The recent history of provincial autonomy in Canada can be divided into four distinct eras
1. The War Years
Mackenzie King to Louis St. Laurent
Canada went through a massive centralization of power at the end of the Great Depression and through the Second World War and the provinces were happy to hand much control over to Ottawa.
After the recommendations of the Rowell-Sirois commission in 1940, the federal government took control of taxation powers and social programs including unemployment insurance and old-age security.
"You had this massive lurch toward centralization," said Jack Mintz, head of the school of policy studies at the University of Calgary.
In return, Ottawa assumed massive provincial debts.
With Canada at war and staggering out of the worst economic downturn of the century, provinces were happy to hand over responsibilities.
"Nobody expected New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to mount a war effort," said Donald Savoie, a professor of public policy at the University of Moncton.
In the postwar era, Canada established old-age security and the principles that went on to be the pillars of the Canada Health Act.
2. The Quiet Revolution
John Diefenbaker to Lester Pearson
The roots of Stephen Harper's push for provincial autonomy reach back to the start of the Quiet Revolution in 1960.
As Quebec turned toward education to crawl out of the dark authoritarian ages of the Duplessis era, it started to demand rights and control over key levers of government.
"Maîtres chez nous" (masters in our own house) became a slogan as the province withdrew from cost-sharing programs such as the Canada Pension Plan.
"It was all pushed by the Quiet Revolution in Quebec in the early sixties, with the province pushing more strongly for autonomy, and other provinces saying, 'Why don't we get similar rights?' " Dr. Mintz said.
Although prime minister John Diefenbaker talked like a strong defender of provincial rights, his era also produced a national Bill of Rights and funding for universities that triggered ire in Quebec.
"He was a bit confused," said Dr. Savoie, who served as a senior federal bureaucrat under Pierre Trudeau.
It was under Lester Pearson that Quebec began to withdraw from federal cost-sharing programs. It was also under Mr. Pearson that Canada established a cost-sharing program with the provinces to allow them to create their modern medicare systems.
The federal health-care standards that came with the funding remain a source of conflict between the federal and provincial governments.
3. The Constitution and NEP
Pierre Trudeau to Brian Mulroney
With the patriation of the Constitution and national energy program, Mr. Trudeau is often described as the great enemy of provincial rights, particularly in Alberta and Quebec.
But even he shifted responsibilities and powers to the provinces when it suited him. In 1977, he changed the funding formula for social programs and education, shifting tax points to the provinces.
"The Trudeau government of the late seventies seemed to want to reduce the scale of federal responsibility for Canadians' well-being," wrote historian Alvin Finkel.
Joe Clark's brief period in office between Mr. Trudeau's mandates of the 1970s and 1980s presaged the current shift of power to the provinces. Mr. Clark's brief argument for a "community of communities" gave a hint of what would follow when Brian Mulroney took office in 1984.
"That was a turning point," Dr. Savoie said. "It was far easier for politicians to argue for less involvement from the national government. ... It became much more fashionable to talk about autonomy."
Mr. Mulroney cancelled the NEP and proposed a shift of power toward the provinces and special status for Quebec with the Meech Lake constitutional accord.
Meech was rejected but the decentralization of Canada was well under way.
After leading the No side to a narrow victory in the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, even Jean Chrétien, a former Trudeau cabinet minister, promised a devolution of powers to help appease Quebec.
4. Provincial autonomy today
Many experts agree: Stephen Harper is the prime minister most committed to provincial autonomy since the Second World War.
"Mulroney was an opportunist; he didn't have the deep political convictions that Harper has," said Paul Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Manitoba.
What nobody knows is just how far Mr. Harper will go in pursuit of decentralization.
Mr. Harper has declared the "Québécois" a nation and has promised to pursue "open federalism." He's pledged to limit federal spending power while effectively doing it by cutting taxes and reducing Ottawa's room to manoeuvre.
Dr. Mintz argues Mr. Harper may simply be trying to more clearly define federal and provincial areas to reduce bickering and allow the provinces and the federal government to act aggressively.
"Knowing Harper, his real view of federalism is a watertight compartment theory," Dr. Mintz said.
"I guess there's a question of whether it's really autonomy or a more clear definition of who is responsible for what."
CANADA'S REGIONAL PRIORITIES ARE ALL OVER THE MAP
Manitoba is the sole western province collecting equalization payments, and exploding wealth in the region has those provinces looking for more power and control.
Alberta and British Columbia have ventured as far as Texas and California on recent joint trade missions - without the feds - while onetime have-not Saskatchewan has staged an open brawl with Ottawa over equalization payments.
Even Manitoba wants more say in justice issues. And add all of these to a long-standing dispute over how much say Ottawa should have over health care when oil-rich Alberta could pay its own way. Even within the West, governments are less likely to work together, according to Paul Thomas, a University of Manitoba political science professor. "It feels less and less like the West is getting its act together to work in concert," he said.
You know times are tough in Ontario when Newfoundland is offering a helping hand.
Premier Danny Williams's offer to help the "weak sister," may have been in jest, but it underlined what may be an identity crisis in Canada's most populous province.
For a long time, Ontario was among the staunchest defenders of a strong central government. That began to shift 20 years ago when leaders started to question the big tab the province paid for poorer corners of Canada. Now, with a recession feared, Premier Dalton McGuinty is demanding a new deal. He says it's "nonsense" that Ontario sends $20-billion to the rest of Canada in tough times.
"I think Ontario is very confused," said Donald Savoie, a professor of public policy at the University of Moncton.
"Ontario, over the years, has drawn great benefits on the national front from the presence of the federal government."
The fight for provincial rights and autonomy started in Quebec and is still all about the province in many ways.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks about provincial autonomy, it's with one eye toward the province that might make the difference in the next election.
In the early 1950s, Quebec first sought the right to tax corporations, according to Jack Mintz, professor of public policy at the University of Calgary. Ontario soon followed suit. And Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis bristled at the intrusion when Ottawa started funding universities.
Over 50 years, the province has taken control of its pension system, immigration and labour training. It has obtained a seat at international tables such as UNESCO and wants a labour-mobility deal with France.
While Quebec has gone alone on many fronts over the years, its approach is now closer to the rule than the exception.
When Pierre Trudeau looked for help to defend national programs, his staunchest allies were usually found in the Atlantic provinces.
"There was a knee-jerk reaction that national institutions and programs had to be protected," Dr. Savoie said. "Trudeau could count on Richard Hatfield to argue against hurting the poorer provinces." But where the New Brunswick premier once stood by Ottawa's side, Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams strides the national agenda with demands for money and control.
"You don't really hear the language of Hatfield from Danny Williams," Dr. Savoie said. "Or from anyone else, really."
Resource money has helped. But some say the shift goes deeper than oil wells.
Dr. Savoie says many Easterners are concluding big programs from Ottawa have often worked against their interests.