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March 4, 2022

New law course provides understanding in how we disagree, compromise, and learn together

Canadian federalism course offers opportunities to explore current issues

Events of the past two and a half years have brought great focus to the powers of our federal, provincial and municipal governments across Canada. Before the global pandemic, disagreements between the different levels of governments would arise but could typically be resolved relatively effectively.

This division of power, known as federalism, is the topic of a new course offered by the Faculty of Law, created by Dr. Fenner Stewart, PhD. The study of federalism reveals the divisions and separations of public power within a single territory.  

In Canada, the Constitution Act, 1867 provides for a dual sovereignty between two levels of government: a national government and subnational provincial governments. The Constitution Act, 1982 provides opportunities for a richer sense of sovereignty than what preceded it, creating opportunities to acknowledge the multinationalism that exists within Canadian borders.  

Professor Fenner Stewart

Fenner Stewart

Canada is a highly diverse society with contested origins. Stewart argues, “This contestedness is one of our Constitution’s strengths. Unlike the United States, our narrative is not one of a founding moment forged from bloody rebellion. In the U.S., the loyalty which this origin story inspires has resulted in great fidelity to its founders’ original intent. Contestation over Canada’s origin story provides all Canadians with hope that our future society will be an inclusive one — a society in which each citizen can be seen and respected as she/he/they would like to be.” 

But he adds, “Actualizing this hope has been, and will continue to be, the difficult and messy work of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Understanding the history of Canadian federalism from multiple vantage points reveals how we as Canadians disagree, compromise, and learn together, and how we are likely to do so in the future."

According to third-year student Amelia Harman, federalism is a dynamic and complex system of government that is influenced by changing societal values.   

"The course has been a great opportunity to learn more about the current issues in Canadian federalism and to critically explore the factors that drive constitutional change," she says.  

Learning how to flourish together

Using a series of transdisciplinary readings, students explore Canada's blueprint for formal governance and power-sharing, gaining an appreciation for why Canadian institutions work as they do, and how they must change to cope with the needs of a diverse, pluralistic society.  

"Our public sphere is polarized and divided," explains Stewart. "It's becoming more difficult for Canadians to articulate public reason and public interest. It has never been more important for all Canadians to learn how to flourish together. Students in Canadian Federalism will not only acquire tools that will make them better lawyers, but also tools that will make them better citizens, who can help resuscitate the public sphere."  

Laura Glover, also a third-year student, agrees.   

This course not only expands my constitutional knowledge as a law student and future lawyer but also makes me a more informed Canadian citizen.

"I hope that this course helps our students develop expertise, which can help shepherd Canada to a better future," says Stewart.