Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Canadian Political System

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The Canadian political system's history, components, and methods of legislating

Dave Lympany originally wrote this. I edited this for accuracy (it was a bit out of date), grammar and clarity, besides adding some points to make it more complete.

History and Role of the Canadian Government

The Canadian political system was created by the Fathers of Confederation at the Quebec conference of 1864. This then became law when the Constitution Act was passed in 1867. This act gave formal executive authority to Queen Victoria (Queen of Great Britain) which made Canada a sovereign democracy. The Canadian political system is therefore loosely based on the British system.

In creating the Canadian political system, the Fathers of Confederation gave Canada's federal government the power to "make laws for the peace, order and good government of Canada."

Today, Canada is an independent Federal state with the Queen of England still being the head of state. However, as it is the Canadian Parliament's House of Commons and Senate which write legislation (the Queen is also part of Parliament), Her Majesty's powers are extremely limited; all the Queen does nowadays is give the "Royal Assent" as a formal recognition that a new law has been passed.
The Governor General of Canada is the Queen's representative in Canada and carries out all the Royal obligations when the Queen is not in Canada (and she usually carries them out even when Her Majesty visits). The Governor is always a Canadian (in practice, though not in law) chosen by the Queen on the advice of Canada's Prime Minister. The length of office is normally five years for the Governor General, who resides in Ottawa. Ottawa is also home to the Houses of Parliament (where the MPs and Senators, i.e. the federal government, creates laws) are located, making Ottawa Canada's capital city.

There are 4 powers in the Canadian political system. First, there is the Queen of England, who is Canada's titular Head of State, a hereditary title in the British Royal Family. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party elected into power, and he is Canada's de facto head of state (update: in the popular sense of the term; he is technically the 'head of government'... see the comments below for more). The Senate, which is the upper house of the legislature, is appointed by the Queen/Governor General on the Prime Minister's recommendations. Finally, there is the lower house of the legislature, the popularly elected House of Commons.

The Senate

The Senate is made up of 105 Senators who are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Each Province or Territory has a set number of Senators - 24 each from the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario, 6 each from Alberta, BC, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 6 from Newfoundland and Labrador and a further 1 each from the three Territories. To serve on the Senate, one has to be a Canadian citizen, over age 30, own $4,000 of equity in land in their home Province, have over $4,000 as personal net worth and live in the province represented. Senators can serve until age 75.

The main role of the Senate is to read over and examine the bills (laws) sent from the House of Commons. The Senate can also initiate bills. In practice, though, the Senate rarely initiates legislation, and equally rarely will the Senate reject a bill (which results in the bill being sent back to the House of Commons for amendment).

The House of Commons

The real power in Canadian politics is held by the House of Commons. The members of Parliament (MPs) are elected by the general public during a federal election, for a term of 5 years, during which they sit in the House of Commons.

-Electing the House of Commons and the Prime Minister

The country is split up into ridings, or constituencies (currently totaling 308), by population size, and candidates run for election in each riding. Whichever candidate in a particular riding who is given the most votes in the federal election wins the right to represent that constituency in Parliament. This is known as "winning the seat," because each riding's representative has a seat in Parliament. This is also the reason for references to 'sitting MPs': the allusion is to the Canadian population's current representatives.

Most candidates represent a particular political party and the party with the most "seats" takes over as the Government. The main parties in Canada are the Liberal Party of Canada, currently lead by Bill Graham, the ruling (as of this writing) Conservative Party of Canada, lead by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Jack Layton's New Democratic Party (NDP), Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois and Jim Harris' Green Party.

The leader of the political party that wins the election becomes the Prime Minister of Canada, which is why Stephen Harper of the Conservatives is Prime Minister. The Prime Minister effectively runs the day-to-day affairs of the country with the support and advice of his Cabinet. The Cabinet is made up of "Ministers" chosen by the Prime Minister to be responsible for certain fields of competency in the government. For example, there are ministers of Health, Finance, Defence and Immigration, to name only a few. These areas of responsibility are called "portfolios" and each minister will have a large team of people, known as civil servants, working for him/her. Only the ministers and their top aides change during an election - not the civil servants.

A government with an absolute majority of seats (i.e. 155+ of the 308 elected MPs) in the House will be self-reliant, enabling it to pass most of the laws it wants. Conversely, a minority government (one which has more seats than any other party, but fewer seats than all the other parties combined) has to rely on the support of the other parties to pass its laws.

-After the election

The MPs' main duties in representing their constituencies are writing and debating laws. In addition, depending on their party, MPs will either generally support or oppose the government. The official Opposition (currently the Liberals) is the political party with the second most seats in the House. Their principal job is to hold the government accountable for their decisions.

After each election, the Senate and the House of Commons either elect (House) or appoint (Senate) a Speaker. The Speaker is in charge of proceedings and has to be impartial in his enforcing the rules of the House/Senate during debates and votes. The Speaker presides over the House from a raised chair with the government MPs to his right and the opposition to his left.

Making the Laws

To start with, the House of Commons members introduce a "Bill" (legislative proposal). The details of the Bill are read in the House without debate and then the Bill is printed (the first reading).

During the second reading the principles of the Bill are debated followed by a vote. If successful, the Bill is then sent to the Committee stage.

A committee will listen to testimony, examine the Bill and then submits a report to the House recommending it as it is, with amendments or scrapped. From here it goes to the report stage. In the report phase, any amendments are debated and voted on. Then it will pass to the third reading. This is where the House finally debates and votes on the final draft - if it passes the vote it is sent to the Senate.

The Senate puts the Bill through the same process as the House. If the proposed legislation makes it through all that, which it normally does, it is given 'Royal Assent' (see History, above) and becomes Canadian Law.

The author immigrated to Canada in 2003 and has constructed a free information website about Canadian Immigration and life in Canada based on his family's experiences. he also has a page on the Canadian political system.

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At 10:19 a.m., Canadian Politico Anonymous thickslab said:

There are so many things wrong with this, aside from the awful grammar:

1. The head of state is the Queen of Canada. She happens to be the same person as the Queen of the UK, but the two roles are separate.

2. The Queen is part of Parliament.

3. The Governor-General carries most of the queen's obligations even when she is in Canada.

4. The Governor-General does not need to be Canadian.

5. The Speaker of the Senate does not have to be impartial. The Speaker of the Senate participates in debates and has the right to cast an original vote while presiding over voting.

6. Martin resigned as Liberal Leader on March 18.

At 10:33 p.m., Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

There are probably grammar issues I missed, as this is an edited version of someone else's work, which I found informative, if, as you pointed out, incomplete. Clearly you know more though, so thanks for the clarifications. I'll be checking it out myself, and posting corrections as needed.
Again, thanks for the insightful comment!
p.s. Isn't Martin still the titular leader until a new one is elected by party members?

At 2:06 a.m., Canadian Politico Anonymous Don said:

I agree with the poster who said this article is wrong, wrong, wrong in many ways.

In no sense is the Prime Minister the "de facto head of state". One can make a good argument that the Governor General is the de facto head of state. I think what he is trying to get at is that the PM is the head of government. That is why the concepts of head of government and head of state are separated in political science, even though in some systems a single person fulfills both roles (e.g. the President in the US).

To answer lecentre's question, I believe that Martin fully resigned as Liberal Party leader, so he is neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the party leader.

I strongly recommend the publication How Canadians Govern Themselves, 6th Edition, by the late Senator Eugene Forsey. It is a great (and accurate) overview of the entire federal system, the constitution, division of power between federal and provincial levels, and a section that compares the US and Canadian systems. You can read the entire thing online or, like I did, you can write an e-mail to the Library of Parliament requesting a copy, and they'll mail you one for free.

- Don

At 7:15 p.m., Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

Wow, thanks Don! That's a very insightful post, and that website is excellent. I have every intention of writing for a copy of the book, if only for the occasional reference.

Thanks also for correcting me on the terminology difference between head of state and head of government.

Nonetheless, in common parlance, we usually refer to the PM as the head of state. For example, when journalists write about the G8 meetings, they say, "The heads of state of the world's eight largest industrial nations are meeting to discuss..." They obviously aren't referring to the Governor General.

At 1:20 a.m., Canadian Politico Anonymous Don said:

lecentre:Good point. And I'm glad you found the link useful.


At 10:59 p.m., Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

Thickslab and Don, thanks for the constructive criticism. The post's been updated accordingly.
I disagree it was wrong, wrong wrong, as you put it, because most of the corrections appeared to be small semantic errors, as with the de facto head of state thing, or with the Speaker of the Senate's impartiality. The implication (now made explicit) was that the Speaker had to be impartial in enforcing the rules. So...

1) It says the Queen is the head of state, and said so in the original.

2) I stand corrected. Thanks for the fyi.

3) Not really a correction, but the point is well taken, and the post is now more precise in its' language.

4) If we're going to play semantics, I'll point out that the post says the GG 'is always' Canadian; not that that is necessarily so. The difference is that one refers to a de facto state of affairs, while the other refers to a rule.

5) Fixed.

6) Fixed.

Thanks again! I know I'll have to be more precise with my language in the future, because you guys really keep me on my toes.


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