As capital, Ottawa is the seat of Canada’s government. Canada has a Westminster style federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. It has one of the most stable democracies in the world and one of the most democratic nations.
The provinces of Canada are co-sovereign, meaning they hold power alongside the federal government, not beneath it. As a result, each province has a significant amount of autonomy. They are responsible for providing their social services, including health care. The federal government influences this by tying funding to federally mandated standards.
Elections in Canada
In order to vote in a Federal election, you must be a Canadian citizen aged 18 or older who lives in Canada or has been abroad for less than 5 years. Permanent residents of Canada are not eligible to vote in any elections. Government employees serving abroad are exempt from residency requirements. Provincial, territorial, and municipal elections may have other requirements.
Electoral campaigns are kept as brief as possible and parties are strictly limited in their spending. Election campaigns are legally required to last at least 36 days. The prime minister is not elected directly.
Political parties elect party leaders before an election. Candidates, including the party leader, then run for the house of commons. Candidates do not need a majority of votes (50+%), only a plurality (more votes than any other candidate). Members of the house of commons are elected for up to 5 year terms.
Canadians elect their local member of parliament (MP) to sit on the house of commons. Local districts are known as ridings. The prime minister is typically the leader of the party with the most seats in the house of commons. If a single party has the majority of the seats in the house of commons, they have a majority government. If the party with the most seats holds fewer seats than the other parties combined, the party leader to be prime minister must have support from the majority of the house.
The largest party that is not in control of the house of commons is known as the opposition party. The role of the opposition is to keep the government in check. They maintain their own cabinet and party leader.
MPs can run without being affiliated with a political party and may switch parties after they’ve been elected. Any time a seat of the house of commons is vacant, a by-election is held.
In the case of a no confidence motion, the governor general whom represents the monarchy will call an election on advice of the prime minister. If the budget does not pass, it results in a failure state and triggers new elections. Theoretically, the governor general can dissolve parliament at any time. Governments typically don’t last more than 5 years, although there are specific exemptions to this rule. The opposition party is always ready with a new government, complete with a potential prime minister, cabinet, and senators.
The Parliamentary System
Theoretically, Canada is run by her Queen. The governor general, or viceroy, acts on her behalf, typically on the advice of the prime minister. The queen also has a privy council that advises her on important issues, members of which are appointed for life by the governor general. The prime minister is selected by by elected members of parliament. The Queen then appoints a governor general, typically on advice of the prime minister. The senate is appointed by the governor general. Got that?
The governor general
- Appoints members to open spots on the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, typically from former cabinet members.
- Appoints cabinet ministers.
- Appoints members to open spot on the senate.
- Stands in for the Queen and is a member of the monarchy.
The prime minister
- Is typically the leader of the majority party.
- Serves as the head of the government.
- Selects cabinet ministers, who are appointed by the governor general.
- Recommends a governor general to the Queen.
The house of commons is elected by each local district. Seats are roughly tied to the population of each province or territory. While the house of commons may last for 5 years, or longer under certain circumstances, it nearly always ends within 4 years. They are responsible for taxes and uses of public funds. The house of commons is the lower house, referring to its rank, not its power.
The senate is not elected, but rather appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Senators may serve until they’ve reached the age of 75 or they step down. They are responsible for providing a check on Parliament’s excesses. Generally, the Senate exercises little influence on legislation. The senate is the upper house, referring to the rank of its members.
All legislation must be approved by both the house of commons and the senate. The governor general, with approval from the Queen, can appoint up to 8 extra senators to resolve a deadlock. Technically, legislation can be proposed by either the house of commons or the senate, but the vast majority of legislation arises from the house of commons.
The supreme court (SCC) makes final rulings, but only since 1949. Of the 9 judges that sit on the court, 3 must be from Quebec. This is because Quebec uses civil law, while the rest of Canada uses common law. Common law relies on judicial opinions whereas civil law tends to reference codified statutes for decision making. Generally, 3 judges will be from Ontario, 2 from the west, and 1 from the east. The Queen appoints the Chief Justice. They can hear cases from any court, as well as reference cases (which pose hypothetical questions).
Canada’s political parties
There are three main political parties in Canada: the Conservative Party (Tories), the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party. There’s also the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party. And a bunch more.
You can read the manifestos of each party to get a more in-depth explanation of their policies.
Political parties in each province vary significantly from the parties at the federal level.
The Liberal Party
The Liberals support a free market and free trade, but support using tax money to build social services and infrastructure. The Liberal Party supports a strong social safety net and human rights causes. They aim to balance what’s best for business and the public and strongly support immigration and multiculturalism.
The Liberal party was in power for 69 years of the 20th Century. They’re the centrist party and represent much of the business elite. They have been the majority party in Canada since 2015.
The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party as we know it is relatively new, the result of a merger between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party in 2003. The Conservative Party supports small government, low taxes, gun rights, and a climate good for business and development. They also support more serious repercussions for crime. The Conservative Party is Canada’s official opposition party since 2015, when Stephen Harper’s government was voted out in favor or Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
A Canadian conservative would seem pretty liberal to an American conservative.
New Democratic Party
The NDP supports democratic socialism. The NDP is out to protect the disadvantaged and the environment. They support increasing corporate taxes and nationalization of services and infrastructure. The NDP prioritizes rehabilitation of criminals over jail time.
Traditionally the party of farmers, today it is the party of unions. While the NDP isn’t a key player on its own, it works with the parties in power to pass legislation. They were the first to support bringing socialized medicine to Canada.
The BQ represents the Quebec separatist movement. They advocate specifically for Quebec’s interests.
Quebec holds a large amount of power. Prime ministers from Quebec served nearly continuously from 1968 to 2006, in both liberal and conservative governments. Politicians are expected to speak both English and French. At least 3 of the 9 supreme court judges must be from Quebec, since Quebec has its own system of law.