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  • Ian McCormack

Role Clarity Among Orders of Government

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” in his poem The Ballad of East and West. While this could be used to describe the coast-to-coast politics of Canada, I’m going to comment on the responsibilities of different orders of government in Canada and how the truth is that East and West meet up pretty regularly, and sometimes North shows up to the party as well.


As the national master plan, the Canadian Constitution speaks broadly to who does what in terms of the types of services provided to citizens. Things like defence are clearly in the federal realm, while others like municipalities fall within the purview of the provinces and territories. This is where the sweater begins to unravel. Since municipal structures are plainly a responsibility of sub-national governments, they are slightly different from coast to coast to coast. A County in Alberta and a County in Ontario are similar in name, but they do other things. The size of a city in Saskatchewan and a city in British Columbia have different population thresholds. Mayors vote in most places, but not in all places.


This pan-national distribution of differences extends to how the different orders of government interact with each other and invokes a paternal relationship that gets provincial noses out of joint if there are direct agreements hammered out between local governments and the federal government. We’ve seen this throughout the pandemic over the last year and a half, for example. Who does what? Well, we have a federal department of health, and every province and territory also has its department of health. Local governments don’t have one, but they are often responsible for ensuring their citizens are as healthy as possible, so they have been forced to act if other orders of government choose not to.


I live in Alberta, where our provincial government has famously abdicated as much responsibility as possible even though the COVID virus doesn’t much care about jurisdictional or geographical boundaries.


I use the metaphor of a waterfall when it comes to how one order of government affects another. The water that rushes over the precipice at the top of the cataract only goes one way – down. In the same way, everything that a senior order of government chooses not to act on continues to spill down the rocks until it eventually gets to the bottom, where local government is all that’s left between the deluge and the citizen.


This downpour – or downloading – usually ends up with the local government grudgingly accepting responsibility for something without also being provided with the additional resources to deliver. We’ve seen this with cannabis legalization as an example. The federal government made that rule, but the municipalities have to spend money on revised zoning bylaws, smoking bylaws, and enforcement. Pot don’t pay.


There are many examples where one order of government has an impact – positive or negative – on local government. Programs like the Federal Gas Tax Fund or provincial requirements for council codes of ethics/conduct are but a couple of examples. Much like there is only one taxpayer, there is only one citizen. In the end, each individual and family must abide by the order or disorder created by the interaction of one order of government with the others.


What do you think? Are there examples where that metaphorical waterfall does run uphill? Please let me know. You can find me at ian@strategicsteps.ca.


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