Partial asymmetry and federal construction: Accommodating diversity in the Canadian constitution
In a cursory overview of asymmetrical federations, the Canadian case stands out in several respects. First, although a strong secessionist movement exists in Quebec, there has been little recourse to violence that would necessitate international mediation. Second, a recent "pact" or settlement that addresses the secessionist movement has not been in-stituted - indeed, the most recent constitutional rounds ended in 1992 with the failure of the Charlottetown Accord, and the subsequent rejection of independence in the Quebec referendum closed the case. What remains is the persistent claim that the status quo contains within it the necessary institutional mechanisms to alleviate such pressures. Indeed, the recent history of intergovernmental relations and constitutionalism in Canada is marked by a curious measure of indifference for one of the most powerful secessionist movements in the world. Third, with regard to cultural and territorial autonomy, Canada is marked by "diversity of diversities" that often undercut one another in the country's attempt to find an agreement that satisfies all of its constituent partners. Nation building in Canada has thus been characterized in part by various attempts to recognize the country's politically salient identities, often resulting in clashing visions that are metaconstitutional in nature (Cairns 1992). Finally, with regard to the place of nation building activities and attempts to consolidate national identity as the basis for citizenship and representation, Canada is caught between formal procedural markers of identification that apply uniformly across the country and a constant challenge from Quebec, which has undertaken a coherent nationbuilding strategy of its own since the "Quiet Revolution" in the 1960s. Moreover, one is struck by the extent to which asymmetry in Canada is at once as viscerally rejected as it is embraced. This has resulted in a situation where theorists and scholars have for the most part vaunted its merits and its "inevitable" foray into Canada's institutional landscape, while at the same time garnering much negative reaction from federal legislators, in part due to a large body of literature documenting its unpopular status among the general population (Seidle and Bishop 2005). As such, in Canada there exists a curious relationship with asymmetry. Its capacity to accommodate diversity has produced a seemingly unending body of thought that includes considerations about: its role in structuring relations between constituent units in the country's history as a well-acknowledged "fact" (see Milne 1991; Watts 1999); the fact that it has over time nourished debates that range from attempts to shed light on the country's actual founding principles to a novel way forward in a global world (see, for example, Kelly and Laforest 2004); its status as the most likely candidate to address Canada's persistent constitutional impasse;1 as the best way forward in addressing the policy interdependence between federal and provincial governments, particularly in terms of fiscal arrangements; as the logical consequence of deep-seated sociological differences in relation to the existence of Quebec (McRoberts 1997; Webber 1994), with a majority Francophone population, as well as in the case of Aboriginal peoples;2 and generally, as a vehicle for infusing Canadian federalism with a measure of flexibility that allows for constant adaptation to changing international and domestic circumstances. Indeed, Canada is something of a beacon for discourses on asymmetry, challenging singular understandings of political community and producing what some have called a "Canadian school" over questions of diversity, or a unique "Canadian conversation" (Kernerman 2006) that at once appeals to creative tensions about belonging and serves to keep the question of diversity alive. At the same time, asymmetrical federalism has also served as a catalyst for debates about what is "wrong" with Canadian federalism. In this sense, it is taken as symptomatic of a failure to consolidate a sense of overarching national identity in the country through nation-building efforts at the center and as a strategy of appeasement in responding to what is a perceived as an illegitimate countervailing and competing projet de société in Quebec. As a result, asymmetry in Canada is often approached indirectly, presented as a consequence of differential policy choices or administrative dealings between governments; as the outcome of intergovernmental practices and functional requirements in order to accommodate disparate needs of constituent units, and so on, rather than as a defining principle that reflects, fundamentally, the meaning and purpose of Canadian federalism. It is this narrative - one of an institutional and structuring principle that exists in the shadows, appearing now and again, eliciting tensions old and new, and strong reactions that touch upon sentiments of allegiance as well as notions of fairness - that will be recounted in this chapter. Kenneth McRoberts (2000, 25) captures this dynamic succinctly: "Canada more than ever is a multi-national state in terms of its underlying social and cultural reality. Yet, it's also more than ever a nation-state in its dominant discourse and political institutions." The disjuncture between practice and discourse is clear in Canada, and it in part nourishes the notion that asymmetrical solutions can only be partially enacted - as an outgrowth of effective governance. A further note must be considered in introducing asymmetrical federalism in Canada. Since calls for asymmetry are based on prescriptive measures for federalism, normative concerns cannot be sidestepped in contemporary debates. One must avoid proceeding with analysis by looking only at the structure of society, as this neglects the nation-building efforts undertaken over the years by both Canada and Quebec. To look only at the state, however, would be to miss out on some underlying reasons for asymmetry and the "federal spirit" - the idea that difference is one of the underlying purposes of federalism rather than a stumbling block to achieving unity. As such, this chapter will straddle these two approaches, looking at the interplay between the norm of asymmetry in Canada and actual attempts to institutionalize or accept it in fact. Asymmetry in Canada invokes existential questions related to self-identification. It should not merely be approached as a pragmatic institutional device meant to lessen conflict. Moreover, this chapter will demonstrate that the constitutional politics of difference and asymmetrical federalism as an institutional corollary is the Canadian contribution to political science that dare not speak its name. Diversity management in Canada has taken an eerily uniform bent, leaving the country with what I argue is largely a myth about its commitment to recognizing diversity, largely propagated due to its formal adherence to sociocultural diversity (multiculturalism) and personal bilingualism while shunning serious efforts at instituting formal asymmetry as the logical outcome of the recognition of national pluralism. 3 As such, asymmetry in Canada is only partly in force because it must constantly contend with a powerful nation-building project that defines the country through the equality of individuals and provinces, multicul-turalism, and bilingualism from coast to coast. Copyright
Iacovino, R. (2010). Partial asymmetry and federal construction: Accommodating diversity in the Canadian constitution. In Asymmetric Autonomy and the Settlement of Ethnic Conflicts (pp. 75–96).