In the age of community, with corporate mobility undermining the power of national governments, is there a role for national governments in defending the interests of local communities? In my current research, I argue that there is, but that rigid enforcement of a national standard is not the appropriate way to do it, because the differences among communities ensure that what works in one may not work in another.
What is needed, rather, is a degree of flexibility that allows national standards to be met differently in different communities, and that draws on local knowledge to determine what these differences will be. In a previous entry, I outlined briefly how such flexibility is achieved in federal-provincial relations, but there is also a little-known history of such flexibility in the relations between the Canadian federal government and local communities, as well as a current practice that tries to build on that history.
I call such flexibility deep federalism, a species of federalism that extends the Canadian tradition of respect for provincial differences to the level of the local community. An early example of deep federalism was the Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), a federal government scheme aimed at the renovation of public facilities in declining neighbourhoods, which became a community development tool through the simple expedient of a requirement that a plan for neighbourhood renewal be preceded by and based upon a public participation process in each targeted neighbourhood. NIP, therefore, was structured to respect the differences, not only among cities, but also among individual neighbourhoods.

A second example, unique to Winnipeg, was the Core Area Initiative (CAI), an 11-year, tri-level arrangement for the social, economic and physical renewal of Winnipeg’s inner city, which was administered by a secretariat located in Winnipeg and responsible to all three levels of government. Such tri-level agreements have been all but institutionalized in Winnipeg, as the CAI was followed by the Winnipeg Development Agreement (WDA), and, after that, the recently concluded Winnipeg Partnership Agreement (WPA). This approach has migrated west, in the form of the Vancouver Agreement, a wide-ranging accord that drew in a large number of partners from all three levels of government, focusing their efforts on economic development, the health of residents and public safety in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Another example of deep federalism was the urban development corporation, a recurring theme in federal-provincial-local relations in Canadian cities over the past quarter century. Examples are Harbourfront in Toronto, Canada Harbour Place in Vancouver, Le vieux port de Montréal and de Québec and the Forks and North Portage corporations in Winnipeg. All of these projects were pitched to the specific circumstances of each city. To be sure, the degree of genuine local involvement in decision-making may have varied from case to case, since some were federal crown corporations, but an indisputable case of deep federalism are the Winnipeg corporations, now merged into a single entity, the Forks/North Portage Partnership. The Forks and North Portage corporations, as well as their successor organization, were and are governed by boards, with equal representation from the three levels of government.
Are these initiatives quaint relics of 1970s’ and early 1980s’ social engineering, never to be repeated? Federal government pronouncements and actions suggest otherwise. The Winnipeg Partnership Agreement (WPA), Winnipeg’s Forks/North Partnership, and the Vancouver Agreement continue to be active and, despite blemishes, have proven their worth. But there is more, as I was able to learn in the course of seven case studies I conducted in recent years. These studies, taken together, present a mixed picture of the kind we usually find when we evaluate government policy: some apparent success, some conspicuous failings, and much in between those extremes. But they also suggest an on-going federal government commitment to try to make deep federalism work.
Six of the seven case studies dealt with two policy areas – homelessness and immigration – and compared the implementation of those policies in three different communities. What these programs had in common, and what qualified them as objects of a study to test deep federalism, was that, instead of proclaiming national policies and then trying to implement them in an undifferentiated way in communities across the country, they contained provisions apparently designed to draw on community knowledge in determining what the conditions in each community were and how best to respond to them. A seventh study, the result of a separate research project, reports on a unique, municipally initiated tri-level welfare-to-work program, an abandoned and forgotten success in deep federalism.
Three of the case studies dealt with the National Homelessness Initiative (NHI), and specifically one component of that initiative, the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative (SCPI). The key provision of that initiative was a requirement that the implementation of SCPI be preceded by the formulation of a community plan, and that the terms and conditions of the program in each community be responsive to the priorities in that plan. This provision was reminiscent of the terms and conditions of NIP.
Another three studies dealt with federal-provincial agreements on immigration and settlement. These agreements allow each province to negotiate its own immigration and settlement policy with the federal government. The agreements may contain a provincial nominee program, whereby the province can nominate its own immigrants. The agreements may also provide for the establishment of local variations in settlement policy. It remains up to the province to ensure that the program is responsive to community conditions and needs, but the opportunity is there.
The purpose of the six case studies on homelessness and immigration settlement was to evaluate how well these programs lived up to their aspirations of respect for community difference in three communities manifestly very different from each other, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Saint John. The six case studies, therefore, included a study of homelessness and housing and one of immigration and settlement in each of the three cities.
The seventh study deals with the Winnipeg Infrastructure Renewal Demonstration Project, a possibly unprecedented case of a tri-level program that was initiated by a municipal government. It dates to the mid-1990s, when Winnipeg was responsible for short-term social assistance, and was simultaneously burdened by a sharp increase in the welfare rolls and a substantial infrastructure deficit.
Necessity was the mother of invention as the municipal government took the initiative in the creation of a tri-level program of infrastructure renewal that doubled as job creation and training for people on welfare and was subsidized out of the money saved on welfare payments. After achieving an impressive record of success in its first year, the program was cancelled by federal government cutbacks despite the fact that it had actually saved money for the federal government.
In all seven communities local service providers and other stakeholders were involved in the programs under study. In all but one of the seven communities, we found stakeholders that not only had the expected intimate understanding of the situation in their community, but were also well versed in the literature, knowledgeable regarding experiences in other communities relevant to their area of interest, and entirely capable of organizing themselves to study options, formulate priorities, and implement them.
It is not my argument, however, that local stakeholders and officials are more astute than their federal and provincial counterparts, only that they are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves, have access to much the same body of information and analysis and, in addition, have the advantage of being intimately familiar with the situation in their locality. Our studies showed that federal and provincial politicians and officials did not always perform well, nor did they always perform badly. The same was true of local politicians, officials and stakeholders.
In short, deep federalism will not produce utopia, but my research suggests that it offers serious possibilities for adapting the way we govern ourselves to the realities of the age of globalization, and of community.
To find out more about what works and what doesn’t look up:
Christopher Leo, Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy. Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506
Christopher Leo and Martine August, National Policy and Community Initiative: Mismanaging Homelessness in a Slow Growth City. Canadian Journal of Urban Research 15 (1) (supplement) 2006.
Christopher Leo and Mike Pyl, “Multi-level Governance: Getting the Job Done and Respecting Community Difference.” Canadian Political Science Review, 1 (2) 2007, September. Accessible at
Katie Anderson and Christopher Leo, “Immigration and settlement in Saint John, New Brunswick: Community perspectives on a federal-provincial agreement.” Unpublished manuscript. Accessible at
For the details regarding the Winnipeg Infrastructure Renewal Demonstration Project, the munitipally-initiated, tri-level welfare-to-work scheme, see:
Christopher Leo and Todd Andres, “Unbundling Sovereignty in Winnipeg: Federalism through Local Initiative.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 2007, accepted for publication.
For other findings on this topic, look up:
Neil Bradford, Place-based public policy: Towards a new urban and community agenda for Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2005.
Neil Brenner, New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
One of the findings of my research was that a city’s growth rate is a critically important and neglected determinant of community difference. For discussions of this question, see:
Christopher Leo and Kathryn Anderson, Being Realistic about Urban Growth. Journal of Urban Affairs. 28:2, 2006, 169-89.
Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown, Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy. Journal of Urban Affairs, 22 (2), 2000, 193-213.

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