Canada at 150: Lessons for Nigeria

Punch Editorial Board

On July 1, Canada, a North American country, celebrated its 150th anniversary as a nation.  The milestone, commemorated across the country, marked the year the British North America Act was passed by the British parliament, paving the way for colonies of Canada – which included two French territories, Ontario and Quebec – to join Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in creating a single Dominion of Canada. Canada’s international borders have since changed several times, and the country has grown from the original four provinces to the current 10 provinces and three territories. As Goldwin Smith, a British historian and journalist, writes, at inception, and for many decades, Canada remained “a political expression.”           Today, Canadians have every reason to celebrate the birth of their nation, in spite of its colonial background and plurality.  Troubled federal systems like Nigeria’s have a lot to learn from Canada’s meteoric national integration and impressive economic growth. Since World War II, the remarkable growth of its manufacturing, mining, and service sectors has transformed the nation from a largely rural economy into one that is now primarily industrial and urban. With its $1.53 trillion Gross Domestic Product, and $43,611 per capita, Canada ranks ninth in the UN’s annual Human Development Index out of nearly 200 countries. An excited Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, says, “Canada’s history is built on countless instances of people uniting across their differences to work and thrive together. We express ourselves in French, English and hundreds of other languages, we practice many faiths, we experience life through different cultures, and yet we are one country. Today, as has been the case for centuries, we are strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them.” Indeed, Canada has become a high-tech industrial society with a high standard of living.

But Canada’s history has its own dark pages. Its first prime minister, John A Macdonald, bragged that the indigenous population was being kept on the “verge of actual starvation” in order to save government funds. After 150 years of building a nation, Canada’s 240,000 Indigenous citizens are telling a very different story from the rest of the people. Ottawa Citizen, a newspaper, says in its editorial that Canada’s aboriginal people have suffered a history of being forcibly relocated, or having their children taken from them and placed in abuse-laden schools. The Globe and Mail says the indigenous peoples of Canada have suffered greatly through disease, the Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, missing and murdered women, and a deep sense of despair among some of their young people. Many remote reservations, and even some not so remote ones, are lacking in clean water and other basic amenities. Both colonialism and modern Canada have not been kind to indigenous people.

Again, in spite of the substantial provincial autonomy, Canada continues to contend with the Quebec question. Similarly, right from the conquest of the French colony by the British forces in the decisive battle of the plains of Abrahams in 1759, the French Canadians had been talking of revenge of the cradle. Constitutional debate began with the political-intellectual “Quiet Revolution” of French-speaking Quebeckers at the opening of the 1960s. The ruling elite in Quebec demanded a Special Constitutional Status for Quebec or, failing that, a relation of Sovereignty-Association with the rest of Canada be established. The early 1970s was particularly gnawing, for Canada. A separatist party, Party Quebecois, was formed in October 1968 to pursue that principal objective.  The militant wings of the separatist movements went violent, planting bombs in mail boxes, robbing banks and attacking military positions. A referendum, which was to empower the Quebec government to negotiate a new form of federation with the Canadian central government, was eventually held on May 20, 1980. And like, the previous agitations, the Quebeckers rejected sovereignty-association by 59.5 per cent.

Like Canada, Nigeria is a colonial creation adopting federalism as a system of government. Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of Nigeria between 1919 and 1925, described Nigeria as “a collection of self-contained and mutually independent native states, separated from one another by great distances, by differences of history and traditions, and by ethnological, racial, tribal, political, social and religious beliefs.” For Malcolm Hailey in African Survey, Nigeria is “perhaps the most artificial of the many administrative units created in the course of the European occupation.”  Even most of Nigeria’s founding fathers were sceptical of the nasty British experiment in state creation.  Ahmadu Bello, the Northern Region’s only premier, said, “Lord Lugard and his amalgamation were far from popular among us at that time. There were agitations in favour of secession; we should set up on our own; we should cease to have anything more to do with the Southern people; we should take our own way.” His Western Region counterpart, Obafemi Awolowo, described Nigeria as “a mere geographical expression.”

But the difference between Canada and Nigeria is that while Canada’s leaders continue to strengthen their federalism, Nigeria’s elite continue to weaken theirs.  Its decentralised federation comprising 10 provinces, according to Americas Quarterly, has a defined distribution of powers, some exclusive to each tier of government − either federal or provincial − and some shared between the two. Economics, culture, immigration, and the environment are shared jurisdictions.  The result is that individual provinces have been asserting themselves very effectively, especially in economic areas, contributing to the overall prosperity of the country.  Ontario was originally the manufacturing and industrial heartland of Canada; Alberta has become the oil and gas capital of the country and Québec has emerged as the principal producer of hydroelectric energy in North America.  In recent years, some of the poorer provinces, such as Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, have transformed into richer provinces because of a strong demand for their natural resources (oil, gas, potash).

For centuries, federalism has provided a viable framework for people to live together even as they maintain their diversity. Truly, Canada’s federalist framework has kept the country united while embracing its growing diversity and pluralism. We, indeed, acknowledge that federal structures vary, both between countries and within any country over time, reflecting a wide range of political, legal and historical factors. But since the post-World War II period, Canada has gradually become fiscally more decentralised. Unlike Nigeria, its policing is decentralised with provinces, cities and counties free to run their own police forces and most have contracted this to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Canadian Constitution Act 1867 (as amended), and the Constitution Act 1982, granted wide powers to the Canadian provinces to levy a range of taxes. Most significantly, the constitution provides the provinces with the exclusive right to impose taxes on resources and minerals. This has been a substantial source of revenue to several provinces.  A seminal work by the Parliament of Australia, Federal and State Taxation: A Comparison of the Australian, German and Canadian Systems, states that the Canadian government has increasingly made tax room for the provinces. In 1960, federal revenues were 63 per cent of all government revenues. By 1985, this proportion had fallen to 45 per cent. In 1960, total provincial own revenues were equivalent to 34 per cent of federal own revenues. By 1985, this ratio was 91 per cent. These ratios have largely persisted since then. The existence of strong, independent provinces, especially Quebec, and more distinctive cultural differences has ensured that the federal government has had to adopt a more flexible approach to federal-provincial financial relations in Canada.

We have consistently argued that Nigeria is on the brink of implosion because its federalism has been bastardised by unitary forces, who have expropriated almost all state power to the centre. Apparently, no issue has elicited more rancour and demand for equity than federalism – or restructuring – since the Nigerian Civil War. The drift to anarchy is compounded by the leadership deficit that hides behind ethnic cocoons to complicate reforms. As Kingsley Moghalu, a Professor of Practice in International Business and Public Policy, says in a recent write-up, nation-building is hard; but it needs not be as difficult as we make it in Nigeria.

No doubt, in a space of its 150 years history, Canada has been transformed from a mere “political expression” into a strong, modern, liberal democratic nation today. But for Nigeria, unless its skewed federalism is restructured in such a way as to make the federating units become competitive as they were in the First Republic, the continued survival of the country Awolowo described as “a mere geographical expression” is bleak indeed. 

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