Canadian Journal of Political Science

Research Article

Ideas, Executive Federalism and Institutional Change: Explaining Territorial Inclusion in Canadian First Ministers' Conferences

Christopher Alcantara 

Wilfrid Laurier University


Abstract. Official participation in Canadian First Ministers' Conferences has long been exclusive to federal and provincial first ministers. In March 1992, however, the membership of this intergovernmental arena was expanded permanently to include territorial premiers. Using the tools of historical institutionalism and drawing upon relevant literature and eleven elite interviews with former first ministers and senior civil servants, this paper seeks to explain why this instance of incremental institutional change occurred. It finds that significant friction between the institutional and ideational layers of the Canadian federation during a period of mega-constitutional reform allowed federal, provincial and territorial actors to draw upon ideas about democracy and the political and constitutional maturation of the territorial North to expand permanently the membership of First Ministers' Conferences.

Résumé. Pendant longtemps, seuls les premiers ministres fédéral et provinciaux étaient admis officiellement à la conférence des premiers ministres du Canada. Toutefois, en mars 1992, ce sommet intergouvernemental était élargi en permanence de façon à accueillir les premiers ministres des territoires. À l'aide des outils de l'institutionnalisme historique, et en tirant parti de la documentation pertinente ainsi que de 11 entrevues menées auprès d'un groupe sélect d'ex-premiers ministres et de hauts fonctionnaires, cet article tente d'expliquer pourquoi nous avons assisté à un tel degré de changement constitutionnel. Nous en concluons que d'importantes frictions entre les niveaux institutionnel et idéationnel de la fédération canadienne au cours d'une période de réforme mégaconstitutionnelle ont permis aux acteurs fédéraux, provinciaux et territoriaux de s'inspirer d'idées portant sur la démocratie et sur le processus de maturation politique et constitutionnel du Nord territorial afin d'accroître en permanence le nombre de participants aux conférences des premiers ministres.


Christopher Alcantara, Department of Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo ON N2L 3C5; email:


  Acknowledgments: This research was supported by a SSHRC Strategic Research Grant, Northern Communities: Towards Social and Economic Prosperity, grant #866-2008-0003. The author would like to thank Lauren Hilderley for her research assistance, the interviewees who generously shared their time with us and the following individuals for their comments on earlier versions of this manuscript: Christopher Cochrane, Tom Flanagan, Thomas Hueglin, Anthony Sayers, Jennifer Wallner, Graham White and the three anonymous reviewers of this journal. As usual, all errors, omissions, and weaknesses are the sole responsibility of the author.