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Social Policy and Intergovernmental Relations in Canada: Understanding the Failure of SUFA from a Quebec Perspective

The Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA) was signed in February 1999 by the federal government, provinces (except Quebec) and the territories to clarify the respective roles of the federal and provincial governments in the areas of health care, social services, post secondary education, social assistance and training. It grew out of a concern to limit the federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, ensure adequate, stable and sustainable funding for social programs, prevent duplication and overlap, accentuate transparency and public accountability, and manage inter-governmental disputes. Though the signatories to SUFA regarded the agreement as a breakthrough in the addressing of these concerns, Quebec felt that it worked against the spirit of federalism by enhancing the federal position in areas of provincial jurisdiction and failing to recognize Quebec’s specific national identity.

This paper seeks to examine Quebec’s viewpoint on the nature of intergovernmental relations in Canada, and in particular SUFA. The author is of the view that by putting the federal government in a dominant position against the provinces, recognizing unrestricted legitimacy of federal spending power in fields of provincial jurisdiction, and giving it an unrestricted spending power, SUFA only defined a Canada-wide perspective, with little regard for regional or cultural diversity and provincial autonomy. Quebec’s rejection of SUFA was couched in its long bitter experience with Canadian federalism, one that largely comprised denial of respect and promotion of Quebec’s identity, inflexibility and inability of the federal government and other provinces to adapt to its specific needs, and lack of respect for its areas of jurisdiction in relations between governments.

The author concludes that SUFA has neither stimulated fruitful federal-provincial collaboration in social policy nor is it indicative of a new era of cooperative federalism. The federal government has continued to introduce social policy initiatives in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction through the use of its spending power and without consultation or approval of the provinces. The provinces are unable to adopt innovative ways of re-shaping intergovernmental relations because of the costs involved, lack of a common ground, the huge financial clout of the federal government, and strong support for centralization in Canada. While the creation of the Council of the Federation could provide an institutional framework for enhanced coordination and cooperation among provinces, the same old issues still lead to the same disputes using the same rhetoric, even six years after the adoption of SUFA. The conflict between Ottawa’s desire to promote a more cohesive and uniform set of social policies across Canada in an era of globalization and Quebec’s insistence on asserting its distinctiveness hardly augur well for the future.


Joseph Facal

Open Document

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