- The Rowell-Sirois Commission and the Remaking of Canadian Federalism by Robert Wardhaugh and Barry Ferguson
The Rowell-Sirois Commission criss-crossed Depression-era Canada in the late 1930s to investigate the condition of the nation's seventy-year-old federation. While despairing unemployed men and women still huddled on the streets, it seemed clear that the constitutional division of revenues and responsibilities no longer worked for governments or their citizens. In their quest for remedies, the commissioners became semi-famous public figures, revered and sometimes reviled in provincial capitals, the recipients of polished briefs and wrenching pleas. Their calamities, including the loss of their chairman Newton [End Page 337] Rowell, riveted the nation. But their three-volume report, along with its copious research studies, debuted in May 1940 as the Nazi blitzkrieg crunched through north-western Europe. That chilling news eclipsed the report. A dominionprovincial conference on its proposals in January 1941 dissolved in acrimony, to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's quiet relief. The commission was largely forgotten.
Until now – in this superb analysis, historians Robert Wardhaugh and Barry Ferguson argue persuasively that the report was immensely significant. Despite its initial rejection, it "recast ideas about the foundations of the federal system and the nature of government in ways that would be at the core of public life for the next forty years" (10). The commission's success did not depend on the report's immediate impact or on the implementation of its recommendations. Instead, it altered how politicians and officials responded to a nation on the cusp of searing economic and social change.
Ottawa appointed the commission, formally known as the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, in 1937 when the fiscal inequalities among the poorer and the wealthier provinces were stark. Some poorer provinces such as Manitoba were on the brink of default. Wealthier provinces such as British Columbia resented Ottawa's minimal aid for their poorer kin. All governments were scrambling to handle increasing responsibilities in desperate times with inadequate revenues. As senior civil servant Oscar D. Skelton told King, "the disintegration of Canada is proceeding fast" (65).
Wardhaugh and Ferguson emphasize the commission's remarkably original approach to its analysis of the federation's plight. The commissioners and their staff hired cutting-edge social scientists – "the first flowering of Canadian social science" – who reinterpreted "economic and political history" to provide eye-opening analyses and daring prescriptions (208). With those analyses of economic history and political economy, the commission declared that the decades of national policy and an integrated east-west economy had ended by the 1920s: "The era of national growth based on western settlement, tariff protection, and east-west transportation links" (302) had slipped away before Canadians grasped how much had changed. The highly regionalized Canadian economy with its divergent conditions now required advanced approaches to monetary, trade, and fiscal policy.
The report's prescriptions were sweeping, but they largely avoided the call for formal constitutional change. Instead, governments should engage in voluntary agreements, delegating or jointly administering functions. The role of the state in economic and social life was now essential. The provinces should retain their basic responsibility for social welfare, with the exception of unemployment insurance. They should also retain their revenues from resources, gasoline taxes, and licences and fees. But to remedy the central problem of fiscal inequity, Ottawa should take over net provincial debt-servicing charges and become the exclusive collector of succession duties and personal and corporate income taxes. It should also institute a system of unconditional national adjustment grants, which would allow poorer provinces to meet average national standards for social services without exorbitant levels of taxation. On paper, it [End Page 338] was a design for an ideal federation without the messy realities of politics. But the idea of such radical reforms, whether done constitutionally or informally, especially in wartime, was understandably divisive.
This is a well-told tale. The authors chronicle the background to the commission, the hearings and research reports, the travails of writing...