Government of Canada

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Government of Canada
FormationJuly 1, 1867;153 years ago (1867-07-01)
Head of state (sovereign) Monarch (Queen)
Vice-regal representative Governor General
Seat Rideau Hall
Legislature Parliament
Meeting place House of Commons: West Block [1]
Senate: Senate of Canada Building [2]
Head of government Prime Minister
Main organ Cabinet
Court Supreme Court of Canada (highest court)
St Edward's Crown with maple leaves.svg
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The federal government of Canada is the body responsible for the federal administration of Canada. In Canadian English, the term can mean either the collective set of institutions (the legislative, executive, and judicial branches) or specifically the Queen-in-Council (the executive, also called Her Majesty's Government [3] [4] [5] ). In both senses, the current construct was established at Confederation through the Constitution Act, 1867 —as a federal constitutional monarchy, wherein the Canadian Crown acts as the core, or "the most basic building block", [6] of its Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. [7] The Crown is thus the foundation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Canadian government. [8] [9] [10] The monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II) is personally represented by the Governor General of Canada (currently Julie Payette). The Prime Minister (currently Justin Trudeau) is the head of government who is invited by the Crown to form a government after securing the confidence of the House of Commons, which is typically determined through the election of enough members of a single political party in a federal election to provide a majority of seats in Parliament, forming a governing party. Further elements of governance are outlined in the rest of the Canadian Constitution, which includes written statutes in addition to court rulings, and unwritten conventions developed over centuries. [11]


Constitutionally, the Queen's Privy Council for Canada is the body that advises the sovereign or their representative on the exercise of executive power. This task is nearly exclusively carried out by a committee within the Queen's Privy Council known as the Cabinet who collectively set the government's policies and priorities for the country. [12] It is composed of ministers of the Crown and is chaired by the prime minister. The sovereign appoints the members of Cabinet on the advice of the Prime Minister who, by convention, are selected from the House of Commons or, less often, the Senate. During its term, the government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons, and certain important motions, such as the passing of the government's budget, are considered as confidence motions. Laws are formed by the passage of bills through Parliament, which are either sponsored by the government or individual members of Parliament. Once a bill has been approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate, royal assent is required to make the bill become law. The laws are then the responsibility of the government to oversee and enforce.


In Canadian English, the word government is used to refer both to the whole set of institutions that govern the country (just as in American English, whereas Britons would refer to such as state ), and to the executive branch (just as in British English, whereas Americans would refer to such as administration ). When the word is capitalized, as in "Government of Canada", it always refers to the executive branch. [13]

In press releases issued by federal departments, the government has sometimes been referred to as the current Prime Minister's government (e.g. the "Trudeau Government"). This terminology has been commonly employed in the media. [14] In late 2010, an informal instruction from the Office of the Prime Minister urged government departments to consistently use, in all department communications, such phrasing (i.e., "Harper Government," at the time) in place of "Government of Canada." [15] The same cabinet earlier directed its press department to use the phrase "Canada's New Government." [14]


Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Canada, wearing her Canadian insignia as Sovereign of the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit Official Diamond Jubilee Portrait of the Queen of Canada.jpg
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Canada, wearing her Canadian insignia as Sovereign of the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit

As per the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, Canada is a constitutional monarchy, wherein the role of the reigning sovereign is both legal and practical, but not political. [16] The Crown is regarded as a corporation sole, with the monarch , vested as he or she is with all powers of state, [17] at the centre of a construct in which the power of the whole is shared by multiple institutions of government acting under the sovereign's authority. [18] [19] [20] [21] The executive is thus formally referred to as Queen-in-Council ; the legislature as the Queen-in-Parliament ; and the courts as the Queen-on-the-Bench. [9]

Royal assent is required to enact laws. As part of the royal prerogative, the royal sign-manual gives authority to letters patent and orders in council, though the authority for these acts stems from the Canadian populace and, [22] [23] within the conventional stipulations of a constitutional monarchy, the sovereign's direct participation in any of these areas of governance is limited. [24] [25] The royal prerogative also includes summoning, proroguing, and dissolving parliament in order to call an election, and extends to foreign affairs, which include: the negotiation and ratification of treaties, alliances, international agreements, and declarations of war; [26] the accreditation of Canadian diplomats and receipt of foreign diplomats; and the issuance of passports. [27]

Though the person who is monarch of Canada (currently Queen Elizabeth II) is also the monarch of 15 other countries in the Commonwealth of Nations, he or she nevertheless reigns separately as King or Queen of Canada, an office that is "truly Canadian" and "totally independent from that of the queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms." [28] [29] On the advice of the Canadian prime minister, the sovereign appoints a federal viceregal representative—i.e. the Governor General of Canada (currently Julie Payette)—who, since 1947, is permitted to exercise almost all of the monarch's royal prerogative, though there are some duties which must be specifically performed by the monarch themselves (such as assent of certain bills).

Executive branch

The Government is defined by the constitution as the queen acting on the advice of her privy council. [3] [30] [31] [32] However, the Privy Council—consisting mostly of former Members of Parliament, Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, and other elder statesmen—rarely meets in full. As the stipulations of responsible government require that those who directly advise the monarch and governor general on how to exercise the royal prerogative be accountable to the elected House of Commons (HOC), the day-to-day operation of government is guided only by a sub-group of the Privy Council made up of individuals who hold seats in parliament. [32] This body of senior ministers of the Crown is referred to as the Cabinet.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada's head of government Trudeau visit White House for USMCA (cropped) (rotated).jpg
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada's head of government

One of the main duties of the Crown is to ensure that a democratic government is always in place, [33] which includes the appointment of a prime minister to thereafter head the Cabinet. [34] Thus, the governor general must appoint as prime minister the person who holds the confidence of the House of Commons; who, in practice, is typically the leader of the political party that holds more seats than any other party in that chamber (currently the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau). Should no particular party hold a majority in the HOC, the leader of one party—either the party with the most seats or one supported by other parties—will be called by the governor general to form a minority government. Once sworn in by the viceroy, the prime minister holds office until he or she resigns or is removed by the governor general, after either a motion of no confidence or his or her party's defeat in a general election.

The monarch and governor general typically follow the near-binding advice of their ministers. The royal prerogative, however, belongs to the Crown and not to any of the ministers, [21] [35] who only rule "in trust" for the monarch and who must relinquish the Crown's power back to it upon losing the confidence of the commons, [36] [37] whereupon a new government, which can hold the lower chamber's confidence, is installed by the governor general. The royal and viceroyal figures may unilaterally use these powers in exceptional constitutional crisis situations. [n 1] Politicians can sometimes try to use to their favour the complexity of the relationship between the monarch, viceroy, ministers, and parliament, as well as the public's general unfamiliarity with such. [n 2]

Legislative branch

The Centre Block of the Canadian parliament buildings on Parliament Hill Parliament-Ottawa.jpg
The Centre Block of the Canadian parliament buildings on Parliament Hill

The Parliament of Canada—the bicameral national legislature located on Parliament Hill in the national capital of Ottawa—consists of the Queen-in-Parliament (normally represented by the governor general), the appointed Senate (i.e. upper house), and the elected House of Commons (i.e. lower house). [38] The governor general summons and appoints each of the 105 senators on the advice of the prime minister, [39] while the 338 members of the House of Commons (aka Members of Parliament, or MPs) are directly elected by Canadian citizens, with each member representing a single electoral district for a period mandated by law of no more than four years; [40] the constitution mandates a maximum of five years. Per democratic tradition, the House of Commons is the dominant branch of parliament and, as such, the Senate and Crown rarely oppose its will. The Senate, thus, reviews legislation from a less partisan standpoint.

As outlined in the Constitution Act, 1867 , the governor general is responsible for summoning parliament in the Queen's name. A parliamentary session lasts until a prorogation, after which, without ceremony, both chambers of the legislature cease all legislative business until the governor general issues another royal proclamation calling for a new session to begin. A session begins with a "Speech from the throne," whereby the governor general or the monarch delivers the governing party's prepared speech of their intentions for the session. After a number of such sessions, each parliament comes to an end via dissolution. Since a general election will typically follow, the timing of a dissolution is usually politically motivated, with the prime minister selecting a moment most advantageous to his or her political party. However, the end of parliament may also be necessary if the majority of MPs revoke their confidence in the Prime Minister's ability to govern, such as through a vote of no-confidence or if the government's budget is voted down (a loss of supply). While the Canada Elections Act mandates that members of Parliament stand for election a minimum of every four-years, no parliament has ever been allowed to expire in such a fashion.

Judicial branch

Supreme Court Building in Ottawa Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa.jpg
Supreme Court Building in Ottawa

The sovereign is responsible for rendering justice for all her subjects, and is thus traditionally deemed the fount of justice. [41] However, she does not personally rule in judicial cases; instead the judicial functions of the royal prerogative are performed in trust and in the queen's name by officers of Her Majesty's courts.

The Supreme Court of Canada—the country's court of last resort—has nine justices appointed by the governor general on recommendation by the prime minister and led by the Chief Justice of Canada, and hears appeals from decisions rendered by the various appellate courts (provincial, territorial, and federal).

The Federal Court hears cases arising under certain areas of federal law, [42] and works in conjunction with the Tax Court of Canada. [43]


The powers of the parliaments in Canada are limited by the Constitution, which divides legislative abilities between the federal and provincial governments. In general, the provincial legislatures may only pass laws relating to topics explicitly reserved for them by the constitution, such as education, provincial officers, municipal government, charitable institutions, and "matters of a merely local or private nature," [44] whereas any matter not under the exclusive authority of the provincial legislatures is within the scope of the federal parliament's power.

Thus, the Federal Government alone can pass laws relating to, amongst other things, Canada's postal service, census, military, criminal law, navigation and shipping, fishing, currency, banking, weights and measures, bankruptcy, copyrights, patents, First Nations, and naturalization. [45]

In some cases, federal and provincial jurisdictions may be more vague. For instance, the federal parliament regulates marriage and divorce in general, while the solemnization of marriage is regulated only by provincial legislatures. Other examples include the powers of both the federal and provincial parliaments to impose taxes, borrow money, punish crimes, and regulate agriculture.

Political culture

A copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Canadiancharterofrightsandfreedoms.jpg
A copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

An emphasis on liberalism [46] and social justice has been a distinguishing element of Canada's political culture. [47] Individual rights, equality, and inclusiveness (i.e. a just society) have risen to the forefront of political and legal importance for most Canadians, as demonstrated through: support for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; [48] a relatively-free economy; and social liberal attitudes toward women's rights, homosexuality, abortion rights, euthanasia, cannabis use, and other egalitarian movements. [49] [50] [51] [48] Likewise, there is a sense of collective responsibility in Canadian political culture, as is demonstrated in general support for universal health care, multiculturalism, foreign aid, and other social programs. [52] [53] [54] [55] Peace, order, and good government, alongside an implied bill of rights are founding principles of the Canadian government. [56] [57]

At the federal level, Canada has been dominated by two relatively-centrist parties practicing "brokerage politics:" [lower-alpha 1] the centre-left Liberal Party of Canada and the centre-right Conservative Party of Canada (or its predecessors). [60] [61] [62] [63] [64] [65] Regarding the Canadian political spectrum, the historically-predominant Liberals have positioned themselves more-or-less at the centre, with Conservatives sitting to their right and New Democrats occupying the further left. [66] [67] [66] [68]

Smaller parties, such as the Green Party of Canada and the Quebec-nationalist Bloc Québécois, have also been able to exert their influence over the political process by representation at the federal level. Far-right and far-left politics, in terms of Canadian politics, have never been a prominent force in Canadian society. [69] [70]

Polls have suggested that Canadians generally do not have a solid understanding of civics. [71] This has been theorised to be a result of less attention being given to the subject in provincial education curricula, beginning in the 1960s. [72] By 2008, a poll showed only 24% of respondents could name the queen as head of state. [73] Likewise, Senator Lowell Murray wrote five years earlier that "the Crown has become irrelevant to most Canadians' understanding of our system of Government." [74] As John Robson of the National Post opined in 2015: [75]

Intellectually, voters and commentators succumb to the mistaken notion that we elect 'governments' of prime ministers and cabinets with untrammelled authority, that indeed ideal 'democracy' consists precisely in this kind of plebiscitary autocracy.

See also

Related Research Articles

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  1. Brokerage politics: A Canadian term for successful big tent parties that embody a pluralistic catch-all approach to appeal to the median Canadian voter ... adopting centrist policies and electoral coalitions to satisfy the short-term preferences of a majority of electors who are not located on the ideological fringe. [58] [59]
  1. See 'Responsibilities' and Note 1 at Cabinet of Canada.
  2. It was said by Helen Forsey: "The inherent complexity and subtlety of this type of constitutional situation can make it hard for the general public to fully grasp the implications. That confusion gives an unscrupulous government plenty of opportunity to oversimplify and misrepresent, making much of the alleged conflict between popular democracy—supposedly embodied in the Prime Minister—and the constitutional mechanisms at the heart of responsible government, notably the 'reserve powers' of the Crown, which gets portrayed as illegitimate." As examples, she cited the campaign of William Lyon Mackenzie King following the King–Byng Affair of 1926 and Stephen Harper's comments during the 2008–2009 Canadian parliamentary dispute. [16]


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Further reading