Forging the Canadian Social Union: SUFA and Beyond


Edited by Sarah Fortin, Alain Noël and France St-Hilaire
November 2003

At the close of their 44th annual conference in July 2003, Canadian premiers unveiled a five-point plan "to build a new era of constructive and cooperative federalism." The premiers' ambitious proposals - which included the creation of a Council of the Federation - and their assertion that "the current dynamic of Canadian federalism is not working well enough for Canadians" may have come as a surprise to casual observers of the federal-provincial scene. After all, in the past four years the first ministers have announced a number of "landmark" agreements - starting with the Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA) in 1999 and leading to the much-touted "health accords" of 2000 and 2003 - that were meant to establish more constructive and co-operative intergovernmental relationships in social policy. In all cases, however, the reality has fallen well short of the rhetoric found in official documents.

Forging a social union is a continual challenge for a decentralized and multinational federation like Canada. According to the noted social policy and federalism experts who contribute to this volume, SUFA did not respond satisfactorily to this challenge, on a number of counts: it did not take into account Quebec's view of the federation; it did not help clarify the respective roles of each order of government in social policy; it did not produce effective rules to address the power balance in the federation; and finally, it did not engage citizens meaningfully in setting social priorities.

The agreement remains with us, but so do these unresolved issues. Whether it is in the context of the debate on fiscal imbalance, ongoing negotiations on health care financing or the introduction of new social programs, these challenges will re-emerge. Governments, experts and citizens should therefore learn from the SUFA experience, and start to consider better options for the future. This volume on Canada's social union is meant to contribute to this process.

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