The View from North of the Border

[Photo - The current Judges]

(Photo: Current judges of the Supreme Court of Canada.)

The effects of the Depression were even more severe in Canada than in the United States, yet the federal government had remained committed to a laissez-faire approach to large-scale unemployment. Care for the unemployed was deemed to be a provincial problem. Provinces with economies dependent on agriculture were, in effect, SOL.

At last, in 1935, the Canadian Parliament under Prime Minister Bennett passed the Employment and Social Insurance Act. This law was part of Canada’s belated “New Deal,” intended to provide some relief to the provinces by asserting that citizens’ welfare was indeed a federal responsibility. In 1936, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the Employment and Social Insurance Act represented an unconstitutional abrogation of provincial powers by the federal government. Sorry, people living in poverty-stricken provinces.

The only solution in Canada was a revision to the constitution. In 1940, after four more years of agonizing Depression, the country amended its constitution specifically to permit the federal government to provide unemployment insurance.

Constitutions are inherently backward-looking. To introduce the idea that African Americans were citizens, we needed to revise our constitution. To introduce the idea that women were full citizens, we needed to revise our constitution. To introduce the idea that the federal government is authorized to resolve state-level coordination problems in health insurance, we may need to revise our constitution.

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