of autonomy of course. After all, it was being pulled into a country that was part of the empire that had conquered it. It had to have some compensation. And its unique culture had to be recognized. The foundation of culture is language and Quebec alone has its own. The rest of the country was basically British—something less autonomous than provinces may have been possible.
I have posted about constitutional mistakes previously, specifically about how the vaunted U.S. constitution now threatens the nation’s democracy. One article alone achieves that dubious distinction. The Seventeenth Amendment requires equal representation in the Senate—two senators per state. In practice therefore small rural states have the same voting power as large urban states. As a result, urban people, Democrat supporters, liberals and ethnic minorities are all disadvantaged. And because misrepresentation in the Senate affects the selection of justices and the election of the president, these citizens are misrepresented in all three branches of the U.S. government.
Unfortunately errors in constitutions are very hard to fix. Constitutions are by intent difficult to change. Basic freedoms deserve permanent guarantees and minorities forever need protection from the potential of tyrannizing majorities.
But the world changes at a great pace and even laws wise for their time can see their time fade into history and their value depreciate or their intent turn inimical to the public good.
The American constitution cries out for change, ours not so much. But it deserves at least constant monitoring.
In Peter Lowry’s blog Babel-on-the-Bay a rather nicely named post “Canada is Not a Buffet” recommends “a democratically chosen body to address and recommend changes in the country’s constitution. It needs to have those changes on the ballot with our federal elections.” I’ll second that. We need at least a running conversation about keeping our constitution up to date with our technological and social change.