The Canadian System of Government

Canada is a parliamentary democracy: its system of government holds that the law is the supreme authority. The Constitution Act, 1867, which forms the basis of Canada’s written Constitution, provides that there shall be one Parliament for Canada, consisting of three distinct elements: the Crown, the Senate, and the House of Commons. However, as a federal state, responsibility for law-making in Canada is shared among one federal, ten provincial and three territorial governments.

The power to enact laws is vested in a legislature composed of individuals selected to represent the Canadian people. Hence, it is a “representative” system of government. The federal legislature is bicameral; it has two deliberative “houses” or “chambers”: an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house, the House of Commons.9 The Senate is composed of individuals appointed by the Governor General to represent Canada’s provinces and territories. Members of the House of Commons are elected by Canadians who are eligible to vote.10 The successful candidates are those who receive the highest number of votes cast among the candidates in their electoral district in this single-member, simple-plurality system.

Canada is also a constitutional monarchy, in that its executive authority is vested formally in the Sovereign through the Constitution.11 Every act of government is carried out in the name of the Crown, but the authority for those acts flows from the Canadian people.12 The executive function belongs to the Governor in Council, which is, practically speaking, the Governor General acting with, and on the advice of, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.13

Political parties play a critical role in the Canadian parliamentary system.14 Parties are organizations bound together by a common ideology or other ties, which seek political power in order to implement their policies. In a democratic system, the competition for power takes place in the context of an election.

Finally, by virtue of the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, which states that Canada is to have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”, Canada’s parliamentary system derives from the British, or Westminster, tradition. The Canadian system of parliamentary government has the following essential features:

  • Parliament consists of the Crown and an upper and lower legislative Chamber.
  • Legislative power is vested in “Parliament”; to become law, legislation must be assented to by each of Parliament’s three constituent parts (the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons).
  • Members of the House of Commons are individually elected to represent their constituents within a single electoral district; elections are based on a single-member constituency, first-past-the-post or simple-plurality system (i.e., the candidate receiving more votes than any other candidate in that district is elected).
  • Most Members of Parliament belong to and support a particular political party.15
  • The leader of the party having the support of the majority of the Members of the House of Commons is asked by the Governor General to form a government and becomes the Prime Minister.
  • The party, or parties, opposed to the government is called the opposition (the largest of these parties is referred to as the Official Opposition).
  • The executive powers of government (the powers to execute or implement government policies and programs) are formally vested in the Crown, but effectively exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, whose membership is drawn almost exclusively from Members of the House belonging to the governing party.
  • The Prime Minister and Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer to, the House of Commons as a body for their actions.
  • The Prime Minister and Cabinet must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons to remain in office. Confidence, in effect, means the support of a majority of the House.