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Facts on Canada

The Government

Canada is a constitutional monarchy, a federal state and parliamentary democracy with two official languages (English and French) and two systems of law: civil law (in Quebec) and common law (elsewhere). In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was entrenched in the Canadian Constitution.

Canada's Constitution was initially a British statute, the British North America Act, 1867, and until 1982, amendments required action by the British Parliament. Since 1982 when the Constitution was "patriated" - that is, when Canadians obtained the right to amend all parts of the Constitution in Canada - this founding statute and its amendments are known as the Constitution Acts, 1867-1982.

The Monarchy

From the days of French colonization and British rule to today's self-government, Canadians have lived under a monarchy. Although Canada has been a self-governing "Dominion" in the British Empire since 1867, independence for Canada, as for all other Dominions, was established only in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster.

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, is also the Queen of Canada and sovereign of a number of realms. In her capacity as Queen of Canada, she delegates her powers to the Governor General. Canada is thus a constitutional monarchy: the Queen reigns but does not govern.

The Federal Government

Canada's "Fathers of Confederation" adopted a federal form of government in 1867. A federal state is one that provides for a number of different political communities under a common government for common purposes, with separate regional governments for the particular needs of each region.

In Canada, the responsibilities of the federal Parliament include national defence, trade and commerce, the banking and monetary system, criminal law, citizenship, fisheries, aeronautics, shipping, railways, telecommunications and atomic energy.

The provincial legislatures are responsible for such matters as education, property and civil rights, the administration of justice, health care, natural resources, social security, and municipal institutions.

The Parliamentary System

Canada's parliamentary system is similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom. The Canadian Parliament is comprised of the Queen (who is represented in Canada by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons.

All executive and legislative acts are taken in the name of the Queen, but the Queen (or Governor General) invariably acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Canadian Ministry or Cabinet who are responsible to the popularly elected House of Commons. If the Ministry loses the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister and the Ministry must resign or the Prime Minister must advise the Governor General to call an election. All Cabinet Ministers must have seats in Parliament (in practice, almost all of them sit in the House of Commons). There is a fusion of executive and legislative power in the Canadian parliamentary system which distinguishes it from the separation of executive and legislative powers in the American congressional system.

The Ministry is responsible for developing Government policy. Only Ministers may introduce bills to raise or spend money (money bills) and all money bills must be introduced in the House of Commons which is the "confidence chamber". In practice, executive power is exercised by the Ministry which performs its functions through the intermediary of federal departments, agencies, boards, commissions and state-owned corporations.

The Senate has 105 Senators who are named by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and who enjoy tenure until the age of 75. There is a rough regional equality of representation with 24 Senators each for Ontario, Quebec, the West and the Maritimes, 6 for Newfoundland and 1 for each of the three territories. The Senate has the same powers as the House of Commons, with some important exceptions: the Government is responsible to the House of Commons, not to the Senate, and money bills can only be introduced in the House of Commons.

The House of Commons has 301 members elected in single-member constituencies on the basis of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Seats are distributed across the country on the basis of representation by population (with some guarantees of minimum representation for some provinces and territories). The maximum life of a House of Commons is five years.

The Governor General names as Prime Minister the leader of the political party with majority support in the House of Commons. In the absence of a majority party in the House, the Governor General names the leader most likely, with tacit or explicit support from other parties, to enjoy the confidence of the House. The Prime Minister recommends to the Governor General the names of the Cabinet Ministers and the Secretaries of State who will form the Ministry (there are currently 37 members in the Ministry, including the Prime Minister). The resignation or death of the Prime Minister constitutes the resignation of the Ministry.

Political Development

Canada, which was a self-governing colony in 1867, achieved legal independence with the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The Constitution of 1867 had one serious omission: it contained no general formula for constitutional amendment. It was necessary to ask the British Parliament to take action each time an amendment was needed.

An amending formula should have been included in the Constitution at the time of the coming into force of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, but it was not until November 1981, after numerous attempts, that the federal government and the provinces (except Quebec) agreed to the amending formula that is now part of the Constitution Act, 1982. Since then, all parts of the Constitution can be amended only in Canada.

A Flexible System

The Canadian constitutional system has been changed over the years, sometimes quite extensively, but always peacefully and gradually. In the 1980s and 1990s, two major efforts were made to deal with further constitutional change. The 1987 Meech Lake Accord sought to respond to five constitutional conditions set out by Quebec.

Ultimately, the Meech Lake Accord was not implemented because it did not obtain the unanimous consent of all provincial legislative assemblies within the three-year period for ratification.

In 1991-1992, another round of constitutional reform was initiated, leading to the Charlottetown Accord. The Accord, which was much broader than the Meech Lake Accord, was supported by the Prime Minister, the ten provincial premiers, the two territorial leaders and four national Aboriginal leaders. The Accord, however, was rejected by a majority of Canadians in a national referendum held on October 26, 1992, including a majority of the population of Quebec.

The Parliament of Canada has since passed a bill, on February 2, 1996, guaranteeing Canada's five major regions that certain constitutional amendments would not be introduced by the Government without the consent of each region. As well, shortly after the Quebec sovereignty referendum of October 30, 1995, the Parliament of Canada passed a resolution recognizing Quebec as a distinct society.

The Government of Canada is also transferring greater responsibility for some programs and services to the provinces. Examples of some of the areas in which these changes are taking place include labour-market training, mining and forestry development.

Today, the parliamentary system is still the form of government that is the choice of Canadians. The federal structure, with the sharing of powers it entails, is the one form of government that can take into account Canada's geographical realities, the diversity of its cultural communities and its dual legal and linguistic heritage.

Catalogue No. PF3-2/27-2001
ISBN 0-662-65620-2
© Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 2001

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Updated: 2001-10-17 Top of page Important Notices