As a political entity, the federal government (known simply as the “Government of Canada”) has only been around since 1867. Technically the Government of Canada is a Westminster-style parliamentary constitutional-monarchy (that’s a mouthful), with the Queen of England as the titular head of government. Just like in London, however, the Queen exercises no real power over the government.
Before 1867 Canada consisted of five Provinces: Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Each was governed by its own legislative assemblies and each answered seperately to the government in England. In 1812 the United States of America attacked Upper Canada, and then in the 1840s groups of Irish-American militias, called the “Fenians”, continuously raided along the borders of every province. By the 1850s Britains empire covered a third of the globe and the strain on her military to protect everything was increasingly difficult to bear. In the 1860s civil war broke out in the US and the Canadian provinces were nervous that it could spill over the borders and that Britain’s military would be too weak to stop it. The leaders of the five provinces met several times and decided to band together into a single autonomous country for better defense.
In 1867, after many years of debate, the Confederation Act was passed into law in all five provinces and the country known as Canada was born. A Nova Scotian from Scotland, Sir John A. MacDonald, was elected as Canada’s first Prime-Minister. Britain immediately recognized and supported the new federation, indeed, the King had been giving a helping hand all along, and the economic and political clout that the new country bore made Canada the most powerful Dominion in the British Empire. In London the British-North America Act was passed officially recognizing Canada. This was replaced by the Constitution Act, passed in the Canadian Parliament, early in the 20th Century. Following the tremendous participation of Canada in the First World War, England gave Canada complete independence through the Treaty of Westminster. In later years the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed in Ottawa. These four Acts, the British North-America Act, the Constitution Act, the Treaty of Westminster and the Charter of Rights of Freedoms, together make up the constitution of Canada.
The Government consists of 3 branches: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary, although the Executive rarely exercises its powers because under the constitution it is answerable directly to the legislature, therefore, real executive power lies with the legislative branch. Technically the executive branch consists of the Queen and her Privy Council, made up of former Members of Parliament, Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and elder statesmen. The Privy Council rarely meets, however, and any decisions they do make must first be run through Parliament. It is a more of a carry-over from times long past and acts today as a ceremonial body.Real executive power lies with Parliament and the Prime-Minister’s Office, who is chosen to represent Parliament and run the day-to-day affairs of administering the country.
The Prime-Minister is the leader of the political party that wins the most elected seats in the House of Commons. He or she chooses from among other elected Members of Parliament a Cabinet, made up of Ministers to oversee the vast myriad of departments, agencies and ministries necessary to govern an advanced industrialized country in the modern world. The number of ministers changes with each new Prime-Minister as more ministries are added or some are removed.As an elected Member of Parliament, the Prime-Minister is answerable to the Legislative branch of government.
Parliament itself is divided into two “Houses”, the House of Commons and the Senate. The House of Commons is where all real political power in Canada rests. It is made up of Members of Parliament elected from among their individual ridings. There are currently 308 seats in the House of Commons, one for every 100,000 voters in Canada. The vast majority of Members of Parliament belong to a political party and the party that wins the most seats in an election is called “The Government”, and their leader is made Prime-Minister. Elections happen every 4 to 5 years and the exact date is decided by the Prime-Minister. No government can stay in power for longer than 5 years without an election. The Prime-Minister lives in a gigantic, walled-off mansion at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.
The Senate, sometimes called the “Upper House”, consists of appointed Senators. It is set up exactly the same as the British House of Lords and Senators are appointed by the Prime-Minister when a vacancy opens and they serve for life or until retirement. There are 105 Senate seats in Parliament. There has been a lot of debate in Canada over the years about changing to an elected Senate. The debate has recently been heating up as the current governing Conservative Party promised in their election campaigns to amend the constitution, but they have taken no steps towards this and have instead added more Conservative Party Senators to the Upper House. Whether or not this anachronistic institution will change to an elected body (or simply be removed, as some people, experts included, argue that there is no need for the Senate in Canada today) is still to be seen.
The Judiciary consists of the Supreme Court of Canada. It is made up of 9 Supreme Justices appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime-Minister and with the approval of the House of Commons. The Supreme Court is the top court in the land and hears appeals for decisions rendered by lower courts, interprets constitutional law and settles top-level legal disputes among the government. Below the Supreme Court is the Federal Court, which hears cases related to areas of federal law and works in conjunction with the Federal Appeals Court and the Tax Court.
Finally there’s the Governor-General of Canada. This post is part of the ceremonial executive power of the Queen and exercises little real power. Formally the Governor-General is the Queen’s representative in Canada and must sign or veto bills as they pass through the legislature. The GG is also responsible for appointing Supreme Court Justices, forming and dissolving Parliament and acting as a go-between for the Queen in London and Parliament (represented by the Prime-Minister).
Realistically the Governer-General can only take any of these actions with the approval of Parliament. This means that when Parliament passes a bill through both Houses, the Governor-General has no choice but to sign it into law.The Governor-General is technically chosen by the Queen of England, however, since 1918 candidates for the post have been selected by the Prime-Minister, acting on behalf of Parliament, and the British monarchs have had little choice but to accept whomever Parliament chooses. The post of Governor General has its roots in British colonial governance of the 16th and 17th centuries, and thus represents the longest continous government body in Canada. Since 1934 every Governor-General has been a Canadian citizen and not British.
Canada’s federal capital is the city of Ottawa, on the Ontario-Quebec border. Ottawa’s sister-city, across the Ottawa river, is the Quebec city of Hull, and all the federal government institutions and buildings are scattered around these two cities which were semi-amalgamated into the Ottawa-Gatineau Capital Region, so that the costs and administration of transportation, communication and other infrastructure needs in the cities could be shared.
There you have it. The nuts and bolts of the Federal Government of Canada.