Dynamics and Challenges of Multinational Federalism

Alain-G. Gagnon
Alain-G. Gagnon
Canadian and Quebec flags wave in harmony against the backdrop of the iconic Château Frontenac, epitomizing the spirit of multinational federalism in the heart of Quebec City/Photo Phiend

The Legitimacy Clash is the final installment of a trilogy that began with The Case for Multinational Federalism and continued with Minority Nations in the Age of Uncertainty.  This series of books explores the nuances and complexities of multinational federalism and national diversity. Each book, while distinct in its approach and analysis, contributes to the development of a comprehensive framework for understanding these concepts.

La Raison du plus fort focuses on the importance of normative elements in multinational societies, while Minority Nations in the Age of Uncertainty offers a philosophical reflection on the role of states in managing national diversity and federalism. Together, these works lay the groundwork for The Legitimacy Clash which synthesizes and expands the ideas previously developed, offering a new perspective on the dynamic relationship between majorities and minorities in contemporary states. This trilogy contributes to the understanding of current issues of federalism and national diversity in a constantly evolving global context.

The Reason of the Strongest

La Raison du plus fort concentrates on integrating the normative principles of contemporary liberal philosophies to understand and empower communities within state entities. This work emphasizes the need to respect principles such as justice, equality, freedom, fraternity, and solidarity, essential for the stability and legitimacy of states.

Without recognition of national pluralism, societies compromise their political potential.

The book examines the tension between the communal, egalitarian, and democratic principle, applied differently depending on the multinational or territorial orientation of federations. Through examples from Canada and Belgium, it explores how political decisions influence the dynamics between national communities and central governments.

In Canada, the majority’s reluctance to support the communal principle is counterbalanced by the recognition of Quebec’s democratic legitimacy at key moments. In Belgium, the emphasis on cultural and linguistic compartmentalization and state capacity has led to results of identity fragmentation similar to those observed in Canada, albeit through different paths. These cases highlight the complexity of relationships within federal states and the need for diversified approaches to meet the challenges of multinational federalism.

Minority Nations in the Age of Uncertainty

In Minority Nations in the Age of Uncertainty: New Paths to National Emancipation and Empowerment, a more philosophical approach was adopted to explore the complexities of federalism and national diversity. This work sought to stimulate deep reflection among political and social actors on the functioning of the state and the distribution of sovereign functions, taking into account the needs and expectations of minority nations within multinational states.

The book emphasized the necessity for states to rethink the foundations of their power relations, in response to the national aspirations of political communities that have participated in the constitutional pact. This re-evaluation aims to better meet the needs for national affirmation and to strengthen the legitimacy of existing political structures.

Two main ideas were put forward in this work. First, it was argued that liberal nationalism, perhaps more than any other form of liberalism, possesses the fundamental qualities necessary to establish more complete and inclusive democratic practices. This perspective seeks to address frequent criticisms that see nationalism as a danger to contemporary societies, proposing a model where nationalism and liberalism are not only compatible but also complementary.

Second, the work highlighted that the federal ideal can fully flourish only in mature liberal democracies. This idea goes against classical liberal theories, inherited from the Enlightenment, and proposes a renewal of humanist thought. The contribution of Yael Tamir, with her work Liberal Nationalism, was particularly influential, interconnecting liberalism and nationalism innovatively.

In opposition to the ideas of John Rawls, while acknowledging his contributions to the conception of individual liberalism, this book proposed a reorientation of authority relations, emphasizing national pluralism as a central element of the state’s structure. This approach underscores that without adequate recognition of national pluralism, societies risk compromising their potential and rendering their political actions less legitimate. Thus, this work proposes a framework where the individual and the community are considered in a balanced manner, offering a renewed vision of harmonious cohabitation within multinational states.

The Legitimacy Clash

The Legitimacy Clash focuses on the establishment of political models open to the recognition of nations within multinational states, a concept applicable in both the West and the East. This work transcends simple research programming to offer profound reflection on the current state of federal thought, drawing on Canadian and European examples, as well as the evolution of international institutions in terms of shared sovereignty.

The book, structured in seven chapters, begins by exploring the evolution of states and their interaction with the rights of minority nations, highlighting the tension between legality and legitimacy in complex political contexts.

The second chapter discusses national policies imposed by central governments, often to the detriment of multinational federalism and the sovereignty of member states.

The third chapter examines the realization of the multination as a political subject and the adoption of relational sovereignty to meet the challenges inherent in complex democratic societies.

The fourth chapter offers a critique of the Canadian political order, highlighting competing historical narratives and the central government’s tendency to adopt minimalist recognition policies. This analysis extends to Canada’s transition to a post-national state.

The fifth chapter continues this theme by evaluating the value of diversity in all its forms for advanced liberal democracies.

The sixth chapter focuses on the practices of international organizations regarding the recognition of the right to self-determination. It addresses the issue of sovereignty sharing and the specific attributes of different regimes, highlighting the advances and setbacks of nations in search of recognition.

Finally, the seventh and last chapter explores the potential of the multinational federal state for nations seeking affirmation, particularly in a context where international powers are reluctant to the emergence of new states. It highlights the need for empowerment scenarios for nations within multinational states, to counterbalance political imbalances within complex democratic federations.


In summary, these three works, although distinct in their approach and content, weave together a coherent narrative on the complexity of multinational federalism and national diversity.

The Legitimacy Clash offers an enriched and updated perspective on these themes, building on the foundations established by the first two works, while opening new avenues of reflection on the role and place of minority nations in contemporary democratic societies.

Share This Article
President of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Research Chair in Quebec and Canadian Studies, Director of the Center for Political Analysis: Constitution and Federalism, and Full Professor at the Department of Political Science, UQAM, Montreal.