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How the Prismatic Form of Canadian Federalism
Both Unites and Divides Canada

Daniel J. Elazar


This paper is frankly experimental, an initial cut at developing one part of a model to be used to map the political cultures of the peoples and polities of the world. This project, mapping the world political cultures,is being undertaken by this writer with Professor Terry N. Clark of the University of Chicago. It is a continuation and broadening of this writer's work on political culture begun initially with an exploration of the political culture and subcultures of the United States.1 Subsequently that work extended to studies of the political culture of Israel.2 Additional work on the political cultures of South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, among others, led to an initial effort on my part to model and identify the political cultures of federal polities of the world in Federal Systems of the World.3

While undertaking these direct studies of political culture I was also exploring the ideational and cultural roots of federalism which I found began with the Bible. In attempting to understand biblical thought and its ideas, I came to appreciate the difference between the systematic approach of Greek philosophy and the more prismatic understanding which the Bible brings to bear on human affairs. In my book Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel I made an initial effort at comparing and contrasting the systematic and prismatic approaches.4 The results seemed to serve me well in my analysis of these two approaches to understanding political behavior in ancient times.

Subsequently, reflecting on the contemporary world, this contrast seemed to have considerable utility under certain circumstances for understanding contemporary polities and politics. In this paper I am making a first effort to apply it to two contemporary cases, the United States and Canada, to try to understand the ideational and cultural forces which propel them in the directions they are propelled in response to the objective circumstances which they confront. I present it as an experimental effort which to me seems to have considerable utility but is still in its earliest phases of development and testing.

Systematic and Prismatic Understanding

Systematic thought, whose most sophisticated embodiment is systematic philosophy, is primarily deductive in structure, beginning with great principles and moving in linear fashion to identify and elucidate subsidiary and subordinate ones. Thought, however, can also be prismatic, that is to say, reflective of a well-nigh infinite variety of perspectives of the same core of truth which is simultaneously solid and shifting. The Bible, indeed, is the archetypical and ultimate prismatic work, occasionally paralleled and imitated but never matched. Jewish tradition recognizes this as in the Midrashic statement that "the Torah has seventy faces." Prismatic thought is, perforce, multidimensional at all times, achieving multidimensionality through repeated description of the same issues from different perspectives (a technique Lawrence Durrell was to adopt in his fiction).5 By contrast, systematic thought achieves multidimensionality through an elaborate and more abstract architecture.

Prismatic thought has the distinct advantage of reflecting the complexity of reality. In physics, for example, it is prismatic thinking to understand light as composed of both waves and particles simultaneously. The apparent repetition of events in the Bible (whatever the history of the original sources) is another reflection of prismatic thinking, with each account offering us a different perspective on the same incident and, hence, a different lesson to be learned from it. Given the extra complexity of human reality, there is much to be said for such an approach. The world, indeed, is far more prismatic than systematic. While this should not prevent us from seeking systematic understanding of it, such understanding can only be achieved when we begin with its prismatic character.

It is no exaggeration to say that the contrast between the statist and the federalist approaches to political life reflects the difference between the systematic and prismatic approaches to understanding civil society. The systematic approach seeks to define everything comprehensively, to set boundaries. The prismatic approach, recognizing how all of the universe is interconnected, seeks, rather, to establish separate cores and to understand how each core has to be perceived and responded to differently from different perspectives. Boundaries need not be so clear. Interaction is more important than definition; hence, the emphasis on multiple polities related to one another, united yet separate, a logical contradiction from the perspective of systematic philosophy, but a clear reality from the perspective of prismatic thought.

The U.S. Systematic

Applied to political behavior, to some extent all political behavior can be seen from both perspectives, but it is also possible to see some polities and their politics as founded more on one and some on the other.

Take the cases of the United States and Canada. Efforts to compare and contrast those two countries are endemic and properly so because the two neighbors are so alike in so many ways relative to other countries and yet so different in so many other critical ones. I would suggest that the application of a systematic-prismatic model is helpful in explaining the differences.

Among modern polities the United States is one of the most rooted in systematic understandings. The very form of its founding is almost the epitome of a philosophically systematic founding, dominated by acts of will as laid out and presented through foundational documents and executed in territories that were either formally bounded or intended to be formally bounded from the first.

All of this culminated with the American revolutionary and constitutional periods when a new polity within fixed boundaries, and divided into states and localities with fixed boundaries, developed a set of foundational documents by force of will that, while wisely taking into consideration the political realities confronted by the new nation, bent those political realities into a comprehensive system of government -- as The Federalist put it, "through reflection and choice" rather than "force" or "accident"; that is to say, in the most systematic fashion possible.6

Behind those acts was a very systematic view of what the new country and its polity should be like. True, there were debates over the precise character of that systematic view, but all except the most extreme deviants who placed themselves out of the political game as a result of their deviance, shared the same basic systematic understanding and differed on what an outsider would have to consider matters of nuance and emphasis rather than on fundamental principles. Thus, Thomas Jefferson and his committee could write the Declaration of Independence which gained immediate assent on the part of the new American public (those who did not assent to it either withdrew from public life or left the country by the thousands to settle in what became Canada's Maritime provinces and Ontario).

The Articles of Confederation and the federal Constitution of 1787 continued that pattern. The ease with which the latter came to be not only accepted but hallowed even on the part of those who opposed its adoption reflect the way in which a common pattern of systematic thought was in operation for all the parties to the game. The other founding documents of the period reflect the same shared systematic view.7

Not only that, but this shared systematic perspective and understanding continued through the Civil War. What is striking about the debate over union or secession was that both sides shared very similar premises. Both began by arguing that their views should prevail over the whole Union, not that there should be recognition of a diversity of views per se, at least not constitutionally. The South only turned to secession when its leaders felt they no longer had the possibility of extending their systematic understanding countrywide.

Yet, aside from the issue of slavery, the differences between the Northern and Southern positions never became as great intellectually as they became in the reality of civil conflict, since both sides shared the same fundamentals of systematic understanding. Hence, after the Civil War the reconciliation could be relatively easy without irredentism or continued sectional strife outside of the normal party political realm. Both North and South agreed that the states had to be restored as states and the people of both regions both recognized their fundamental loyalty to the United States as a whole.8

I would argue that this consensus has continued to the present time, even though the shape of the understanding has been altered from time to time. Even recognition of the possibility of seeing the United States in a prismatic way is quite new, although it was tentatively suggested in the cultural pluralism vs. melting pot debate of the early twentieth century. In theory and certainly in practice, the melting pot won out with certain modifications. Only since the 1960s and the new discussion of multiculturalism has a serious prismatic model for understanding the United States been advanced and the issue with regard to it is still very much in doubt.9

The Canadian Prismatic

Contrast this American systematic model with Canadian self-understanding of the Canadian polity. Canada was founded by several very different peoples, at first principally the French, then the peoples of the British Isles, particularly English, Scots, and Welsh. The country was only unified as a result of a series of wars and conquests whereby the British empire conquered French Canada and imposed its rule on the habitantes. Although the British peoples had founded provinces in the Maritimes, it was not until the American Revolution that Tories fleeing the United States, who saw themselves first and foremost as English, founded what is now Ontario.

Thus, Canada was born out of at least three different perspectives of what it was: One, the English Canadian perspective which saw Canada as a loyal Anglican outpost of the British empire faced with rebels and secessionists to the south and a conquered alien population in Quebec. The second, a French Canadian understanding of themselves as a conquered Catholic people who had to find ways to survive by entering into a limited compact with their English overlords to maintain as much free space for themselves as possible. Third, there was the perspective of the Scottish farmers and English fisherman of the Maritimes, many from the dissenting Protestant churches, who were simply looking for a better livelihood in the New World and wanted to be left to themselves as much as possible.

The end result was that Canada has no common systematic construct at its foundations but rather three different understandings of what it was and is to be, each a view of the whole through a different prism. The English Canadians see Canada as an extension of the British empire with some new opportunities but most of the old hierarchical, Anglican, and Tory elements remaining in place. The French Canadians see Canada as at best a compact between two equal and very different peoples that would enable them to preserve their lives, religions, cultures, and heritages as each saw fit; and the other British peoples who saw Canada as a protection that enabled them to be left alone. The history of Canadian nation-building and constitutionalism is the history of bringing these three perspectives together (and those added later) into a workable whole. It is not the history of the development of a common vision to be pursued by all. Not only that, but it never gave birth to such a common vision, at least not one that could weaken or replace the basic differences of culture, language, and heritage that lay at the root of each of the prisms of this prismatic polity. Consequently, it should not be surprising that from time to time the very existence of the polity is challenged by one or another group looking through its prism and seeing whatever it sees, accurately or with some distortion.

That was the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century as peoples from other countries, first European and then Asian and Caribbean as well, began to settle in Canada in numbers, Canada responded prismatically, making the idea of multiculturalism, i.e., the endorsement of the multiplicity of prisms, the keystone of its policy of nation-building. In essence, the old Canadians said to the new Canadians, "We have our prisms which we enshrined in the founding of Canada. Now we invite you to add yours and we will help you do so through legislation, funding, and a sympathetic attitude."

Whether or not Canadian multiculturalism has worked as it was originally expected to is a matter that is open to debate, but what it certainly has done is reenforced the idea of Canada as a prismatic society rather than one seeking a single systematic structure for itself. What makes all of this prismatic is that it is not only that different ethnocultural groups or ethnoreligious groups look through their own prisms but some look through territorial prisms and some through very nonterritorial ones, a matter that has been exacerbated by the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights which makes it possible for groups with neither territorial nor ethnoreligious foundations to find their own prisms and to make the rest of the country take them into consideration, groups such as women, homosexuals, and aboriginal peoples. Even before that, Canadian prismatics in the West evolved more around economic issues of control over resources than efforts at cultural self-definition, even though many of those who were in the forefront of the struggle over control over resources had their origins in the American migration to Alberta of nearly a century ago as the American land frontier came to an end and the Canadian West became its natural extension.

I do not want to suggest that Canada is necessarily more fragmented in every respect than the United States, only what holds it together is less overtly compelling than the idea of the American way of life or the American dream in the United States. For Canadians, what holds them together is the sense that each population can better maintain their particular perspective from within prismatic Canada than they would be able to outside of it. It is when that sense is threatened that secessionist voices are heard.

The Canadian Prismatic: A Closer Look

The contemporary Canadian polity began as what might be referred to as "the ironic confederation." Sir John A. Macdonald, its leading founder, who probably would have preferred a unitary state had one been possible, did not like the term "federation" because the United States was a federation and in the 1860s was engaged in a great civil war. Sir John feared that if Canada were identified as a federation, it would feed similar fissiperous tendencies, so he chose to call Canada a "confederation."

In doing so he applied the terms in exact reverse of what conventional usage had come to be. Federations were more tightly linked entities where a common national government shared power with subnational constituent or federated units, while in a confederation the essentially independent constituent polities surrendered some limited share of their powers to a general government that only could exercise those powers through the constituent units.

Sir John sought to turn that pattern around. Hence, the British North America Act has no reserved power for the provinces but rather reserves all powers not granted to them to the federal government. The provinces are not directly represented in the Senate, which reflects the country's regional groupings but whose members are appointed by the federal parliament rather than being representative of any province. The French Canadians went along with this design, not happily but because they viewed it as the best that they could get. While Macdonald enunciated a consolidationist, centralist, hierarchical theory, the French Canadians defined the BNAA as the result of a compact between the two founding peoples, French and British, and understood this founding compact to give each of those peoples antecedent rights and powers.

The times being what they were, in the 1880s the British Privy Council in London, then Canada's constitutional court of last resort, issued a number of decisions essentially agreeing with the French Canadian compact theory interpretation, extending provincial powers and writing it into Canadian constitutional law. This remained the tenor of constitutional decision-making for Canada through World War I. While in the period from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s these decisions were modified by a cooperative federalist approach which increased the ability of the federal government to actively involve itself in what had been declared to be provincial affairs, the basic understanding of the confederation introduced in the 1880s was not substantially altered, and even was strengthened because the political and social realities of the prismatic society continued to be operative.

After 1960 the resurgence of Quebec meant that new ways of writing in and strengthening this constitutional understanding became the order of the day, despite the resistence of Pierre Trudeau and his government. While lack of a clear nationwide consensus prevented the complete rebuilding of the Canadian prismatic view formally on the basis of Quebec as a distinctive society, it is generally recognized by all that Quebec is and needs to be favored constitutionally and politically in a manner that becomes a distinctive society. This opened the door to a strengthening of provincial powers all up and down the line, thereby accommodating other prisms, which in turn led to the question of the patriation of the Canadian constitution and the replacement of the BNA Act with the new patriated constitution and Charter of Rights in 1982, which opened the door to additional prisms.

Thus, while U.S. constitutional history can be portrayed, albeit oversimplistically, as a series of swings between greater nationalization and greater localization, in Canada, while those swings may have occurred on the ground, Canadian political and constitutional doctrine did not so much swing between those poles but rather redefined its prismatic perspective from time to time. Canada today really is a confederation in the classic definition of the term, giving Sir John a linguistic victory but displacing his hopes almost totally.

Examine the perspectives of the two founding nations of Canada. In general, one might say that the British perspective was imperial, Tory, Anglican, aristocratic, and organic; that is to say, the British empire commanded the loyalty of the British in Canada. They were overwhelmingly High Church and Tory in their political orientations. They believed in an aristocratic system with leading families at the top of the hierarchy and fairly clear class lines (or at least as clear as possible in frontier Canada), this in a society which they viewed as organic; that is to say, where everyone was to know his or her place.

Central to the French perspective was that they were a conquered people controlled by an alien, even an enemy, conqueror of a different and heretical religion. Their major goal was survival. Furthermore, because the French who settled Canada were mostly from the peripheral areas of France -- Brittany and Normandy in particular -- and as is usual in such cases not from the highest classes, they had come to Canada with a sense of being peripheral and thus, as they came to dominate their own colony, the conquest was even more problematic for them. As Canadiens they saw themselves as part of a bilateral compact with the Anglophones, not as the citizens of one province among many others.

The question may be asked: What about the Celts? Neither then nor now is there such a thing as the British people. Britain is a union of several peoples, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and one might include Manx, Cornish, and others who are small minorities who may not have as clear a national identity. Certainly, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish could have been expected to have had a very clear separate identity when they settled Canada. It may be said that this was true of the Scottish in the Maritimes. Elsewhere, however, the Scottish seem to have joined with the Welsh and the English dissenters to define themselves more in religious than in national perspective, or through a religious more than a national prism, perhaps because of the existence of the strong Francophone population which led the various British nationalities to band together as a single Anglophone group with internal subdivisions. Thus it may be said that Scottish symbols and rituals came to be the most prominent in the life of the Anglophone Canadians, even if the Scottish limited their separate self-assertion. Religiously, the non-Anglicans of the several British nationalities gathered together to form the United Church.

The Catholic Irish were left out of both the British and French groups. As Catholics they could have identified with the Quebecois but most were prevented from doing so because of language and culture. As English-speakers they could have been expected to identify with the British, but neither their religion nor their own national aspirations allowed them to be. As a result, Celtic strength was diluted. While each of the Celtic groups had its own prism on Canadian society from its own perspective, none became founding nations, although the Scottish came close.

The aboriginal peoples were, of course, excluded at the beginning. In the United States they were formally recognized as independent sovereign nations, although in practice that only meant that it was easier to justify fighting against them. In the last analysis, it has created a situation whereby today in the United States tribal sovereignty is rapidly becoming a third sovereignty along with federal and state.

The British approach was very different. The aboriginal peoples were considered automatically to be the subjects and wards of the British monarch and had no independent standing other than what the monarch or the British government wanted to extend to them. Thus while for many reasons the struggle between Europeans and Indians was less violent in Canada, the repression of the native peoples was no less great. However, the vast expanses of Canada meant that the native peoples had more room within which to preserve their respective cultural integrities. In the last generation these have come to the fore, aided and abetted by the changed attitude towards the rights of aboriginal peoples throughout the Western world and most specifically by the new Canadian Charter of Rights which gives them constitutional, legal, and political levels which to pull. The prisms they bring to all of this further complicate the situation since, for example, in the case of the Quebec secession crisis they definitely do not identify with the Quebecois and wish to maintain their ties with Canada, thereby adding additional complications to the overall situation.

The so-called "new Canadians," that is to say, those from ethnoreligioius backgrounds different from the founding and aboriginal peoples, have been ambivalently welcomed from the first, but since World War II they, too, have been invited to develop their own prisms through multiculturalism. As it turns out, even though the Canadian government made every effort to assist them in preserving their languages and cultures, the younger generation is less than interested or successful in doing so except for the most recent arrivals. Thus, multiculturalism seems to be more present in the big cities with their larger immigrant populations than in the smaller cities and rural areas where there is a melting pot of sorts constantly bubbling along.

Still, as a country of immigration the external reinforcement of the various groups or the arrival of new groups such as the Asians from the Far East keeps strengthening Canadian multiculturalism. These new Canadians, by and large, are identified with Canada as a whole rather than with the traditional founding peoples or provinces and see their future happiness tied to Canada and the Canadian constitution, especially since the Charter of Rights. Consequently, they are a counterbalance of no small importance to Quebec.

Nevertheless, the Quebec issue, while it ebbs and flows, never goes away. Nor is it likely to, given the prismatic character of Canadian society. As we know, when the sun strikes a facet of a prism, the heat generated is capable of igniting fires. So, too, when external events heat up the Quebecois prism, there is serious danger of fire. To date it has been kept under control but it is always a threat.

Topocratic Collegiality

Not surprisingly, a principal problem of those who govern Canada is how to govern a prismatic polity, how to keep the threats to it contained and to moderate it when it grows too great. Historically, the Canadians have done this topocratically; that is to say, the principal governing power was located in the territorial units which dominated the political and governmental scene, particularly the provinces which are far more centralized internally than the American states, partly because of the parliamentary system in each and partly because that suits the interests of the topocrats who tried to manage potential conflicts, both external and internal to their respective provinces. After World War II this topocratic system was further enhanced by the development of the First Ministers Conference, a collegial body consisting of the federal prime minister and the provincial premiers who together could make decisions and then, because of the federal and provincial parliamentary systems with responsible government, could carry them through their respective legislative bodies. This collegiality made the First Ministers Conference perhaps the most important governing body in the country. Parallel lesser ministers conferences were established in every area of governance to play the same role in more limited spheres.

The result may be labeled topocratic collegiality. It was dominant in Canada with hardly a challenge for perhaps a generation, but for nearly two decades now it has been challenged particularly by those empowered by the Charter of Rights. The strength of that challenge became evident in the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown agreements designed to settle the Quebec issue which failed because of the opposition from the new non-territorially-based interests empowered by the Charter of Rights.

Those new interests are not unique to Canada. Most of them have their parallels in the United States and the rest of the Western world -- women, colored minorities, aboriginal peoples, homosexuals, and non-territorially-based minorities of other kinds. They existed in Canada prior to 1982 but in so totally a topocratic system they generally could not find sufficient voice in the existing legislatures. It was their gaining the ability to go to the Canadian Supreme Court and raise constitutional issues that were not acceptable in the various legislatures that empowered them.

They continue to be active and aggressive and to acquire power via the constitutional court and the court of public opinion which can be moved more easily by them in most cases than can older ideas of loyalty to a particular unit or arena of government. This is not to suggest that topocratic collegiality does not continue to exist. It still does and, after the initial onslaught, has been gaining strength once again in the past few years.10 But today the topocrats must share far more power with the non-territorial individuals and groups seeking their rights than ever before.

The Continuing Canadian Prism:
Balanced (Often Precariously) Cleavages
Based on Different Perspectives Yet Prismatic Unity

How has Canada made out with this prismatic system? Actually, despite the sound and the fury, rather well. Just as the various facets of its prism are of many different pieces and are not equal in size and scope, they have nevertheless come into balance over the years. In fact, the BNA Act is to be praised for striking that balance more than 130 years ago and enabling Canada to accept and integrate accretions to be added to the overall balance. From time to time the resultant prism seems to totter, but so far the balance has held. Apparently all the different perspectives have been put together in such a way that a kind of prismatic unity has been developed. A better understanding of Canada and Canadians can be derived by gaining a better understanding of what constitutes that prismatic unity and how it is forged and maintained.


1. Daniel J. Elazar, American Federalism, A View from the States (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1966); 2nd ed. (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1972); 3rd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1984); Daniel J. Elazar, Cities of the Prairie (New York: Basic Books, 1970); Daniel J. Elazar, et al. Cities of the Prairie Revisited: The Closing of the Metropolitan Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); Daniel J. Elazar, et al., Cities of the Prairie: The Next Generation (forthcoming); Daniel J. Elazar, The American Mosaic (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994).

2. Daniel J. Elazar, Israel: From Ideological to Territorial Democracy (Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1971); Daniel J. Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

3. Daniel J. Elazar, ed., Federal Systems of the World: A Handbook of Federal, Confederal and Autonomy Arrangements (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1991); 2nd ed. (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1994).

4. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel: Biblical Foundations and Jewish Expressions (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995).

5. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (New York: Dutton, 1962).

6. "Federalist #1," in James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1966).

7. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, American Political Writing During the Founding Era, 1970-1805, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983).

8. Daniel J. Elazar, "Civil War and the Preservation of American Federalism," in Publius, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1971). See also Daniel J. Elazar, "Government and the Economy in the Civil War Generation," in David Gilchrist and David Lewis, editors, Economic Change in the Civil War Era (Greenville, Del.: Eleutherian Mills Hagley Foundation, 1965).

9. One sign of the emergence of a prismatic understanding from the fringes of radical reinterpretation of American society to the mainstream is the recent argument by some mainstream scholars that one can best understand the United States by viewing it through separate Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish prisms; that each of the three great recognized American faiths has its own view of American society. That is undoubtedly true, although I would still argue that the view is within the context of a comprehensive, systematic construction.

10. David Cameron and Richard Simeon, "Multilevel Governance and Democratic Policy-Making," paper presented at the Jerusalem Conference in Canadian Studies, June 28-July 1, 1998, Israel Association for Canadian Studies and the Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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