Government: How Canada's Government Works

By David Nickle

David Nickle is a city hall reporter for the Toronto Community News (Mirror/Guardian) newspapers. He has also published books and stories in Canada and the US.

Canada’s federal government is the first government most Canadian newcomers meet when they come here. It is the government that represents all of Canada. And so it is the government that controls Canada’s borders, and through Citizenship and Immigration Canada, determines who can enter the country and helps newcomers get settled.

Later on, newcomers will probably have more to do with the other two levels of government: one of the country’s ten provincial governments and three territorial governments, or the government of their city or town. It is the job of those governments to provide most of the services Canadian citizens expect for the tax they pay – hospitals, schools, public transit and police to name just a few.

The federal government deals with things that most Canadians do not see every day – things like justice, the military, some highways and other infrastructure, immigration, and relations with other countries in matters of trade.

We may not see it, but the federal government is still important in our lives. With no federal government, Canada would be ten little countries, each with their own laws and values. Whole books have been written about how and why the Canadian federal government works. Here’s a quick explanation.

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The Canadian federal government was created in 1867 to be like the government in Great Britain – a constitutional monarchy. In a constitutional monarchy, the head of the government is the King or Queen. In both Canada and Great Britain, that would be the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.

But although Queen Elizabeth is the head of state in Canada, she is not allowed to make laws or govern directly. The Queen, or Her representative (known as the Governor General), has only ceremonial power. For example, a government must ask permission to call an election – but the Queen or the Governor General almost never says no.

The real power in Canada belongs to the Parliament, which is made up of 301 elected representatives, called Members of Parliament or M.P.s for short. All of the elected M.P.s put together are called the House of Commons. When the Prime Minister opens a session of Parliament, the Governor General reads the Prime Minister’s speech that talks about his plan for the next year.

But really, the Prime Minister is in charge.

Unlike in the United States, (where every American votes for who they want as president) Canadians do not vote for the Prime Minister directly. We vote for a member of parliament, who belongs to one of the political parties. Right now, there are four major political parties: The Liberals, the Conservatives, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, which only elects members in the province of Quebec. There are other parties like the Green Party and Communist Party which do not receive enough votes anywhere in Canada to have even one M.P.

The party that has the most M.P.s elected is considered to be in power, and that party’s leader becomes Prime Minister. For the past 10 years, the governing party has been the Liberal Party, led by Jean Chretien until he retired last year when Paul Martin took over and became Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister is considered to be the one in charge of the government, but he or she needs the help of other members of the governing party. So the Prime Minister will select the most skilled, or sometimes just the most loyal, M.P.s as ministers. Each minister is given what is called a portfolio, or a part of the government to look after.

When you put all of these ministers together, it is called a cabinet. There are 30 members of the federal cabinet right now, but Ministries can be added or shut down, depending on what the Prime Minister thinks is most important.

Some cabinet positions never change, however. The Deputy Prime Minister is considered the Prime Minister’s second-in-command. But the Minister of Finance is really the most important cabinet minister next to the Prime Minister. It is the Ministry of Finance that decides how much tax Canadians will pay and where that tax money is spent. Other ministries – such as Transportation (which controls air travel and rail travel and also helps pay for some roads); Defense (which manages the Canadian military); or the Ministry of the Environment (which passes and enforces laws to keep our air and water clean) – can only work with the money that the budget gives them.

The budget, like every other bill the government wants to pass, must be passed by both the House of Commons and by another group called the Senate. The Senate is not elected – its 105 members are appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, and those appointments last until age 75. The Senate is unpopular in many parts of Canada because forty-eight senators are chosen from just two provinces (Ontario and Quebec), while only 24 come from the four western provinces, and 30 come from the four eastern (Maritime) provinces. That means that Ontario and Quebec have more power in the Senate than any other province.

The purpose of the Senate is to provide a “sober second thought” about laws or legislation that the elected government passes through its majority in the House of Commons. People who criticize the senate say it is mostly used as a reward that Prime Ministers give people who have helped them get elected.

In Canada, the Prime Minister and his cabinet can call an election at any time within five years of the last election. The only way to force an election is for the House of Commons to support what is called a “non-confidence motion” in the government. Voting down (when more than half the House of Commons votes against it) a budget is considered a non-confidence motion.

In Canada, the Prime Minister and his cabinet can call an election at any time within five years of the last election. When that happens, the Prime Minister must either surrender office to the opposition party (the party that has the second-most seats in the House of Commons) or ask the Governor General to dissolve (end) Parliament and call an election.

This is in danger of happening when voters elect what is called a minority government (a government that holds less than half of the seats in the House of Commons). When that happens, the other major parties can, if they choose, vote together against the government. The last time this happened was in 1979, when the old Progressive Conservative Party was removed from office.

If a government has a clear majority government (151 or more seats) then it can govern as it pleases. If it has fewer than that, it must make sure that it has the support of at least one of the opposition parties on every bill that it passes.
There is much more to learn about government in Canada. For example, the government must also pay attention to the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and it must come to agreements with the leaders of the provincial governments.

Much of the information in this article came from Senator Eugene A. Forsey’s booklet “How Canadians Govern Themselves.” It is available online at: www.parl.gc.ca/information/library/idb/forsey/index-e.asp.

CNM