1. Canada’s Government and Legal System
Canada is a parliamentary democracy, a federal state and a constitutional
Canada has a parliamentary form of government. The national Parliament,
which sits in Ottawa, includes an upper and a lower chamber – the Senate and
the House of Commons, respectively. The Senate, whose membership is
appointed to age 75, plays a relatively limited part in the political process. Real
legislative power rests almost exclusively in the elected House of Commons,
whose 338 members are known as Members of Parliament or MPs. MPs
represent single-member geographical constituencies; which Canadians often
call ridings. Typically, the political party with the largest number of MPs in the
House of Commons forms the government. The Prime Minister (the political
leader of the country) is the MP whom that party has chosen as its leader.
Executive power is concentrated in the federal Cabinet, whose members include
the Prime Minister and those other MPs chosen by the Prime Minister to head
the various departments of the federal government.2 Members of the Cabinet are
known as Ministers and are usually styled Minister of Finance, Minister of Justice
and so forth. Senators may hold Cabinet positions, including the Prime Minister
ship, but with the exception of the ex officio cabinet position occupied by the
Government Leader in the Senate, this is uncommon.
Canada has several political parties, with some active only in one province or
region, while others operate nationally. The principal parties at the federal level,
in order of their current representation in the House of Commons, are the Liberal
Party of Canada, Conservative Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party of
Canada (NDP), the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and Green Party of Canada. While the
NDP and BQ are mildly leftist in their politics and the Conservative Party is
somewhat to the right, all of the major Canadian political parties tend to be
basically centrist, pragmatic, and open to business investment.
Generally, wings of the Liberal, Progressive Conservative (PC) and NDP
parties dominate political life in the provinces. However, not all are active in each
province, and a number of regional parties, such as the Parti Québécois (PQ) in
Quebec and the Saskatchewan Party in Saskatchewan, hold seats (and in some
cases a majority of seats) in certain provinces.
Canada is a federal state in which legislative authority is constitutionally
divided between one national and thirteen local jurisdictions. Canada’s ten
principal local jurisdictions are known as provinces. The governments of the
three sparsely populated northern territories exercise many of the powers of
provincial governments. In addition, the provinces and territories delegate certain
powers to cities, towns, and other municipalities, effectively creating a third level
of government. The governments of the provinces are generally similar in form to
the federal government, although the provinces have unicameral parliaments –
there being no equivalent of the Senate at the provincial level – and generally
use different names for their political entities, notably the names “Legislative
“Premier” and “MLA”, which generally take the place, in provincial contexts, of the
federal terms “Parliament”, “Prime Minister” and “MP”, respectively.
Division of Powers
The constitutional division of powers in Canada is complex, but as a general rule
the federal government has jurisdiction over matters of national and international
importance, while the provinces have jurisdiction over matters of local
importance. For example, the federal government has authority over trade and
commerce, criminal law and intellectual property, while the provinces have
authority over property law and, generally speaking, over the law of contract.
With respect to property and contract matters, it is important to note that while
English common law forms the basis of the private law of most of Canada, the
province of Quebec is a civil law jurisdiction.
Canada is a constitutional monarchy, although Canada’s continuing recognition
of Queen Elizabeth II as head of state has more symbolic than practical
significance. When she is not present in Canada, the Queen’s ceremonial
functions in Canadian public life are performed by her Canadian representative,
the Governor General.