The Rowell-Sirois Commission and the Remaking of Canadian Federalism: A look at writing the book

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2021


This is part one of a two-part blog series behind the Spring 2021 book The Rowell-Sirois Commission and the Remaking of Canadian Federalism by Robert Wardhaugh and Barry Ferguson.

Written by Barry Ferguson

This book had its origins in a small research study prompted by a “new” collection of letters that found its way to the University of Manitoba Archives. The papers of the famous newspaper editor and writer, John W. Dafoe, had been available since the 1950s and were well-used by historians of 20th century Canadian and Prairie politics. When several boxes of Dafoe’s “family papers” were added to the collection, the archivists wanted historians to know about this trove of papers, which were family letters about his public activities in the thirties and forties. Out of courtesy we took a look and found new dimensions to Dafoe’s views of national politics and federal government.

John Dafoe had a well-earned reputation as a fierce advocate of strong federal government in the areas of tariffs, trade and transportation as well as international relations. He had considerable public influence as editor of an important daily newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press. The “new” records showed a different Dafoe, concerned about how ill-equipped the provinces were to deal with the crisis of the Great Depression and how necessary was a reset of the relations between the Provinces and Ottawa. In mid-1937 he was appointed to a federal royal commission to study “Dominion-Provincial Relations” and his letters showed a person who was open-minded and reflective in trying to rethink the foundations of federal government. His writings contained vivid descriptions of politicians’ conflicts and lessons learned from bureaucrats, experts and some of the premiers (none of whom he had close ties to) and his reflections that the commission would likely be one of the last great ventures of his public life, as it was.

Rereading the Report of the Commission, we really started to rethink things. We worked on a couple of essays arguing that the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations of 1940 did not advocate the centralization of government in Ottawa or tilt against the decentralized federation that court decisions had framed. Rather it proposed a real new deal of collaboration between Ottawa and the Provinces, strengthening the fiscal base of the weaker ones (the majority of provinces). Of course, the Commission did not exactly win the day, Dafoe’s efforts with the Winnipeg Free Press to the contrary, and our few essays did not a new synthesis make.

The Rowell-Sirois Commission, 1938.

Rowell-Sirois Commission, 1938. Library and Archives Canada/C-034706. Front row from left: Commissioners Henry Angus, John Dafoe, Joseph Sirois, and Robert MacKay. Second row from left: Adjutor Savard, Wilfrid Eggleston, Mary White, Mary Rowland, Rachel Fortin, John Deutsch, and Sandy Skelton.


Hence the book. By the mid-thirties, the federal system was broken. Just when effective government and coordination between Ottawa and the Provinces was desperately needed, none was forthcoming. An inquiry into Canada’s peculiar economic and governmental weaknesses was not an abstract exercise. The Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations (the Rowell-Sirois Commission for short, named after its successive chairs) was called to face up to and assess a federal political system that was almost incapable of cooperative or coordinate action by the late thirties. The federal government that called it into operation, the provinces that varied from demanding it to loathing it, and the commissioners themselves (all paid-up members of the national legal, political, media and academic elites) were well aware of the problems it would look into.    

While conducting our broader research, we read the scholarly interpretations that wildly varied in their understanding of the constitutional politics and the public policy debates of the times. Political scientists on one side, historians on the other, seemed to not to encounter each others’ perspectives on the balance of the constitution, the direction of governments or the message of the Royal Commission. Among historians, studies of national issues and the emerging work on provincial governments diverged over the problems of federalism and the agenda of the emerging interventionist and social service state. Rowell-Sirois was a prime way of seeing those divergences. Our archival research found great material in familiar federal records like the Mackenzie King Papers but even more insights from provincial government records particularly from BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, material that showed provincial capacities that rivalled their federal counterparts.

We found that the commission itself had an extremely fraught existence. It survived several crises due more to a determination to continue rather than the sympathies of the federal government that created it or the provinces that had to deal with it. The crises ranged from the collapse of its first chair, Newton Rowell, after nine months of its work, the growing enmity of three provinces (Ontario, Quebec and Alberta) that stymied the inquiry, and tensions between the staff and the commissioners that nearly scuttled the completion of the work.

Two premiers were most dangerous. Ontario’s Mitch Hepburn and Prime Minister Mackenzie King disliked each other and Hepburn nearly made a farce of Ontario’s stance. He was neutralized by the competency of Ontario’s treasury officials. Quebec’s disdain of Ottawa under Premier Duplessis put the Commission on guard about making proposals that might provide an excuse for sustained political battles. The Commission was saved by the perspectives of its co-chair, Joseph Sirois and its co-counsel, Louis St-Laurent, constitutional lawyers both, who insisted on recognizing provincial priority in social policy and on avoiding compulsion in making big policy changes. Close ties between the commission research staff and provincial officials helped in easing tensions and ensured that the provincial perspectives were at the forefront of the Report.

The Commission experienced a surprising number of internal conflicts between the staff on one hand (led by the brilliant economist Alexander Skelton, reined in by the superb legal advisor Robert Fowler) and the commissioners on the other. Each side was confident about its understanding of the issues. The most active Commissioners –Dalhousie political scientist Robert MacKay and UBC economist Henry Angus – made it crystal-clear they were writing the final report based on their synthesis of staff reports, provincial submissions and public views. The Report then came together, the work a synthesis of researchers and commissioners alike. In all of that, John Dafoe was not the predominant figure but a valuable ally who supported his colleagues and (surprisingly, given his bellicose reputation) kept the peace.

The Report emerged as a minor miracle of creative policy advice and a source of innovation and inspiration that was drawn upon for decades. Like many other great investigative inquiries that have been called since the 1930s, its influence is less important in direct policy changes than in the general policy innovations. It is in the latter way that the Commission was, in the language of political science, a ‘reset’ of national policy. Readers will think of more recent subjects, but Rowell-Sirois was the progenitor. 

Barry Ferguson has just retired as Professor of History and Duff Roblin Professor of Government at the University of Manitoba.


Posted by Megan M.
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