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Asymmetrical Federalism

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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > A > Asymmetrical Federalism

Asymmetrical Federalism

Federal government systems in which the division of powers are not the same from province to province or state to state

(Andrew Nurse, Canadian Studies Weblog.


In the Canadian context, this term is sometimes used in reference to the federal government's relationship with Quebec, and the recognition of its unique position within confederation.

Whether referred to as French-English duality, the two nations model or more general references to the unique linguistic and cultural character of Quebec, the asymmetrical character of Canadian federalism has long been recognized, certainly by most scholars if not by citizens outside Quebec. While analysts such as Milne have pointed out that all provinces differ in terms of population and economic wellbeing, and cultural, legal or political characteristics that make all of them unique, the term asymmetry is generally thought to apply to Quebec's position in Confederation. The issue of making explicit reference to Quebec’s unique position in the constitution was a major preoccupation during debates surrounding both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Furthermore, it was in the Charlottetown Accord that a provision was made to freeze Quebec’s proportion of seats in the House of Commons at 25 percent, regardless of future declines in Quebec's population, as a way of giving special protection to Quebec's position in that body.

Subsequent to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord, no efforts have been made to revive discussion on the constitution, let alone specific provisions for recognizing Quebec’s unique position. Nonetheless, Quebec's asymmetry has continued to evolve, and has done so in a manner that suggests the gap between de facto and de jure asymmetry continues or has likely widened (Gagnon & Gagnon). That is, on a de facto basis, Quebec continues to assert its unique identity, which is in turn reflected in a variety of political arrangements though not in formal constitutional terms. Equally important, both Ottawa and the other provinces have tacitly and to a degree actively accepted this state of affairs. The Health care Accord of September 2004, with an explicit codicil endorsing asymmetry, is just one embodiment of this trend.


Baier,G., H. Bakvis and D. Brown. 2005. “Executive Federalism, the Democratic Deficit and Parliamentary Reform”, pp. 163-182, in B. Doern, ed. How Ottawa Spends 2005-2006: Managing the Minority. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.



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