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Review

British Columbia Politics and Government

By Michael Howlett, Dennis Pilon, Tracy Summerville

November 4, 2013

Review By Allan Craigie

British Columbia’s unique geographical location and relative isolation in Canada makes for an interesting study of how politics can be done differently in the federation. The contributors to British Columbia Politics and Government highlight the province’s individuality in great detail. Divided into four thematic sections of approximately five chapters each, this work is equally valuable to those new to British Columbia politics as to those well-versed in the subject.

A thorough overview of British Columbia politics is presented in the first substantive section. The contributions by Telford and James are of particular interest to scholars of federalism. Telford argues that British Columbia has typically punched well below its weight in intergovernmental relations because successive premiers, of all parties, have neglected to build a strong and capable department dedicated to this endeavour. He claims what success British Columbia does achieve is the result of the premier taking an active hand in the file rather than through the ongoing work of a department of intergovernmental affairs. This creates a situation in which, through the lack of investment in intergovernmental relations, the province has little corporate knowledge to fall back on if the premier directs his or her attention to other files. The reviewer found it surprising that so little emphasis is placed upon building a dedicated bureaucracy in this area given the resentment towards the rest of the federation and the sense of isolation which some claim characterize politics in British Columbia.

The contribution by James offers an intriguing explanation – federalism — as to why British Columbia has been slow to recognize its historic faults vis-à-vis First Nations and other minorities. He argues that the federal government’s apologies for past wrongs allow British Columbia to simply “pass the buck.” The province is able to deny that it or its people are at fault, even though the provincial government often lobbied the federal government in favour of discriminatory policies which were driven by the demands of British Columbians. James’s account helps explain the settler/majority population’s slow response to claims that it has historically acted in a discriminatory manner. This contribution reveals yet another area of Canadian politics in which federalism influences the debate.

The next section explores democracy in British Columbia. Pilon leads the section with a study of an interesting experiment in citizen engagement—the BC Citizen’s Assembly. His chapter examines the experiment and the resulting referenda, as well as the history of electoral reform within the province. Though more historically based than the other contributions, Pilon’s chapter fits well within the overarching themes of the volume and paves the way for subsequent chapters, which deal with the unique and highly polarized political situation in British Columbia. The other chapters in this section deal with a variety of issues in BC politics, from party competition and media ownership to the role of interest groups and NGOs in the province. The contributors address issues common throughout the federation, but demonstrate how they are either handled or manifest differently in British Columbia.

The third and fourth substantive sections of the volume offer a great deal of insight into the province. The individual chapters offer valuable reading on issues ranging from institutional accountability, the structures of the office of the premier and the cabinet, to issues of health care, social policy, the environment, and culture. The topics examined in these chapters provide a broad understanding of the issues in the province and would serve as an excellent starting point for further exploration.

British Columbia Politics and Government offers a valuable overview of British Columbia politics, and clearly meets the goal of explaining the character of politics within the province and what sets it apart from the rest of the federation. The content of the volume is broad enough to be used as a text for an undergraduate course in BC politics, but offers the level of insight more senior students and researchers seek in understanding the politics of British Columbia and its place in Canada.

Michael Howlett, Dennis Pilon and Tracy Summerville
British Columbia Politics and Government
Edmond Montgomery Publications, 2009   pp. $63.00