UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Passing the buck: federalism and Canadian environmental policy Harrison, Kathryn J.


This thesis examines how the current division of federal and provincial responsibilities for environmental policy in Canada evolved, and the implications of that arrangement for protection of the environment. At a theoretical level, the example of environmental protection is used to explore the relationship between federalism and public policy more generally. It is accepted wisdom that governments seek both to claim credit and avoid blame. However, to date, students of Canadian federalism have been much more attentive to the dynamics of intergovernmental credit claiming than to opportunities for intergovernmental blame avoidance. A central argument of this thesis is that the implications of federalism for public policy are very different when both levels of government are eager to assume responsibility for a particular policy than when one or both are content to vacate the field. It is argued that because environmental protection typically involves diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, it offers few political benefits and significant political costs. Thus the case of environmental protection is used to explore the implications of policy inaction within the federal system. The thesis presents a study of the evolution of the federal government’s role in environmental protection and of federal-provincial relations concerning the environment between 1968 and1992. The exclusive focus of the thesis is the federal government’s role in "federal Canada," that is, within the provinces, rather than the Northern territories. It is argued that the federal government has taken advantage of overlapping jurisdiction to shirk its responsibility for environmental protection for most of the last two decades. In light of federal deference to the provinces, federal-provincial relations concerning the environment have been relatively cooperative, with the important exception of two brief periods of heightened salience of environmental issues, during which both levels of government were more inclined to adopt a broad view of their jurisdiction. A case study of federal and provincial regulation of pulp mill effluents offers considerable evidence of provincial reluctance to strengthen environmental standards for fear of placing local industry at a competitive disadvantage. Scholars troubled by the environmental implications of interprovincial economic competition typically look to the federal government to establish national standards. However, it is argued that many have underestimated the political obstacles to such a federal response.

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