Omnibus: Becoming a Good Sustainability Planning Practitioner

27th September 2010

Session 1: 1.30 - 2.15

Introduction to Government and Governance - Federal


Governments have the major role in establishing the governance and policy frameworks within which they and others carry out planning. In today's sessions we will explore the current roles of the Federal, Provincial, Territorial and Local governments in Canada, while focusing on British Columbia and Vancouver. Our look will be highly preliminary and selective, focusing on key sustainability and planning components and policy initiatives. Think about the questions on the agenda below as you do the preparatory reading. After the class, for an elaboration on points made, you might want to read my forthcoming chapter Sustainability Governance: Surfing the Waves of Transformation and an accompanying personal statement on the field: Sustainability Governance in Canada: Shame and Pride. These publications elaborate on points I made in the first class of the term.

Canada's Federal System of Governments

If you are not familiar with the system of government in Canada you might want to start by skimming A Look at Canada which is designed to assist people in preparing for the Canadian Citizenship Test. Longtime residents of Canada in the class will be able to help those who may just have arrived in the country in beginning to understand our complex system and how it operates in principle and practice. There are, however, in reality many mysteries and inconsistencies in its operations, as in every nation. The following brief paragraphs summarize the essence for us to get started.

Canadian Federalism

Canada's particular form of federalism under its Constitution gives strong powers to both the Federal and the Provincial governments. It is generally recognized that the Canadian Provinces are stronger in relation to the Federal Government than the US States with respect to their Federal Government. Local governments are creatures of the Provincial government, deriving all their powers from them. At both the federal and provincial levels there is a parliamentary form of government.

Federal Government

At the Federal level there is a Parliament consisting of a Senate and House of Commons. The 308 members of the House of Commons are elected from ridings across the country and a competition among candidates from federally organized political parties. Presently the Conservative Party of Canada (143 Members of the House of Commons as of 18.11.08) are in power as a minority government and the opposition parties consist of the Liberal Party of Canada (77), Bloq Quebecois (47), New Democratic Party (36), Independents (1) and vacant (4). Senators are appointed to serve until age 75 by the Prime Minister and usually maintain an allegiance to a political party, likely the one with which they were associated before appointment. At the last election there were 105 Senators. and the majority were Liberals (53). The government is led by a Prime Minister and his Cabinet, that generally is constituted of elected members of his political party and sometimes appointed Senators. The members of Cabinet include all the political heads (Ministers) of government departments. Legislation is primarily introduced by the government through Cabinet and is approved by votes in the House of Commons and the Senate. In Canada the Prime Minister and Cabinet are very strong relative to the elected members of Parliament; new legislation and policy is strongly controlled by the political party in power through its Prime Minister and Cabinet. New legislation is approved finally by the Governor General of Canada, who is the representative of the Queen of England, and is appointed by her on recommendation of the Government of Canada. The Governor General has limited powers and generally has little influence on government policies.

There is also a Federal system of courts. The Supreme Court of Canada is responsible for interpreting legislation and ensuring consistency with the Constitution and Bill of Rights and Freedoms. When it judges legislation to be incomplete or inconsistent with the Constitution or Bill of Rights and Freedoms it refers the issues back to the legislative system for political resolution. While opinions differ about its impact, Canada has not had an activist court when compared with the US Supreme Court but it has been more active in recent years, particularly since the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)

It is through this political, executive, legislative and judicial framework that planning and sustainability policies are formulated, adopted and implemented at the federal level in Canada. It is, however, important to recognize the larger governance system that consists of not only governmental but also private sector and civil society organizations and actors that interact in making decisions about sustainability. Thus, for example, in addition to the governmental organizations and actors at the federal level, a major private sector organization is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and a civil society coalition of organizations is the Green Budget Coalition.

In the first session we will examine the roles of the Federal government internationally and nationally, along with selected other governance organizations, through selected key examples relating to sustainability and planning. Review the departmental web sites listed below to begin developing your familiarity with who does what while thinking about responses to the questions on the agenda below in preparation for the session's discussions. Our approach to understanding how the Canadian Constitution divides up powers between the Federal and Provincial government is going to be a pragmatic one; we will learn about it by observing what the each of the senior governments actually do.

The amount of information available to you here is enormous and frequently changing. You should endeavour to develop and maintain your knowledge of it over time. To the extent that this is new to you, I suggest you begin by looking at the "About Us" pages that are linked from most of the home pages for the listed departments. Then selectively look more searchingly into the topic areas of particular interest to you.


SDinfo used to provide information on the Federal Government's sustainability strategy. The link now takes you to a new site. Look at this site, in particular the sub-section on Sustainable Development, to see how the Federal Government presents and is revising its role and activities. Note the focus on its own activities and strategies for making its activities, department-by-department, more sustainable and the summary of stakeholder comments on the proposed new Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) under the 2008 act. There is a link to the Treasury Board report on implementing the strategy during 2008-2009. Note towards the bottom their assessment turns to listing international initiatives to which Canada is party.


The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is a major Federal department that until recently stated its mission as "Supporting sustainable development, reducing poverty and providing humanitarian assistance in order to promote a more secure, equitable and prosperous world". Note the change in wording and its description of Canada's role in meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals.


The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Historically this has been a lead federal agency on urban issues but not so much in recent years.

Infrastructure Canada This department and the next have become more important in recent years becoming key channels for federal initiatives relating to cities and distribution of related funding.

Transport Canada (Transport, Infrastructure and Communities portfolio)

National Energy Board This is a long standing federal regulatory agency dealing with international and interprovincial oil, gas and electricity developments.

Natural Resources

Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Natural Resources Canada

Parks Canada

Environment Canada

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency This long existing agency is responsible for undertaking assessments of projects that are connected to federal jurisdictions.


Public Health Agency of Canada

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

Indian Affairs and Territories

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

Policy Advice and Research

Listed first are four significant federal government organizations generating policy advice and undertaking policy research relating to sustainability planning. In addition to these are the federal government granting agencies that provide research funds to researchers, primarily at universities.

International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

National Round Table on Environment and Economy

Policy Research Initiative

Auditor General of Canada Note the 2008 Status Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainability , which is highly critical of the poor performance by the vast majority of federal departments it reviewed.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)

Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)


There are many different intergovernmental organizations that have significant roles in relation to sustainability planning at the national level. Here are three that are important and illustrate three of the kind of organizations that exist.

Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) This has been the leading national organization for local governments since 1901.

Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment (CCME) This organization has long played a key role in undertaking research and developing coordinated environment policies between the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Governments.

International Joint Commission (IJC) This organization has been in existence since 1909 and is a much studied model for dealing with water and other transboundary issues.


  1. In what ways is Canada's governance system different from the US and the UK?
  2. What are the roles of the Federal government (i) in developing and implementing sustainability policies and (ii) in undertaking planning under the Canadian Constitution's division of powers?
  3. Where are planners at work in the Canadian Federal Government?
  4. How does the Federal Government address urban affairs? Who does research on urban sustainability?
  5. Looking at sustainability planning areas that are of particular interest to you, what strikes you most strongly about the character of the Federal Government's activities? What questions do you have about them?