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Devolution in Canada

Devolution in Canada

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Imagine you live your life speaking French. You watch French TV shows, your radio plays French music, and your classes are in French. Where do you think you are? Surprise, you are not in France. You are in Canada. The province of Quebec, to be more exact. How can that be? Isn't Canada English-speaking? Much of it is, but because of devolution in Canada, many people are able to function pretty much only in other languages.

Examples of Devolution in Canada

Devolution is a form of decentralization in federal states.

Devolution: the political process in which subdivisions are granted autonomy and functional powers on a provincial basis.

Canada has numerous examples of devolution within its asymmetric federal system. In Canada, devolution has granted Quebec more autonomy in comparison to other provinces. Canada's three territories' Indigenous populations have also been given increased autonomy since the mid-2000s. No matter where in Canada, devolution has involved the transfer of responsibilities from the federal government to the territorial or provincial governments.

Devolution in Canada Federal Map of Canada StudySmarterFig. 1 - Federal map of Canada featuring Canada's 10 provinces and three territories. The three territories are Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. These territories have a different status than the provinces

Canada is an asymmetric federal state. It has 10 provinces and three territories. Not all provinces have the same authorities, and territories also differ from provinces in terms of their autonomy.

The difference between the provinces and territories is that territories, unlike provinces, do not have sovereignty, but instead only have powers that have been delegated by the federal government. Only the federal parliament can amend the constitutions of the territories. This is a result of Canada's Constitution Act of 1867.

Meanwhile, provinces have been granted more autonomy than territories, as dictated in the Constitution.

For more information, check out StudySmarter's explanation of federal states.

Devolution in Quebec

The status of Quebec within Canada is controversial. In the rest of the country, English is the dominant language. However, in Quebec, the dominant language is French. Known as Québécois, the French Canadians differentiate themselves from the rest of the Canadians.

The complicated history of Quebec began when France and the UK fought for territory. Britain gained control of French Canada after winning the Seven Years' War in 1763.

Due to this unique linguistic and cultural identity, there have been secessionist movements within Quebec. Quebec's leaders were inspired by the European Community, the predecessor to the European Union, which saw the integration of different states under a supranational political organization. They sought to make Quebec an independent, sovereign state in free association with Canada through a common currency and economy.

Quebec's nationalists believe a sovereign Quebec state would be able to protect Quebec's unique identity and culture better than now when there is constant pressure for assimilation with the rest of Canada.

Devolution in Canada Flag of Quebec Map StudySmarterFig. 2 - The map of Quebec superimposed on a Quebec flag. This Quebec flag is an important symbol of the French Canadians and their nationalism

The Quiet Revolution

The Quiet Revolution in Quebec happened during the 1960s and resulted in the province gaining a more powerful position within the federal system. As a result, the Québécois have the power to administer their economy, social services, and pension plan as well as employment and immigration laws. On the federal level, three of the nine justices of the Canadian Supreme Court must come from Quebec. Thus, Quebec has provincial rights that other provinces within the federal territory do not possess.

As a result of their autonomy, the 1977 Charter on the French Language was passed in Quebec, which means political and commercial business in Quebec is conducted in French. The current Quebec Premier, François Legault, is a Francophile, whom opposition critics label a French supremacist. The Charter on the French Language was recently updated with Bill 96 in 2022. This bill seeks to protect the French language by forcing businesses to continue to communicate in French. For instance, everyone in the service industry has to speak French. If businesses do not comply, they can be sued.

Devolution in Canada Quebec Independence Referendum StudySmarterFig. 3 - A political sign advocating for the "yes" vote in the Quebec independence referendum


The fight for independence has long been a dilemma. 1970's October Crisis even saw Québécois terrorists violently fight for independence.

Quebec has had two unsuccessful referendums for independence. In 1995 , 49.42% of Québécois voted for independence and 50.58% voted against it. Most who wanted independence were French speakers.

Devolution in Canada Quebec Referendum StudySmarterFig. 4 - Results of the Quebec Independence Referendum of 1995. By a slim margin, the province voted to remain in Canada

The Other Provinces

The nine other provinces don't support Quebec's proclivity toward secession.

In 1997, the leaders of Canada's provinces and territories, except for Quebec's leader, met in Calgary to discuss how to handle future constitutional amendments. By this, they meant how to handle Quebec's independence movement. Their agreement, known as the Calgary Declaration, sought to make Canada a symmetric federal state where all the provinces were devolved equal powers.

In 1999, Canada's prime minister, Jean Chrétien, passed the Clarity Act which defined the process for a province to leave the country. Because it requires approval from the House of Commons, it made independence for Quebec much harder than just a province-wide referendum. There has not been a referendum in Quebec since.

Differences Between Politics in Quebec and the Other Provinces

  1. Quebec's political party system is quite distinct from the political party system in the rest of Canada's provinces. Only two out of the five political parties in Quebec exist on the national level, and the Quebec versions are quite distinct.

  2. Politics in Quebec is fought over a different set of issues than in the rest of Canada.

  3. Quebec's politics are dramatic because they are seen in a grand, civilizational way, unlike other provinces. Quebec seeks to define a fundamental cultural distinction between French Canadians and other Canadians.

Devolution in Canada and Indigenous People

Canada's territories are Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories. Located in northernmost North America, they account for 40% of the area of Canada. However, while the territories are vast, they have tiny populations.

They are home to First Nations communities whose ancestors have been living in the region for millennia, far longer than people of Old World origin have been living in Canada. Of special importance for Indigenous communities is the ability to manage the affairs of their land and natural resources because Indigenous culture, history, and livelihood are tied to the natural world.

In the past two decades, many government responsibilities that used to be under the federal government's jurisdiction have been transferred to regional territory governments.

It is important to note that First Nations exist outside the territories as well. For instance, Quebec is also home to Indigenous communities. However, they constitute just 1% of the population of Quebec. First Nations have been discriminated against in Quebec, such as by the law that dictates French must be the primary language used in the province.


The Yukon territory was the first territory to manage its own land and resources. The devolution process here involves Indigenous governments operating alongside the territorial government. The territorial government serves non-Indigenous citizens. Meanwhile, the Indigenous First Nations governments are responsible for the resource and environmental management of their land. Both governments offer social services such as education and health.

Devolution in Canada Yukon Chiefs StudySmarterFig. 5 - A federal official from Ottawa visits with First Nation Chiefs in Yukon. In First Nations, "Chief" is a formal designation of leadership


The population of Nunavut is 85% Inuit. While the land has been under the control of Canada's federal government since 1870, Nunavut territory was only established in 1999 after a referendum.

Nunavut's devolution ensures that the government represents its large Inuit population. Unlike other provinces and territories that have parliaments, the government of Nunavut is a consensus government. This accords with traditional Inuit forms of leadership. This means there are no political parties. Politicians are very localized and work directly for their community instead of for a party.

This devolutionary process was beneficial in granting the Inuit the autonomy they deserve.

Devolution in Canada Inuit Child StudySmarterFig. 6 - An Inuit child and dog depicted in a photograph from Nunavut in 1945

Northwest Territories

In 2014, the Northwest Territories also gained control over their land and resource management.

For a long time, the territories and their Indigenous communities had no control over their land, which was pillaged and sold to profit Canadian mining companies. Once the territories gained the right to manage their own land and resources, the Indigenous population got access to these royalties. Resources that come from the Northern Territories include rare minerals, diamonds, and oil.

Currently, oil sands are mined in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, it is believed that the Northwest Territories have a huge reserve of untapped gas resources. There are environmental debates about the significant pollution created by this industry. Yet, if excavation is to happen now, the territories and Indigenous populations will be able to benefit from it.

Devolution in Canada Tar Sands StudySmarterFig. 7 - Oil sand fields in Alberta. This is a major economic activity in Canada

Reason for Devolution in Canada

It is clear that there is a reason Canada has embraced devolution for its French Canadian and Indigenous populations. Devolution releases pressure from the federal government, as it is hard to maintain a unified state that spans an entire continent. Additionally, there is a local desire for increased autonomy.

Through devolution, territories gain autonomy over:

  • education

  • airports

  • social services

  • housing

  • health

If devolution had not occurred, Quebec would almost certainly have left Canada. Yet, Quebec has benefited from devolution.

Purpose of Devolution in Canada

Devolution has been beneficial for Canada. Following devolution, Canadian provinces have experienced sustained economic growth. This economic growth directly reduces unemployment and improves residents' quality of life. Thus, devolution is a process that benefits the citizens in these areas.

Quebec has been able to become wealthier, more educated, and more peaceful. The Indigenous communities of Canada's territories have also gained control over their own affairs and land.

Devolution provides greater accountability and local decision making. Additionally, the devolution process has weakened federal control over territories and instead allowed legislative assemblies and councils to manage affairs.

Devolution in Canada - Key takeaways

  • Canada is an asymmetric federal state with clear reasons for devolution: the French Canadians in Quebec and the Indigenous communities of the northern territories.
  • Devolution involves transferring a federal responsibility to the provincial or territorial level.
  • Due to their linguistic differences, Quebec has had violent and consistent demands for independence. As a result, Quebec has been granted more autonomy than other provinces. Quebec also protects the use of French within the province.
  • The Indigenous communities of Canada's territories have gained the right to manage their own land and natural resources, which improves their quality of life and economy.
  • Canada and its citizens have benefited from devolution and it has allowed for the continued success of the Canadian state.


  1. Fig. 2 - Flag Map of Quebec (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag-map_of_Quebec_-_original.svg) by Svgalbertian licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 4 - Quebec Referendum Results Map 1995 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Quebec_referendum,1995_-_Results_By_Riding_(Simple_Map).svg) by DrRandomFactor licensed by CC-BY SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  3. Fig. 6 - Inuit Child and dog (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inuit_child_and_dog_at_Fort_Ross,_Nunavut.jpg) by Arthur H. Tweedle licensed by CC-BY SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  4. Fig. 7 - Tar sands in Alberta (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tar_sands_in_alberta_2008.jpg) by Howl Arts Collective licensed by CC-BY SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Devolution in Canada

There have been numerous instances of devolution in Canada and it has been an ongoing process, so it depends!

There have been numerous instances of devolution in Canada. For instance, there was devolution within the three territories of Canada to increase autonomy for indigenous communities. There was also devolution within the province of Quebec to grant the French Canadians more autonomy.

Devolution has benefited Canada's indigenous populations. As a result, indigenous populations have more control over their land, resources, and economy. Additionally, devolution has caused the government to better represent the indigenous and their way of life. 

Canada is an example of devolution. As an asymmetric federal state, autonomy for each substate entities is not the same.

There is no clear leader of devolution as it has been an ever-developing process, but Quebec and its independent movement definitely paved the way for devolution within Canada. Or else this province would have left the country.

Final Devolution in Canada Quiz

Devolution in Canada Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


In this asymmetric federal state, which province in Canada has more autonomy than the rest?

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Show question


How has devolution benefited Canada?

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Citizens are more involved in their governments.

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 The first language in Quebec is _______ whereas the first language in most of the rest of Canada is _______. 

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French, English

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How have the Indigenous communities in Canada experienced devolution? 

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Through the management of their own land.

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Why did/do Quebec's leaders want a sovereign state? 

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To protect what they see as their distinct nation due to their linguistic and cultural differences.

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Which of the following is not a territory of Canada?

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The Northwest Territories.

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How will Indigenous people benefit from managing their own land and natural resources?

Show answer


Land and nature are significant to Indigenous culture. Additionally, Indigenous people will be able to control their economy as it relates to natural resources.

Show question


Businesses in Quebec have to provide services in English. 

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Show question


What is an example of a way in which Quebec has experienced devolution?

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The Québécois have increased administrative powers in administering their economy and social services.

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