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Watts, Ronald L.

Last Updated: 2022

Ronald Lampman Watts (March 10, 1929 – October 9, 2015) was a Canadian political scientist who taught political philosophy, comparative federalism, Canadian federalism, British dominions, and intergovernmental relations in the departments of Philosophy and Political Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, from 1955 to 1994. He received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1963. K. C. Wheare was his dissertation advisor.

He is best known to students of federalism for his book, Comparing Federal Systems (3d. ed. 2008). This widely cited book provides pithy comparative discussions of nearly all features common to federations. Watts drew five lessons from his comparative study. First, federal systems “provide a practical way of combining through representative institutions the benefits of both unity and diversity” (p. 190). Second, however, federalism is not a panacea for all ailments of political societies. Third, the effectiveness of a federal system depends greatly on “acceptance of the need to respect constitutional norms and structures” and on adherence to “the spirit of tolerance and compromise” (p. 191). Fourth, a successful federal system sustains federal institutions that adequately express the demands and requirements of its society. Fifth, “with appropriately designed institutions,” federal systems can prosper in multi-ethnic and multi-national societies (p. 191).

In 1987, Watts published a comparison of the Canadian and U.S. federal systems. He concluded: “The United States began with an ostensibly restricted grant of powers to the national government and with an apparently substantial residue of authority assigned to the states. The Canadian federation began with a strong central government. But each federation has evolved in the opposite direction to the point where now the national government in the United States is more powerful than in Canada and the provinces in Canada are stronger than the American states” (p. 791). The explanation of this seeming paradox lies in the different socioeconomic and institutional factors that shaped federalism in each country, including stronger provincial identities, especially in Quebec, that restrained Canada’s federal government.

Watts also served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (1969-1974) and Principal and Vice-Chancellor (1974-1984) of Queen’s University; Commissioner for the (Pepin-Robarts) Task Force on Canadian Unity (1978-1979); Director of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at Queen’s University (1989-1993); member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Publius: The Journal of Federalism (1988-2015); President of the International Association of Centers for Federal Studies (1991-1998), which named an award after him in 2015—the Ronald Watts Young Researcher Award; President of the Canadian Association of Rhodes Scholars (1991-1993); and member of the board of the Forum of Federations (2000-2006) where he was instrumental in inaugurating the Global Dialogue on Federalism. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979 and promoted to Companion in 2000.


Ronald L. Watts, New Federations: Experiments in the Commonwealth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); Ronald L. Watts, “The Macdonald Commission Report and Canadian Federalism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 16:3 (1986): 175-199; Ronald L. Watts, “The American Constitution in Comparative Perspective: A Comparison of Federalism in the United States and Canada,” Journal of American History 74:3 (December 1987): 769-792; Ronald L. Watts, “Canadian Federalism in the 1990s: Once More in Question,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 21:3 (Summer 1991): 169-190; Ronald L. Watts, “Federalism, Federal Political Systems, and Federations,” Annual Review of Political Science1998: 117-137; Ronald L. Watts, “The Contemporary Relevance of the Federal Idea in Africa,” African Journal of Federal Studies 1:1 (April 2000): 2-18; Ronald L. Watts, “Equalization in Commonwealth Federations,” Regional and Federal Studies 13:4 (Winter 2003): 111-128; Akhtar Majeed, Ronald L. Watts, and Douglas M. Brown, eds., Distribution of Powers and Responsibilities in Federal Countries (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006); and Ronald L. Watts, Comparing Federal Systems, 3d ed. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).