[4th and 5th last paras] Professor Hugo Cyr, of the University of Quebec in Montreal, a law clerk at the time when LeBel was appointed, ...

... says LeBel was good “at bringing people together. That allowed him to co-write very important decisions” like Dunsmuir in 2008 (that revamped the criteria for judicial review of the decisions of administrative bodies and lower courts) and the 2007 Canadian Western Banks decision on the division of powers. It signalled Ottawa doesn’t always trump the provinces, that courts would respect the legislative choices of both and advanced the idea of co-operative federalism, which LeBel developed further in other rulings and tried to “ensure that basically our federal system is not a system of two solitudes.”

1. [mass noun] The state or situation of being alone

2. A lonely or uninhabited place

The ODO definitions don't seem to fit. How does it make sense for a federal system to be [1.] left alone? It's an independent entity already? [2.] It must be inhabited, because Members of Parliament work there?

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    @FumbleFingers If you come across the phrase as a learner, and you don't know what it means, why would it be off-topic here? The answer to a question shouldn't make the question off-topic. – ColleenV Nov 30 '14 at 14:46
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    @FumbleFingers What confused the OP was the fact that "two solitudes" was being used figuratively. That's why the ODO's definition of "solitude" was unhelpful, and why the phrase presented an obstacle for someone learning English. A non-Canadian native speaker can still understand the figurative usage (I did). The meaning of "French/English separation" is not limited to sociologists; it's been a somewhat common cliché in Canada since about 1980. It certainly can be relevant in other situations; the present question is specifically about one. – Ben Kovitz Nov 30 '14 at 14:53
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    @FumbleFingers The question doesn't recognize it as a pair, which is the heart of the problem. I agree it's in a gray area, but the question is about language and there is a concise answer even if the accepted answer generously explains more than just the language issue. – ColleenV Nov 30 '14 at 15:00
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    @FumbleFingers I do think that all of the English language is on topic here, at least from a meaning/vocabulary perspective, and I don't understand why you don't. The help says "word meaning and usage" not "words and phrases that we deem a sufficient number of learners will be exposed to". The asker did do some research to try to answer their own question, and it didn't help. – ColleenV Nov 30 '14 at 15:20
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    @FumbleFingers The OP didn't think to google for "two solitudes" because he didn't know that "two solitudes" is a cliché. He looked up "solitude" in a dictionary, posted a link to the entry, and explained his puzzlement. – Ben Kovitz Nov 30 '14 at 15:38

"Two solitudes" alludes to the 1945 novel Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan, about the conflicts between English- and French-speaking Canadians. Today, the phrase usually refers to the way English- and French-speaking Canadians tend to live very separately from each other, with little culture or social life in common.

Here's why "two solitudes" makes sense in the context where you found it. Federalism is a "two-tier" form of government in which provinces each have their own government and there is also a national, or "federal", government. One approach to federalism would be to have a strict separation of jurisdiction and authority between the provinces and the federal government ("two solitudes"), where neither can impinge on the other's decisions—the federal government, say, attending to foreign policy, national defense, monetary policy, and inter-province commerce, and each provincial government attending to commerce within its own province, education within its own province, roads and infrastructure within its own province, etc. It appears that LeBel played an important role in decisions that established overlapping authority for the provinces and the federal government.

"Two solitudes" is an interesting, even poetic choice of words for a situation of strictly delimited authority between the federal and provincial governments. Because of the sad connotation of the word "solitude", it casts the federal and provincial governments as lonely people each tending silently to their own walled gardens on some cold, cloudy day. It suggests that they'd cheer up if they took down the walls and talked and worked together on the gardens, even though they won't agree about everything.

Because of MacLennan's novel and the term's use for Canada's cultural divide, the analogy with strict division of legislative powers might come across more clearly and with less of the poetic connotation to (English-speaking) Canadians than to other English speakers.

I just googled and found that the phrase first occurs in these two sentences of the novel: "He wondered if Heather had ever felt as he did now. Two solitudes in the infinite waste of loneliness under the sun." [link]

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    Very interesting! It turns out there's even a Wikipedia article on "Two Solitudes" in the social and political sense. – CowperKettle Nov 30 '14 at 11:29
  • @CopperKettle: Quite. I'm not sure if that Wikipedia article makes this question General Reference, but I really can't see how such a "restricted-currency" usage can be relevant to people wanting to learn English. It's only relevant to people who are interested in the social/administrative divisions within Canadian society. – FumbleFingers Nov 30 '14 at 13:53
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    @FumbleFingers: It's relevant to ELL in the sense: how can non-native speakers determine when a word is being used figuratively? How does one get from a literal meaning to a figurative meaning? This "leap" is one that the OP often does not make. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 30 '14 at 15:24
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    @FumbleFingers Whoa, my explanation must have been very unclear if it's left you thinking that "two solitudes" can only apply to social/administrative divisions within Canadian society. It's actually a cliché in Canadian English. Here's a newspaper editorial complaining about clichés, which unwittingly uses it for yet another meaning. Here it's used to describe bad blood between marketing and IT. – Ben Kovitz Nov 30 '14 at 15:35
  • @Ben Kovitz: Obviously if the usage has any currency at all among the "chattering classes" in Canada, it can be extended to any number of related contexts. But taking the English language and Anglophones as a whole, it has effectively no currency. And given it's so easy to look up the specialised usage, I maintain that analysing it here is irrelevant to the needs of ELL learners in general. – FumbleFingers Nov 30 '14 at 15:41

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