Rivals for Power

Ottawa and the Provinces: The Contentions History of the Canadian Federation

Reviewed by Mark Collin Ried

May 23, 2018

As I write, Alberta and British Columbia are embroiled in a high-stakes jurisdictional tug-of-war with the federal government. British Columbia’s NDP government is seeking to use every tool at its disposal to stop a Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would increase the amount of Alberta oil flowing to the West Coast. Alberta, meanwhile, is threatening legislation that will turn off the fuel taps in an effort to punish its neighbour to the west. Caught in the middle is the federal government, which is trying to keep the fabric of Confederation from fraying even further.

It’s a perfect time to crack open Ed Whitcomb’s new book, Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces. The book’s subtitle is “The Contentious History of the Canadian Federation” — and, as Whitcomb adeptly illustrates, the road from 1867 to now has been bumpy indeed.

As Whitcomb notes, Ottawa and the provinces have long been at loggerheads, sharing “a history replete with battles over power and money, trends towards unity or separatism, and deals struck to make this system of government work.” Whitcomb brings a unique perspective to the topic, as he has worked both as an academic historian and as an analyst in the Canadian foreign service, and he has lived in four different regions of Canada.

While the book would be improved with images (there are none), Whitcomb’s analysis is top-notch. In a moment of prescience, he ends Rivals for Power by noting that a key challenge for provincial and federal governments today will be the need to achieve economic growth while addressing environmental concerns.

“One of the more difficult problems facing governments,” Whitcomb writes, “is the approval of pipelines that pass through other provinces on the way from Alberta to ocean ports. … Time will tell how long the current balance between Ottawa and the provinces will last, and what changes lie in the future.”

Skip social share links

Related to