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  • The Art of Sharing: The Richer versus the Poorer Provinces since Confederation by Mary Janigan
  • Douglas Brown
The Art of Sharing: The Richer versus the Poorer Provinces since Confederation. Mary Janigan. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020. Pp. xi + 420, $120.00 cloth, $39.95 paper

Mary Janigan's delightful study of the genesis of Canada's fiscal equalization focuses on the increasingly dysfunctional politics of the Canadian federation since the 1920s, as tensions mounted between the richer and poorer provinces and the federal government. Her account ends with the 1957 introduction of equalization, paving the way for much more extensive national social and other programs. Despite the title, the book is not about contemporary controversies in fiscal policy. Rather, it is a fine-grained account of the ideas and politics of federalism in Canada through the tumultuous mid-twentieth century, based on the impeccable research of the remarkable store of public papers now available.

The author has had a long career as a journalist, covering many national unity stories. This professional expertise shows in a strong narrative and colourful descriptions of the many players, including Prime Ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St Laurent, and such key premiers as Ontario's Mitchell Hepburn, Quebec's Maurice Duplessis, Alberta's William Aberhart, and Nova Scotia's Angus L. MacDonald. Janigan has a grounded sense of why the often-arcane ideas and details of fiscal federalism are so important to Canadian public life, social and economic prospects, and the very integrity of the federal union itself. She reminds us too of the importance of idea machines such as royal commissions (the Rowell-Sirois Commission on Dominion-Provincial [End Page 521] Relations plays a big role here) and of how long it takes, and the political circumstances that are required, to break through to a new era. The book shines as an intellectual and political history of the technical act of intergovernmental sharing in Canada.

Several important conclusions relevant to our own times emerge. The regional basis of the Canadian economy matters. In the 1920s and through the 1930s, Canada was still largely a staples economy, and international prices for regionally concentrated commodities could make or break public finance. We still see that today with oil and gas. It becomes almost impossible to sustain social citizenship and a union of social programs without a fiscal framework that evens out the rough ground of the regionalized Canadian economy. One of the more surprising, yet telling, themes in Janigan's book is how similar Canadian conditions were to those in Australia. Yet our "sister Dominion" took a very different route to federalism in the twentieth century, moving towards greater centralization, less autonomy for the states, and more uniformity in public policy. Janigan provides a compelling account of the much stronger provincial identities in Canada, even in the most fiscally challenged provinces. Quebec nationalism, in particular, doomed the centralist plans of the inner circle in Ottawa, the universities, and Canadian social policy advocates.

Above all, this book underscores the continuing relevance of the equalization compromise in 1957: it was to proceed with a relatively generous program of funding by the federal government alone, drawn from tax revenues collected by the federal government in all of Canada, made to those provinces with a below average fiscal capacity. It did not require any formal agreement by any province, and the funds would be without condition. These principles continue to be applied today, despite the misinterpretations of political leaders such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. As Janigan so nicely puts it at the end of her book, in 1957, it amounted to an "unnoticed revolution"; providing no-strings cash to the poorer provinces enabled all provinces to afford national social programs, including health care. Thus equalization sidestepped the need for the federal government to take over health care and other programs, as happened in Australia, the United States, and other federal systems. If we did not have equalization, Canada would be stuck in a debilitating struggle between centralists and provincialists, with no guarantee of success for either vision and certainly no peace.

I have one remaining caution about this remarkable book. Based...