Federalism and energy policy are once again dominating the national discussion. The situation is complicated by the emergence of the environment as an important constitutional subject that cuts across both sides of the division of powers allocated between federal and provincial governments by the Constitution. Due to their complexity, courts frequently rely upon flexible constitutionalism and the doctrine of cooperative federalism to resolve disputes. This article considers whether the interpretive tools available to the judiciary are capable of resolving current issues while preserving the logic and purpose of the balance between federal and provincial powers. The authors argue that, absent changes to the division of powers analysis, they are not. Rather, the application of these tools has already resulted in a shift in the balance of power towards the federal government and led to conflict and uncertainty which undermines the purpose and effectiveness of federalism.


The story of Canadian federalism is that of a constitutional tug-of-war that pulls and stretches at the logic of the division of powers allocated between Canada's federal and provincial governments. As this struggle evolves to answer novel constitutional questions and allocate new legislative matters to the appropriate legislative body, the potential consequences facing the provinces increase substantially. Due to their complexity, many of these questions cannot be resolved by simply looking to existing federal and provincial powers and determining that one or the other best captures a particular matter. Frequently, courts rely on flexible constitutionalism and the doctrine of cooperative federalism to hold that jurisdiction over a particularly complex or broad subject is shared between our two orders of government. While this approach has some benefits, it also increases the probability of jurisdictional conflict, which has a tendency to erode provincial autonomy in favour of federal authority and undermine the diversity that the division of powers seeks to establish.

In many ways, the constitutional tug-of-war is by design: the Constitution Act, 1867's1 textual emphasis on jurisdictional exclusivity has, together with the implicit overlap of certain broad legislative subjects, created a competitive dynamic between the provinces and the federal government.2 Competition is, therefore, a feature of federalism, encouraging Canadian governments to develop creative ways to expand their legislative jurisdiction, which in turn leads to new approaches in governance and public policy. Harnessed properly, this dynamic advances our constitutional order to accommodate evolving social norms. If left unchecked, however, competition can be a bug, leading to conflict and constitutional uncertainty that undermines the purpose and effectiveness of federalism.3

Historically, the Privy Council favoured an exclusivist approach to resolving jurisdictional questions, resisting overlap, and preserving provincial autonomy wherever possible.4 But Canadian courts, supreme since 1949, have softened these divisions, creating interpretive tools that actively promote constitutional flexibility and legislative overlap.5 The competitive dynamic came to a head in the 1970s and 1980s when regional economic disparity, global oil market shocks, and the western provinces' desire for autonomy over the development of their natural resources (primarily, oil and natural gas) clashed with the "unilateral nation-building initiatives" and energy policy of the federal government.6 While an uneasy détente emerged after the patriation of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the subsequent oil price crash in the mid-1980s, it was not to last. Thirty-five years later, federalism and energy policy once again dominate the national discussion. This time, however, the emergence of the environment as a constitutional subject of "superordinate importance"7 has complicated the debate, asking questions of the Constitution Act, 1867 that contemporary Canadian federalism jurisprudence may not be able to adequately answer.

Five recent cases emerge at the vanguard of this trend: Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act,8 Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act,9 Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act,10 Reference re Environmental Management Act (British Columbia),11 and British Columbia (Attorney General) v. Alberta (Attorney General).12

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* Paul G Chiswell and Robert Martz are partners at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP in the Litigation and Regulatory practice groups; Brendan Downey is an associate at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP in the Energy and Corporate Commercial practice groups; and Ramona Salamucha is Senior Regulatory Counsel at Enbridge Pipelines.


1 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, ss 91–92, reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No 5.

2 Herman Bakvis & Grace Skogstad, "Canadian Federalism: Performance, Effectiveness, and Legitimacy" in Herman Bakvis & Grace Skogstad, eds, Canadian Federalism: Performance, Effectiveness, and Legitimacy, 4th ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020) 3 at 7–8.

3 Ibid at 5.

4 See e.g. Lord Atkin's comments in The Attorney General of Canada v The Attorney General of Ontario, [1937] UKPC 6 [Labour Conventions Reference].

5 Bakvis & Skogstad, supra note 2 at 9.

6 Ibid at 10.

7 R v Hydro-Quebec, [1997] 3 SCR 213 at para 85 [Hydro-Quebec].

8 2019 SKCA 40 [Saskatchewan GHG Reference].

9 2019 ONCA 544 [Ontario GHG Reference].

10 2020 ABCA 74 [Alberta GHG Reference].

11 2019 BCCA 181 [Pipeline Reference], aff'd 2020 SCC 1.

12 2019 ABQB 550 [BC v Alberta QB]. This case was ultimately continued in the Federal Court: British Columbia (Attorney General) v Alberta (Attorney General), 2019 FC 1195 [BC v Alberta FC].

Previously published in the Alberta Law Review

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