1. Home
  2. Politics
  3. Federal Politics

I - Canada’s political system

Justin Trudeau sits next to Mary Simon as she delivers the Speech from the Throne.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits next to Governor General Mary Simon as she delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Adrian Wyld

RCI

In 1867, the British North America Act (BNA Act), the Constitution of Canada, united three British colonies: the Province of Canada (comprising Upper Canada, which is now Ontario, and Lower Canada, which is now Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The BNA Act made Canada a constitutional monarchy, whose sovereign is the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom (currently Charles III).

Canada is a federation, which means that powers are divided between a central (federal) government and 10 provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador).

The powers of the federal government and the provinces are enshrined in the Constitution. The jurisdictions of the three territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) are conferred on them by the federal government and aren’t enshrined in the BNA Act.

Charles III is Canada’s head of state.

Queen Elizabeth II signs the Canadian Constitution surrounded by several men, including Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Signing of the Canadian Constitution by Queen Elizabeth II in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, in the presence of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Ron Poling

In the past, only the British sovereign could amend the Constitution. In 1982, Canada patriated its Constitution, which means it adopted mechanisms to amend it itself, following an agreement between the federal government and nine of the provinces. Quebec refused to sign the agreement, primarily because it wasn’t granted special constitutional status.

Furthermore, since 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is entrenched in the Constitution. Despite these changes, Canada remains a constitutional monarchy and the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, is still the Queen of Canada.

Canada’s system of government is inspired by the British parliamentary system and strongly rooted in tradition. The Parliament of Canada consists of two houses:

  • The House of Commons (Lower House) includes 338 elected members.
  • The Senate (Upper House) includes 105 members appointed by the prime minister and representing all regions of the country.

A less partisan and more independent Senate

In December 2015, the Trudeau government established a new independent and non-partisan body to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments. This advisory committee makes recommendations based on merit to choose who should be appointed to the Senate.


Who governs Canada?

Mary Simon stands in front of a microphone and two Canadian flags.

Mary Simon is the current Governor General of Canada. She represents Queen Elizabeth II.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Sean Kilpatrick

Constitutionally, Canada’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.

She is represented by a governor general at the federal level and by 10 lieutenant governors, one per province.

The three territories each have a commissioner representing the Queen. They mainly have a ceremonial role.

The governor general, or his representative, grants royal assent to bills passed in Parliament.

He summons and dissolves Parliament, reads the speech from the throne, signs certain state documents and presides over certain swearing-in ceremonies.

Legislative power

Justin Trudeau smiles at a press conference with his new government in the background.

Justin Trudeau is Canada's current Prime Minister.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Justin Tang

Canada is also a parliamentary democracy. Members of Parliament meeting in the House of Commons hold legislative power, which means they can draw up and pass laws. They debate bills in the House, study them fully in committees, propose amendments to them, and then pass or defeat them.

Although government members usually introduce bills, opposition members may also introduce them on their own behalf.

The Senate also contributes to the legislative process by passing bills voted on by the House of Commons before they receive royal assent. Senators can reject a bill, but don’t do so often. They can also amend bills introduced in the House of Commons.

The Senate also has the power to introduce bills, except for money bills (those having a financial impact or requiring public expenditure).

Executive power

In Canada, the Cabinet holds executive power. Its role is to set the policies of the government of the day and administer state affairs according to laws passed by the legislature.

The head of the Cabinet is the prime minister. Following parliamentary tradition, he is the leader of the party that obtained the most seats in the House of Commons.

The prime minister appoints ministers, senators, lieutenant governors of the provinces, and Supreme Court judges. He also chooses the date to dissolve Parliament and call an election and the date to vote.

Except in rare instances, ministers are chosen from members of Parliament. In comparison, the United States Constitution formally prohibits elected officials from being ministers (called secretaries in the U.S.).


The opposition

Pierre Poilievre.

The leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Pierre Poilievre, is the current leader of the Opposition.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Jeff McIntosh

According to tradition, the party with the second most seats becomes the Official Opposition. Its head becomes the leader of the Opposition.

To have official party status in the Commons and obtain funding for research, a party must win at least 12 seats.

During each fiscal year, certain days are set aside for the Opposition to debate issues it chooses. The Opposition can also use these days to request a vote in the House on any matter it chooses. The party forming the government, however, decides the days granted to the Opposition.


Majority or minority government

Black and white photograph of the House of Commons

The House of Commons in 1941

Photo: La Presse canadienne

Tradition dictates that the party winning the most seats forms the government. If a party ends up with more than half the seats in the House of Commons, a majority government forms and has control over the House.

But if the party winning the most seats still has fewer than half the total seats, it is likely to form a minority government. This status means that the opposition parties, with their greater number of seats, can block bills from passing. The Opposition can also bring down the government on major matters like the budget.

To govern, the party in power must have the support of the House. When there is a minority government, the Opposition can try to topple it by tabling a non-confidence motion. If the motion wins the majority of votes from members, the government then falls.

When the government is brought down, the House of Commons is dissolved and an election called.

A minority party can unite with another party in the House of Commons to obtain an absolute majority. In such cases, the alliance may be temporary like the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party in 2005. It may also be a formal alliance whereby the party that agrees to unite obtains positions within the government.

If a party comes to power without winning seats in every province, tradition allows the prime minister to appoint ministers from among senators who are from provinces without a seat. This practice occurred in 1979 and 1980 under the governments of Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau.

Senators who are ministers aren’t permitted to sit in the House of Commons, but may sit in the Cabinet and on the Priorities Committee.

The prime minister may also appoint an unelected person as a minister. This new minister, however, must be elected as soon as possible in a by-election. If he loses the election, he must resign as minister.

Headlines