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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. The country has a multi-party system in which many of its legislative practices derive from the unwritten conventions of and precedents set by Great Britain's Westminster Parliament. However, 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. The two dominant political parties in Canada have historically been the Liberal Party of Canada and Conservative Party of Canada (or its predecessors), and as of the 2011 election the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) has risen to prominence. Smaller parties like the Quebec nationalist Bloc Québécois and the Green Party of Canada can exert their own influence over the political process.
|A map of Canada's provinces and territories|
Canada's governmental structure was originally established by the British Parliament through the British North America Act (now known as the Constitution Act, 1867), but the federal model and division of powers were devised by Canadian politicians. Particularly after World War I, citizens of the self-governing Dominions, such as Canada, began to develop a strong sense of identity, and, in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the British government expressed its intent to grant full autonomy to these regions.
Thus in 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, giving legal recognition to the autonomy of Canada and other Dominions. Following this, Canadian politicians were unable to obtain consensus on a process for amending the constitution until 1982, meaning amendments to Canada's constitution continued to require the approval of the British parliament until that date. Similarly, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain continued to make the final decision on criminal appeals until 1933 and on civil appeals until 1949.
Currently, the Senate, which is frequently described as providing "regional" representation, has 105 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister to serve until age 75. It was created with equal representation from each of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime region and the Western Provinces. However, it is currently the product of various specific exceptions, additions and compromises, meaning that regional equality is not observed, nor is representation-by-population. The normal number of senators can be exceeded by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, as long as the additional senators are distributed equally with regard to region (up to a total of eight additional Senators). This power of additional appointment has only been used once, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney petitioned Queen Elizabeth II to add eight seats to the Senate so as to ensure the passage of the Goods and Services Tax legislation.
The House of Commons currently has 308 members elected in single-member districts in a plurality voting system (first past the post), meaning that members must attain only a plurality (the most votes of any candidate) rather than a majority (50 percent plus one). The electoral districts are also known as ridings.
Mandates cannot exceed five years; an election must occur by the end of this time. This fixed mandate has been exceeded only once, when Prime Minister Robert Borden perceived the need to do so during World War I. The size of the House and apportionment of seats to each province is revised after every census, conducted every five years, and is based on population changes and approximately on representation-by-population.
Canadians vote for their local Member of Parliament (MP) only. The party leaders are elected prior to the general elections by party memberships. Parties elect their leaders in run-off elections to ensure that the winner receives more than 50% of the votes. Normally the party leader stands as a candidate to be an MP during an election.
The election of a local MP gives a seat to one of the several political parties. The party that gets the most seats normally forms the government, with that party's leader becoming prime minister. The Prime Minister is not directly elected by the general population, although the Prime Minister is directly elected as an MP within his or her constituency.
Canada's parliamentary system empowers political parties and their party leaders. Where one party gets a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, that party is said to have a "majority government." Through party discipline, the party leader, who is only elected in one riding, exercises a great deal of control over the cabinet and the parliament.
A minority government situation occurs when the party that holds the most seats in the House of Commons still holds less than the opposition parties combined. In this scenario a party leader is selected by the Governor General to lead the government, however, to attempt to create stability, the person chosen must command the support of at least one other party.
In Canada, the provinces are considered co-sovereign; sovereignty of the provinces is passed on, not by the Governor General or the Canadian parliament, but through the Crown itself. This means that the Crown is "divided" into 11 legal jurisdictions; into 11 "Crowns" – one federal and ten provincial.
Federal-provincial (or intergovernmental, formerly Dominion-provincial) relations is a regular issue in Canadian politics: Quebec wishes to preserve and strengthen its distinctive nature, western provinces desire more control over their abundant natural resources, especially energy reserves; industrialized Central Canada is concerned with its manufacturing base, and the Atlantic provinces strive to escape from being less affluent than the rest of the country.
In order to ensure that social programs such as health care and education are funded consistently throughout Canada, the "have-not" (poorer) provinces receive a proportionately greater share of federal "transfer (equalization) payments" than the richer, or "have", provinces do; this has been somewhat controversial. The richer provinces often favour freezing transfer payments, or rebalancing the system in their favour, based on the claim that they already pay more in taxes than they receive in federal government services, and the poorer provinces often favour an increase on the basis that the amount of money they receive is not sufficient for their existing needs.
Particularly in the past decade, some scholars have argued that the federal government's exercise of its unlimited constitutional spending power has contributed to strained federal-provincial relations. This power, which allows the federal government to spend the revenue it raises in any way that it pleases, allows it to overstep the constitutional division of powers by creating programs that encroach on areas of provincial jurisdiction. The federal spending power is not expressly set out in the Constitution Act, 1867; however, in the words of the Court of Appeal for Ontario the power "can be inferred" from s. 91(1A), "the public debt and property".
A prime example of an exercise of the spending power is the Canada Health Act, which is a conditional grant of money to the provinces. Regulation of health services is, under the Constitution, a provincial responsibility. However, by making the funding available to the provinces under the Canada Health Act contingent upon delivery of services according to federal standards, the federal government has the ability to influence health care delivery. This spending power, coupled with Supreme Court rulings – such as Reference re Canada Assistance Plan (B.C.) – that have held that funding delivered under the spending power can be reduced unilaterally at any time, has contributed to strained federal-provincial relations.
Except for three short-lived transitional or minority governments, prime ministers from Quebec led Canada continuously from 1968 to early 2006. Québécois led both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments in this period.
Monarchs, governors general, and prime ministers are now expected to be at least functional, if not fluent, in both English and French. In selecting leaders, political parties give preference to candidates who are fluently bilingual.
Also, by law, three of the nine positions on the Supreme Court of Canada must be held by judges from Quebec. This representation makes sure that at least three judges have sufficient experience with the civil law system to treat cases involving Quebec laws.
Canada has a long and storied history of secessionist movements (see Secessionist movements of Canada). National unity has been a major issue in Canada since the forced union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840.
The predominant and lingering issue concerning Canadian national unity has been the ongoing conflict between the French-speaking majority in Quebec and the English-speaking majority in the rest of Canada. Quebec's continued demands for recognition of its "distinct society" through special political status has led to attempts for constitutional reform, most notably with the failed attempts to amend the constitution through the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord (the latter of which was rejected through a national referendum).
Since the Quiet Revolution, sovereigntist sentiments in Quebec have been variably stoked by the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982 (without Quebec's consent) and by the failed attempts at constitutional reform. Two provincial referendums, in 1980 and 1995, rejected proposals for sovereignty with majorities of 60% and 50.6% respectively. Given the narrow federalist victory in 1995, a reference was made by the Chrétien government to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998 regarding the legality of unilateral provincial secession. The court decided that a unilateral declaration of secession would be unconstitutional. This resulted in the passage of the Clarity Act in 2000.
The Bloc Québécois, a sovereigntist party which runs candidates exclusively in Quebec, was started by a group of MPs who left the Progressive Conservative (PC) party (along with several disaffected Liberal MPs), and first put forward candidates in the 1993 federal election. With the collapse of the PCs in that election, the Bloc and Liberals were seen as the only two viable parties in Quebec. Thus, prior to the 2006 election, any gain by one party came at the expense of the other, regardless of whether national unity was really at issue. The Bloc, then, benefited (with a significant increase in seat total) from the impressions of corruption that surrounded the Liberal Party in the leadup to the 2004 election. However, the newly-unified Conservative party re-emerged as a viable party in Quebec by winning 10 seats in the 2006 election. In the 2011 election, the New Democratic Party succeeded in winning 59 of Quebec's 75 seats, successfully reducing the number of seats of every other party substantially. The NDP surge nearly destroyed the Bloc, reducing them to 4 seats, far below the minimum requirement of 12 seats for Official party status.
Western alienation is another national-unity-related concept that enters into Canadian politics. Residents of the four western provinces, particularly Alberta, have often been unhappy with a lack of influence and a perceived lack of understanding when residents of Central Canada consider "national" issues. While this is seen to play itself out through many avenues (media, commerce, and so on.), in politics, it has given rise to a number of political parties whose base constituency is in western Canada. These include the United Farmers of Alberta, who first won federal seats in 1917, the Progressives (1921), the Social Credit Party (1935), the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (1935), the Reconstruction Party (1935), New Democracy (1940) and most recently the Reform Party (1989).
The Reform Party's slogan "The West Wants In" was echoed by commentators when, after a successful merger with the PCs, the successor party to both parties, the Conservative Party won the 2006 election. Led by Stephen Harper, who is an MP from Alberta, the electoral victory was said to have made "The West IS In" a reality. However, regardless of specific electoral successes or failures, the concept of western alienation continues to be important in Canadian politics, particularly on a provincial level, where opposing the federal government is a common tactic for provincial politicians. For example, in 2001, a group of prominent Albertans produced the Alberta Agenda, urging Alberta to take steps to make full use of its constitutional powers, much as Quebec has done.
Canada is considered by most sources to be a very stable democracy. In 2006 The Economist ranked Canada the third most democratic nation in its Democracy Index, ahead of all other nations in the Americas and ahead of every nation more populous than itself. In 2008, Canada was ranked World No. 11 and again ahead of all countries more populous and No. 1 for the Americas. (In 2008, the United States was ranked World No. 18, Uruguay World No. 23, and Costa Rica World No. 27.)
The Liberal Party of Canada, under the leadership of Paul Martin, won a minority victory in the June 2004 general elections. In December 2003, Martin had succeeded fellow Liberal Jean Chrétien, who had, in 2000, become the first Prime Minister to lead three consecutive majority governments since 1945. However, in 2004 the Liberals lost seats in Parliament, going from 172 of 301 Parliamentary seats to 135 of 308, and from 40.9% to 36.7% in the popular vote. The Canadian Alliance, which did well in western Canada in the 2000 election, but was unable to make significant inroads in the East, merged with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada in late 2003.
They proved to be moderately successful in the 2004 campaign, gaining seats from a combined Alliance-PC total of 78 in 2000 to 99 in 2004. However, the new Conservatives lost in popular vote, going from 37.7% in 2000 down to 29.6%. In 2006 the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, won a minority government with 124 seats. They improved their percentage from 2004, garnering 36.3% of the vote. During this election, the Conservatives also made major breakthroughs in Quebec. They gained 10 seats here, whereas in 2004 they had no seats.
In the 2011 election, the Conservatives won a majority government with 167 seats. For the first time, the NDP became the Official Opposition, with 102 seats; the Liberals came in third with 34 seats. This was the first election in which the Green Party won a seat, that of leader Elizabeth May; the Bloc won 4 seats, losing Official Party status.
The Liberal Party, after dominating Canadian politics since the 1920s, has been in decline in the 21st century. As Lang (2010) concludes, they lost their majority in Parliament in the 2004 election, were defeated in 2006, and in 2008 became little more than a "rump", falling to their lowest seat count in decades and a mere 26% of the popular vote. Furthermore, says Lang (a Liberal himself), its prospects "are as bleak as they have ever been." In the election that occurred May 2, 2011, the Liberals suffered a crushing defeat, managing to secure only 18.9% of the vote share and only 34 seats. As a result, the Liberals lost their status as official opposition to the NDP.
In explaining these trends, Behiels (2010) synthesizes recent major studies and reports that "a great many journalists, political advisors, and politicians argue that a new political party paradigm is emerging"; that is, that Canada has recently undergone a watershed political realignment, the sort of political upheaval that happens rarely and often lasts for many years. In terms of the results of the national elections of 2004, 2006, and 2008, as well as Stephen Harper's political endurance, many Canadian experts, says Behiels, are generally agreed. They see a new power configuration based on a right-wing political party capable of sharply changing the traditional role of the state (federal and provincial) in the twenty-first-century. Behiels says that unlike Brian Mulroney, who tried but failed to challenge the long-term, dominance of the Liberals, Harper's attempt has proven to be more determined, systematic and successful thus far.
Bloomfield and Nossal (2007) suggest that the new political alignment has reshaped Canadian foreign policy, especially in improving relations with the United States, taking a harder line on the Middle East conflicts, and backing away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. In terms of domestic policy, Doern and Stoney (2011) have explored how the realignment has reshaped spending policies, especially stimulus spending on infrastructure that has kept Canada immune from the economic recession battering the U.S. and the EU.
Many commentators after the 2011 election stressed the theme of a major realignment. The Economist said, "the election represents the biggest realignment of Canadian politics since 1993." Lawrence Martin, commentator for the Globe and Mail said, "Harper has completed a remarkable reconstruction of a Canadian political landscape that endured for more than a century. The realignment sees both old parties of the moderate middle, the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, either eliminated or marginalized." Maclean's said, the election marked "an unprecedented realignment of Canadian politics" as "the Conservatives are now in a position to replace the Liberals as the natural governing party in Canada."
Funding changes were made to ensure greater reliance on personal contributions. Personal donations to federal parties and campaigns benefit from tax credits, although the amount of tax relief depends on the amount given. Also only people paying income taxes receive any benefit from this.
A good part of the reasoning behind the change in funding was that union or business funding should not be allowed to have as much impact on federal election funding as these are not contributions from citizens and are not evenly spread out between parties. They are still allowed to contribute to the election but only in a minor fashion. The new rules stated that a party had to receive 2% of the vote nationwide in order to receive the general federal funding for parties. Each vote garnered a certain dollar amount for a party (approximately $1.75) in future funding. For the initial disbursement, approximations were made based on previous elections. The NDP received more votes than expected (its national share of the vote went up) while the new Conservative Party of Canada received fewer votes than had been estimated and has been asked to refund the difference. The province of Quebec was the first province to implement a similar system of funding many years before the changes to funding of federal parties.
Federal funds are disbursed quarterly to parties, beginning at the start of 2005. For the moment, this disbursement delay leaves the NDP and the Green Party in a better position to fight an election, since they rely more on individual contributors than federal funds. The Green party now receives federal funds, since it for the first time received a sufficient share of the vote in the 2004 election.
In 2007, news emerged of a funding loophole that "could cumulatively exceed the legal limit by more than $60,000," through anonymous recurrent donations of 200 dollars to every riding of a party from corporations or unions.
|Party||Party leader||Candidates||Seats||Popular vote|
|2008||Dissol.||2011||% Change||% seats||#||# Change||%||pp Change|
|New Democratic||Jack Layton||308||37||36||103||+178.38%||33.44%||4,508,474||+1,993,186||30.63%||+12.45pp|
|Bloc Québécois||Gilles Duceppe||75||49||47||4||−91.84%||1.30%||889,788||−490,203||6.04%||−3.93pp|
|Independent and no affiliation||61||2||2||—||−100%||—||72,731||−22,113||0.49%||−0.19pp|
|Christian Heritage||James Hnatiuk||46||—||—||—||—||—||19,218||−7,257||0.13%||−0.06pp|
|Marxist–Leninist||Anna Di Carlo||70||—||—||—||—||—||10,160||+1,595||0.07%||+0.01pp|
|Progressive Canadian||Sinclair Stevens||9||—||—||—||—||—||5,838||−22||0.04%||−0.00pp|
|Canadian Action||Christopher Porter||12||—||—||—||—||—||2,030||−1,425||0.01%||−0.01pp|
|Animal Alliance Environment Voters||Liz White||7||—||—||—||—||—||1,451||+924||0.01%||+0.01pp|
|Western Block||Doug Christie||4||—||—||—||—||—||748||+553||0.01%||+0.00pp|
|First Peoples National||Will Morin||1||—||—||—||—||—||228||−1,383||0.00%||−0.01pp|
|Source: Elections Canada (Preliminary results)|
Ordered by number of elected representatives in the House of Commons
||This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (April 2011)|
Commonly, two national debates receive nationwide coverage during an election, one in each official language. Both debates are broadcast in translation, so it is possible to watch either debate without a working knowledge of the language of the debate, although part of the meaning can be lost. People who are bilingual enough to understand both the English- and French-language debates without need of translation will get a better idea of the substances of the two debates and the differences between them if they decide to watch both debates.
Currently only the parties represented in Parliament participate in the debates. The Green Party, however, has argued that it should also be allowed to participate. Its share of the vote has increased greatly, due in part to the new funding formula, in part because it ran in many more ridings than in previous elections (it nominated candidates in every riding in the 2004 and 2006 elections), and in part to increased popularity. Thus the argument goes that if there is sufficient national support to earn official recognition as a party (i.e., one that is granted funding based on getting 2% or more of the national vote) it should also be allowed to debate on the same level as the other officially recognized parties.
Also, having received 6% of the vote in British Columbia and based on past precedent, the Greens will have a stronger case for being included in the debates in future elections. The Bloc Québécois was allowed to participate in debates on the basis of its support in Quebec – even before it had elected any MPs in a general election (the only Bloc MPs at the time had either switched parties or won in by-elections). Furthermore, on the basis of anticipated support, the Reform Party of Canada was included in debates despite only having a single MP. Therefore, past party performance or number of seats is not how participants are chosen.
The highest court in Canada is the Supreme Court of Canada and is the final court of appeal in the Canadian justice system. The court is composed of nine judges: eight Puisne Justices and the Chief Justice of Canada. Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada are appointed by the Governor-in-Council. The Supreme Court Act limits eligibility for appointment to persons who have been judges of a superior court, or members of the bar for ten or more years. Members of the bar or superior judge of Quebec, by law, must hold three of the nine positions on the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Canadian government operates the public service using departments, smaller agencies (for example,, commissions, tribunals, and boards), and crown corporations. There are two types of departments: central agencies such as Finance, Privy Council Office, and Treasury Board Secretariat have an organizing and oversight role for the entire public service; line departments are departments which perform tasks in a specific area or field, such as the departments of Agriculture, Environment, or Defence.
Significant Crown corporations and agencies of the federal government include:
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