The urgency of embracing multinational federalism in uncertain times

The urgency of embracing multinational federalism in uncertain times

Friday, May 22, 2015


Alain-G. Gagnon, MSRC, 2010 Trudeau fellow, and Canada Research Chair in Quebec and Canadian Studies at UQAM.

On June 4, 2015, Trudeau fellow Jean Leclair will give a Big Thinking lecture—“Imagining Canada in a disenchanted world”—in which he will reflect on one way that federalism might reframe our relationships with Canada’s Indigenous peoples (read more in this blog post by Jean Leclair). Might there be other ways in which federalism can help us conceptualize relationships with minority peoples?

Ours is an era where identity-related demands have multiplied in contexts of national pluralism. Although legitimate, these demands are taking a back seat to such priorities as globalization, state debt, pandemics, the fight against terrorism, and energy security. This is not inevitable. Rather, I consider it essential for today’s pluralistic societies that majority nations as well as minority ones embrace a pluralistic and inclusive approach to questions of identity. It is from this viewpoint that I have identified three ethical principles attached to pluralism that I believe can help shape our conception of law and sovereignty in pluralist contexts, such as the context of Indigenous relations in Canada.

To begin with, it is essential to continue to seek to balance First Nations’ demands for recognition with the demands of the rest of the population, without ever losing sight of the unequal balance of power. It is equally essential to develop a society that is fair, authentic, and respectful of human dignity, so that both individuals and minority nations can reach their full potential. Finally, it is vital that majority and minority nations alike ground their practices in an ethic of hospitality. When host communities practice these three principles in the context of multinational federalism, they open the door to rebuilding a sense of community, tempering the predominance of majority languages, staunching the impoverishment of experiences of citizenship, and stemming the erosion of minorities’ political power. Practicing these principles also allows host communities to play a proactive role : that of extending a benevolent welcome to ever-growing immigrant populations. This is what gives federalism—whether in Canada or abroad—a truly multinational character.

To be successful, therefore, a federal approach must advance these three ethical considerations: the quest for balance, the promotion of human dignity, and the practice of hospitality. Federalism will demonstrate its full value to the extent that it will be assuring recognition of peoples and historical continuity. When the federal spirit is negotiated and not imposed, this worth benefits majority and minority nations alike.

A pioneer in the studies on multinational federalism, Alain-G. Gagnon is a full professor in the Department of political science at Université du Québec à Montréal, where he is leading the Research Group on Plurinational Societies. He is the author of Minority Nations in the Age of Uncertainty (UTP, 2014).