The politics of Canada function within a framework of parliamentary democracy and a federal system of parliamentary government with strong democratic traditions.Canada is a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch is head of state. In practice, the executive powers are directed by the Cabinet, a committee of ministers of the Crown responsible to the elected House of Commons of Canada and chosen and headed by the Prime Minister of Canada.

Canada is described as a “full democracy”, with a tradition of liberalism, and an egalitarian, moderate political ideology. Far-right and far-left politics have never been a prominent force in Canadian society. Peace, order, and good government, alongside an implied bill of rightsare founding principles of the Canadian government.An emphasis on social justice has been a distinguishing element of Canada’s political culture. Canada has placed emphasis on equality and inclusiveness for all its people.

The country has a multi-party system in which many of its legislative practices derive from the unwritten conventions of and precedents set by the Westminster parliament of the United Kingdom. The two dominant political parties in Canada have historically been the Liberal Party of Canada and the Conservative Party of Canada (or its predecessors) however, the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) has risen to prominence and even threatened to upset the two other established parties during the 2011 federal election. Smaller parties like the Quebec nationalist Bloc Québécois and the Green Party of Canada have also been able to exert their own influence over the political process.

Canada has evolved variations: party discipline in Canada is stronger than in the United Kingdom, and more parliamentary votes are considered motions of confidence, which tends to diminish the role of non-Cabinet members of parliament (MPs). Such members, in the government caucus, and junior or lower-profile members of opposition caucuses, are known as backbenchers. Backbenchers can, however, exert their influence by sitting in parliamentary committees, like the Public Accounts Committee or the National Defence Committee.

Canada is a parliamentary democracy and its system of government holds that the law is the supreme authority. Canada is also a constitutional monarchy and a Commonwealth Realm,  with a federal system of parliamentary government and strong democratic traditions. The country operates under the Westminster political system, based on unwritten conventions and enshrined by the British Parliament in the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982.

Like South Africa, Canada has three arms of government, i.e. the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Executive authority vests in the Queen as the legal head of State; the Governor General as the de facto Head of State; the Prime Minister who is the head of Government; and Cabinet Ministers. Legislative authority vests in the monarch and a bi-cameral Parliament. The Parliament of Canada thus consists of the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons, whilst judicial authority vests in the courts.

Political parties play a critical role in the Canadian parliamentary system. The Parliament of Canada Act and the By-laws of the Board of Internal Economy (the administrative governing body of the House of Commons) distinguish between political parties that are recognised in the House of Commons and those with less than 12 sitting Members. With regard to financial benefits, the Parliament of Canada Act provides additional allowances to the Leader, the Whip and the House Leader of a party that has a recognised membership of 12 or more persons in the House of Commons. The Board of Internal Economy also provides financial support to the caucus research units of ‘recognised parties’.

With regard to procedure, recognised parties are also extended certain considerations, though the definition of what constitutes a ‘recognised party’ is not as clear in this case as it is with financial benefits. Since the Standing Orders have never defined ‘recognised parties’, Speakers have relied on practice or a decision by the House. However, in recent practice, a procedural interpretation of the definition ‘recognised party’ has come to mean any party with 12 or more Members in the House.

At present, four major political parties enjoy representation in the Parliament of Canada, namely Bloc Québécois (social democratic); the Conservative Party of Canada (conservative, rightwing); the Liberal Party of Canada (liberal, centrist) and the New Democratic Party (social democratic, leftwing).

In Canada, there are 3 levels of government. Each level of government has different responsibilities.

  • Federal government (the Government of Canada) – Responsible for things that affect the whole country, such as citizenship and immigration, national defence and trade with other countries.
  • Provincial and territorial governments (for example, the Province of Ontario) – Responsible for things such as education, health care and highways.
  • Municipal (local) governments (cities, towns, and villages in Ontario) – Responsible for firefighting, city streets and other local matters. If there is no local government, the province provides services.

Federal Government

At the federal level, there are 3 parts of government:

  • Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, is Canada’s formal head of state. The Governor General represents the Queen in Canada and carries out the duties of head of state.
  • The House of Commons makes Canada’s laws. Canadians elect representatives to the House of Commons. These representatives are called Members of Parliament (MPs) and usually belong to a political party. The political party that has the largest number of MPs forms the government, and its leader becomes prime minister.
  • The prime minister is the head of government in Canada. The Prime Minister chooses MPs to serve as ministers in the cabinet. There are ministers for citizenship and immigration, justice and other subjects. The cabinet makes important decisions about government policy.
  • The Senate reviews laws that are proposed by the House of Commons. Senators come from across Canada. The prime minister chooses the senators.

You can read the Guide to the Canadian House of Commons for more information.

Provincial Government

At the provincial level:

  • TheLieutenant Governor represents the Queen.
  • The Legislative Assembly makes law. In Ontario, elected representatives are called Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs).

The political party that has the largest number of MPPs forms the government, and its leader becomes premier. The premier is the head of government in Ontario.

The premier leads the government and chooses MPPs to serve as ministers in thecabinet. The cabinet sets government policy and introduces laws for the Legislative Assembly to consider.

Municipal (Local) Government

At the municipal level:

  • The Province of Ontario defines the structure, finances, and management of the local governments of cities, towns and villages.
  • Residents of the municipality elect the mayor and council members to lead the local government. Committees of councillors discuss budget, service and administrative issues that are then passed on to the council for debate. Citizens, business owners and community groups can present their concerns to councillors at committee meetings.
  • Municipalities may also be part of a larger county or regional government (for example, York Region).

Historical context

The history of Canadian parliamentary institutions began in Nova Scotia. In 1758, the colony was granted an elected assembly, becoming the first Canadian colony to enjoy a representative political institution. No limit was set on the duration of a Legislature. In fact, the Assembly that was elected in 1770 sat until 1785. In 1792, legislation was passed limiting the duration to seven years and subsequently to four years in 1840. Following the example of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island was granted a popular assembly in 1773 and the newly designated province of New Brunswick in 1784. Each of the three maritime colonies continued to be administered by a British governor and an appointed executive council. Upper chambers (called ‘Legislative Councils’) were introduced as distinct legislative bodies in New Brunswick in 1832 and in Nova Scotia in 1838.

Beginning in the late 1850s and continuing into the early 1860s, there was increasing pressure on the provinces of British North America to unite. The movement was prompted by political difficulties in the Province of Canada and fuelled by collective prospects for economic advantage and improved military security. Such a federal union had been recommended by Lord Durham in his report and discussed more than once in the legislatures of British North America. On 1 September 1864, delegates from the Maritime Provinces met in Charlottetown to discuss the union of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. They were joined by representatives from both parts of the Province of Canada, with the result that a decision was made to consider a larger union of all the provinces. A second meeting was held in Quebec City beginning on 10 October 1864. This process culminated in the agreement by both Houses of the legislature of the Province of Canada to proceed with a confederation (known as the Dominion of Canada), which was introduced in the form of the British North America Act, which came into effect on 1 July 1867.

The Act entrenched the three principal elements of British parliamentary tradition, namely monarchy, representation and responsibility in a new federal form of government. A central government was created for national purposes, and provincial governments for matters of regional or local concern. The provincial governments were not to be subordinate to the national Government. Instead, provincial governments were to be largely autonomous within their own jurisdictions.

While the law enacting Canada’s Parliament only came into force in 1867, Canadian parliamentary institutions were created long before Confederation. The provinces of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick each possessed sophisticated systems of governance, including legislative assemblies and upper Houses, functioning according to historic, well-understood principles of parliamentary law and practice. While these parliamentary traditions were largely British in origin, they had been adapted over the years as the local political situation required. This body of domestic practices, traditions, customs and conventions grew with the result that, at Confederation, Canada’s parliamentary system was well adapted to meet the needs of governing a young, diverse and growing nation.

Electoral system

The Canadian electoral system is known as the single-member, simple-plurality voting system, or FPTP system. In this system, Canadian citizens 18 years of age or older are eligible to vote. Elections at the federal level are simultaneous and nation-wide. Voting is by secret ballot and a voter may cast only one vote and vote for only one person on the ballot. During the elections, the candidate who gains the most votes wins, even if he or she has received fewer than half of the votes.

Various Acts of Parliament govern the electoral process, rules regarding membership, and the number and distribution of seats. The main body of Canadian election law is found in the Canada Elections Act, which sets down the conditions in which parties and candidates engage in the election process and ensures the free expression of political choice by electors. Other statutes such as the Criminal Code and the Dominion Controverted Elections Act also contain provisions governing the electoral process.

Floor Crossing

The Parliament of Canada does not have any legislation that prohibits floor crossing. Although most Members are elected with a party affiliation (a very small percentage of Members are elected as independents), Members are not obliged to retain that party label during the whole of their mandate. “Crossing the floor” is the expression used to describe a Member’s decision to break all ties binding him or her to a particular political party. A Member who changes party allegiance is under no obligation to resign his or her seat and stand for re-election, as entitlement to sit as a Member is not contingent upon political affiliation. Moreover, unlike in South Africa, there are no predetermined criteria applicable to Members who wish to cross the floor.

Floor crossing does not seem to be a regular occurrence in the Parliament of Canada. Marleau opines that the decision of Members to leave the party under which they were elected to form a new group has occurred on at least three occasions since Confederation.  In February 1943, three Members from Quebec left the Liberal Party to form the Bloc populaire canadien in response to the introduction of conscription. In 1963, members of the Quebec wing of the Social Credit Party broke away to form a new group called the Ralliement des Créditistes. In 1990, in response to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, eight Members of different political affiliations formed a new party, the Bloc québécois.