By Eula Mengullo, March 17 2021—
The 2021 Leitch Lecture took place on March 9 after being postponed for a year. Guest Lecturer Vassy Kapelos, host of CBC’s Power and Politics, delivered a talk on the relationship between the federacy, and the possible fundamental changes with the arrival of COVID-19.
Kapelos initially discussed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise during the 2015 election of bettering the relationship between premiers and Ottawa. This quickly fell through due to the division over climate action when Trudeau forged ahead with the carbon tax without Saskatchewan and Manitoba. According to Kapelos, this is a foreshadowing that Trudeau’s promise may not come to fruition.
The outcome of the 2019 federal election — with the absence of Liberal seats in Saskatchewan and Alberta — compelled dialogues over a national unity crisis. Some months later, with the arrival of the pandemic, this was altered when the federacy was forced to pivot and collaborate. In the beginning of the pandemic, Kapelos recalled the fundamental shift of attitude towards Ottawa for the sake of maintaining national unity during a difficult time.
Discussing the government’s response to the pandemic, Kapelos claimed that the role that the federal government played — including in areas that were normally under provincial jurisdiction — may last well beyond the pandemic.
“The federal government’s fiscal capacity to respond has increased its role or impact in the federation,” she stated. “At least eight out of every ten dollars spent on healthcare and financial support have come from the federal government. Eighty to ninety per cent of everything done in response to this pandemic has come from Ottawa,” Kapelos said. Some of the areas Ottawa had funded were public health, long-term care, rent, municipal budgets, sick leave, wage top-ups for essential workers and more. She argued that this alone changed the nature of federalism this year, though it is uncertain whether this will last.
The arrival of vaccines once again highlighted the fractures between the federacy. Concerns over supplies and its administration caused friction between Ottawa and the provinces. When asked if it is possible to have all Canadians vaccinated by September as the federal government had promised, Kapelos approached the question in two ways. First, regarding the supply and its accessibility, Kapelos expects that it should be available, although there is no guarantee that there will be no impediments as vaccines are coming from elsewhere. The other aspect has very much to do with the provinces and how quickly they are able to administer it.
Kapelos proposed three key areas to observe to figure out whether the pandemic had fundamentally changed the federacy. This includes pandemic spending, climate change policy and resource development and health care transfers.
Regarding Ottawa’s role in jurisdictions in which provinces are usually responsible, Kapelos contended that how Ottawa extricates themselves from these duties will be substantial. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not the provinces have the fiscal capacity or political will to take over these monetary responsibilities. Secondly, the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on the carbon tax — which has been the source of division between some provinces and Ottawa — will also be significant. A win for the federal government would proceed their climate plan, while a loss would provide provinces with assurances about their own jurisdiction.
Lastly, Kapelos discussed the issue of health transfer payments, which she deemed as one that unites every single premier. This has been an ongoing issue and one that has been renewed due to COVID-19. According to Kapelos, two questions that determine if this will fundamentally alter the federation concerns when and by how much the Canada Health Transfer will increase, and whether the new money provided is free of conditions.
After her speech, Kapelos also tackled some questions from the audience, one of them having to do with the strength of the federation. Kapelos mentioned that one of the challenges to the future of the federation is the sentiment that it is inoperative. She responded that the pandemic response helped to manifest the cooperation between the federacy, demonstrating that it is indeed working, albeit imperfectly.
“How would we have [dealt with the pandemic] as separate parts? How would it have worked if all of those [anti-federation] sentiments have come to fruition?” Kapelos said.
Concluding her speech, Kapelos stated that there is much more to be uncovered about the impact of the pandemic on the relationship between the federal government and the provinces.
“The provinces and the federal government have gone through the biggest crisis in a generation and it’s bound to shape their relationship over the next generation. What is yet to be determined is by how much,” she said.
The Leitch Lecture is hosted in partnership between the law schools of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. It is an annual memorial lecture series in honor of late lawyer, Merv Leitch, accompanied by a scholarship program also awarded to students annually.
The recording of this lecture is available on the U of C Faculty of Law’s YouTube channel.