Council of the Federation

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jul 1, 2006

The Council of the Federation is an association of Canadian provincial and territorial premiers created in 2003 to enhance inter-provincial-territorial cooperation and provide a unified front both to deal with the federal government and to address federal issues. This article introduces the Council and includes discussions on the Council's structure and procedures, its view of Canadian federalism, and its past achievements in key policy fields.

Council of the Federation Membership & Objectives

Who is on the Council & what is its purpose?

Operation of the Council of the Federation

Powers, leadership, and decision-making in the Council

Council of the Federation & Canadian Federalism

The provinces & collaborative federalism

Council of the Federation & Public Health Care

The Council’s role in the 2004 Health Care Agreement

Other Initiatives of the Council of the Federation

Fiscal imbalance, internal trade, post-secondary education & transportation

Sources & Links to Further Information

List of article sources & links for more on this topic


Council of the Federation Membership & Objectives

Who is on the Council & what is its purpose?

Council of the Federation Members

The Council of the Federation comprises the governments of the 10 Canadian provinces and the three territories. The respective premiers of each province and territory represent the member governments on the Council. In exceptional cases, a Premier may designate a Cabinet Minister as a substitute representative for a Council meeting.

The federal government is not a formal Council member and does not have regular representation at Council meetings. It is permissible, however, for members of the Council to invite the Prime Minister of Canada (or a designated Cabinet Minister) to attend a Council meeting when deemed necessary.

For a current list of Council members:

Key Objectives of the Council

The Council of the Federation’s main objectives are to:

  • Promote inter-provincial/territorial cooperation and closer ties between members of the Council;
  • Foster meaningful relations between governments based on respect for the Constitution and recognition of the diversity within the federation; and
  • Show leadership on issues important to all Canadians.

It is also important to note that members can use the Council to provide a united front for the provincial and territorial governments in their dealings with the federal government on important political issues, such as health care, fiscal relationships, and others.

For more information on how the Council operates:


Operation of the Council of the Federation

Powers, leadership, and decision-making in the Council

Forum for Discussion & Debate

In comparison to other governmental organizations in the world, the Council of the Federation is more like the Commonwealth or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), than the European Union or even the United Nations. The Council has no powers or jurisdictions of its own and its decisions are not legally binding on member governments. Individual provinces and territories retain complete legal sovereignty in the exercise of their Constitutional authorities.

The Council, instead, is simply a political forum where members can share and exchange viewpoints and best practices, as well as coordinate their approaches to federal-provincial/territorial relations. In this respect, the Council has several important mandates: a) develop a common vision of how intergovernmental relations should be conducted, and b) address any common issues that require provincial and territorial dialogue and cooperation.

Council Leadership & Decision-Making

The Council does not have an independent or permanent head. Instead, the Premiers take turns chairing the Council, with the term of office being one year. The Chair does not have any formal powers, and is meant only to facilitate Council meetings, and act on the behalf of the Council according to the mandates it approves.

With respect to decision-making, each member province and territory is recognized as being equal, regardless of differences in population and wealth. Council policies and initiatives, moreover, are reached through a process of consensus decision-making. This means that Council decisions cannot be adopted unilaterally by the Council Chair, or even through a majority vote of members. Instead, all members must endorse a particular decision for it to be formally adopted. This requires a high level of negotiation and compromise in order to bring all members on side, and often results in the Council being unable to take a position on highly contentious or divisive issues.

Funding for the Council

Finally, the Council does not have any independent sources of funding or any powers to raise its own revenue. Instead, Council members voluntarily contribute financially to Council activities and its administrative budget. Provincial and territorial contributions are based on population levels, with the more populous provinces (such as Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta) contributing more than their smaller counterparts.

For more information on how the Council operates:


Council of the Federation & Canadian Federalism

The provinces & collaborative federalism

In the preamble of the Council of the Federation’s founding document, the provincial and territorial governments state the need to “institute a new era of intergovernmental collaboration by promoting a constructive dialogue between the partners of the federation.” This statement endorses a particular vision of Canadian federalism and intergovernmental relations, often referred to as collaborative federalism.

For the full text of the Council’s founding document:

What is Collaborative Federalism?

Collaborative federalism is grounded in the idea that the federal government and the provinces and territories should work together in developing and implementing regional and national public policies and programs. This approach to federalism further advocates a collaborative type of interaction, with each level of government acting as an equal partner in relation to the other. Accordingly, no level of government (be it federal or provincial) is to be considered “more important” or “superior” to any other in the development and implementation of policies and programs.

Collaborative versus Classical & Cooperative Federalism

Collaborative federalism differs from other approaches to federalism, in particular, classical or cooperative federalism. Classical federalism (also referred to as watertight federalism) supports clear and exclusive divisions among the different levels of government, with each concentrating only on its own particular jurisdictions and having few interactions. This contrasts sharply to collaborative federalism’s ideal of high levels of interaction between governments across jurisdictions.

Cooperative federalism, on the other hand, is similar to collaborative federalism in that it advocates the different levels of government working together across jurisdictions. It differs, however, on the nature of that interaction. Whereas collaborative federalism supports each level of government acting as an equal partner, cooperative federalism envisions a leadership role for the federal government in relation to the provinces and territories – both in terms of setting national priorities and providing financial support.

The Council & Collaborative Federalism

The collaborative approach to federalism is evident not only in the preamble of the Council’s founding document, but also in the Council’s organization and formal objectives. The Council is structured to act as a forum through which the provinces and territories can identify common needs and interests and work together across jurisdictions to accomplish these shared goals. Moreover, each member is respected as an equal partner, in the sense that policies and initiatives must be adopted through a process of consensus decision-making. Finally, the Council is meant to promote an equal relationship between and among the different levels of government by facilitating collective action on the part of the provinces and territories in their relations with Ottawa.


Council of the Federation & Public Health Care

The Council’s role in the 2004 Health Care Agreement

One of the first tests facing the Council of the Federation, following its creation in 2003, was a conflict with the federal government over the future direction of public health care. This conflict was important not only because it involved a central issue in Canadian politics, but because it showcased the Council’s collaborative vision of Canadian federalism and the ability of the provinces and territories to act as a collective group (through the Council) in their dealings with the federal government.

Background on Health Care Conflict

While health care falls, constitutionally, under provincial jurisdiction, Canada’s public health care system has always involved a high level of federal participation. Generally speaking, the provinces/territories are responsible for administering the system (operating facilities, managing employees, and overseeing provincial health care insurance plans), while the federal government contributes financially to support the system. In some cases, the federal government has attached important conditions on the provinces in order for them to receive federal contributions. A good example would be the stipulations found in the Canada Health Act, which is federal legislation governing the health care system.

For more information on health care and federalism:

In the 1990s, the provincial/territorial governments began to face severe challenges relating to health care, most notably rising costs juxtaposed against significant reductions in federal financial transfers to pay for public health care. This financial tension resulted in deep conflict between the provinces/territories and the federal government over federal funding and federal participation in health care policy overall, as well as a greater debate about the future of public health care in Canada. This debate is still ongoing.

Council’s 2004 Health Care Reform Proposals

In the spring of 2004, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin committed the federal government to reforming Canada’s public health care system and negotiating a new deal with the provinces and territories. The federal plan at the time involved several major policy goals:

  • Reducing hospital waiting times for patients;
  • Improving patient access to doctors and nurses;
  • Implementing a new drug program for persons facing high and ongoing drug costs; and
  • Taking measures to ensure that the provinces do not contravene the requirements of the Canada Health Act.

In the summer of 2004, members of the Council of the Federation met to coordinate their response to this federal plan; the Council subsequently released its own set of health care reform proposals. While supporting federal government positions around issues such as reducing waiting times and maintaining the five principles of the federal Canada Health Act, the Council offered its own ideas in other areas, including:

  • Implementing a universal public drug program to cover all drug costs for all Canadians (the federal plan would only cover those with high and ongoing drug costs);
  • Drastic increases in federal transfers in support of health care costs (including calls for a federal commitment to pay 25 percent of the costs expended by the provincial and territorial governments on health care); and
  • Develop a collaborative approach between the federal government and Council members in order to give provinces and territories the flexibility to deliver the health care services that best meet their respective needs and priorities.

 For the full text of the Council’s 2004 health care proposals:

2004 Health Care Final Agreement

In the fall of 2004, the federal government struck a long-term agreement with the provincial and territorial governments on public health care. Highlights of the deal include:

  • A federal commitment to increase health care funding to the provinces and territories by $18 billion over six years;
  • An agreement by all parties to develop a national drug program to ensure that Canadians do not suffer financial hardship in obtaining necessary prescription drugs;
  • A federal commitment to provide $700 million for Aboriginal health care;
  • A provincial commitment (excluding Quebec) to establish common criteria for measuring waiting times and to achieve those targets by 2007; and
  • A provincial agreement (excluding Quebec) in principle to allows the federal government to continue to penalize provinces and territories that violate any of the Act’s five principles, with an independent third-party panel for assessing and arbitrating alleged infractions.

Collaborative Nature of the Final Agreement

 It is important to underscore the collaborative nature of the final agreement that was reached. On the one hand, the provinces and territories acknowledged the role played by the federal government in health care, an area under provincial constitutional jurisdiction. This included the financial role played by the federal government, as well as the ability of Ottawa to place conditions, through the Canada Health Act, regarding how the provinces/territories spent that money.

Other parts of the agreement, however, ensured that the federal government could not dominate the future of health care reform, and that the provinces/territories were to be treated as equal partners. For example, responsibility for establishing national criteria for measuring waiting times was given to the provinces and territories collectively. Individual provinces and territories, moreover, were allowed to develop their own strategies and plans for meeting those criteria. Finally, an independent third-party panel was formally recognized to moderate federal control over the enforcement of the Canada Health Act.


Other Initiatives of the Council of the Federation

Fiscal imbalance, internal trade, post-secondary education & transportation

In addition to health care (see previous section), the Council of the Federation has been active in a range of other key public policy fields.

Federal-Provincial/Territorial Fiscal Relationship

One of the key issues the Council has focused upon is the fiscal relationship between the federal government and the provinces and territories. The Council has taken the position that there is a fiscal imbalance between the different levels of government in favour of the Government of Canada. In order to correct this imbalance, the Council has advocated giving the provinces and territories greater revenue sources, shifting some spending responsibilities to the federal government, and addressing fiscal disparities that exist between the provinces and territories.

For more on the Fiscal Imbalance debate::

Post-Secondary Education & Skills Training

Council members have also focused on post-secondary education and skills training. At the 2005 summer meeting of the Council, members agreed that post-secondary education and skills training were an economic imperative, as well as fundamental to creating social opportunity and fostering democratic citizenship. Provincial and territorial premiers further agreed to work together to develop a sustainable and long-term strategy for post-secondary education. To this end, the Council convened a summit in 2006 which included provincial and territorial leaders, students, colleges, universities, business, and labour, with the goal of discussing key issues and challenges in post-secondary education and skills training.

For more the Council’s initiatives in post-secondary education and skills training:

Inter-Provincial/Territorial Trade

Another key focus has been improving inter-provincial/territorial trade and commerce. In 1994, prior to the creation of the Council, the federal government and provinces/territories signed the Agreement on Internal Trade, which aimed to reduce trade barriers to the movement of persons, goods, services, and investments between the provinces and territories. Since the Council was formed in 2003, members have been working actively to further reduce barriers to internal trade, particularly within the areas of energy, labour markets, and government procurement.

For more information on Canadian internal trade and Council initiatives:

National Transportation Strategy

The Council has also worked to develop a national transportation strategy. The Council’s strategy has been framed by the recognition that Canada’s transportation infrastructure is vitally important to international economic competitiveness and to ensuring a better standard of living for all Canadians. The Council has called upon the federal government to work concertedly on investing in transportation infrastructure across the country.

For more information on Council proposals and initiatives in national transportation:

Literacy & Youth Development

The Council has also implemented key initiatives to promote literacy across Canada, as well as to encourage youth participation in the political process. Central to these initiatives are the Council of the Federation Literacy Awards, which recognize outstanding achievement and innovative practices in literacy; as well as the Council of the Federation Youth Internship Program, which provides youth with hands on experience in inter-governmental relations.

For more information on these initiatives:


Sources & Links to Further Information

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