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Voter Toolkit

How it works

Canada's system of government is based upon the British, or Westminster model. This means government is representative of the electorate and responsible toward Parliament. In Canada, both the federal and provincial governments follow this model and, unlike Britain, both levels of government are able to generate law.

  Queen Elizabeth II on Nov. 26, 2003 (AP Photo/Max Nash, pool)

Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II

Function:

Although once a force in Canadian government, the Queen's powers today are ceremonial. She is represented federally by the governor general and provincially by the lieutenant-governors.

 

Prime Minister Paul Martin listens to Governor General Adrienne Clarkson read the speech from the throne on Feb. 2, 2004. (CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)  

Governor General

Function: Canada's formal executive

Represents the Crown in Canada. The governor general is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister. She opens and ends sessions of Parliament, gives royal assent to bills and reads the speech from the throne. History and convention show that, although the governor general is the formal executive - approving cabinet decisions or bills passed in Parliament - he or she does so only on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet. The governor general also presides over the swearing in of prime ministers, cabinet ministers and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. She also ensures there is always a prime minister in office.

 

  Prime Minister Paul Martin (CP photo)

Prime Minister and Cabinet

Function: Canada's de-facto executive

This is where the real executive power lies. Otherwise known as government, the prime minister and cabinet develop policy and delegate and direct administrative operations. This they do with the support of Parliament. If and when that support ceases (as is the case when a bill is voted down), cabinet is dissolved and an election is called. It is important to note that the prime minister and cabinet are also members of the legislature (or Parliament), meaning they have a foot in both levels of government and can take part in parliamentary votes. This also means that they must already have been elected MPs or appointed senators.

The Prime Minister
The prime minister is an elected member of Parliament and the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons, as elected by voters. The prime minister appoints a cabinet and secretaries of state from the ranks of his or her caucus. The prime minister represents Canada abroad; appoints senators, cabinet, ambassadors and senior public service staff and can request the governor general to dissolve Parliament. The prime minister can also reorganize government structure by merging cabinet portfolios and appointing Crown corporation directors.

Cabinet
The prime minister chooses the cabinet almost exclusively from MPs in the House of Commons. Senators are also eligible for cabinet appointments, but are very rarely appointed. Regional representation is an important consideration in cabinet selection, and an effort is made to appoint cabinet ministers according to provincial population. Decision-making by cabinet members is influenced by political considerations along with advice from departmental staff. In the end, though, the cabinet minister is held accountable for all decisions and actions taken under his or her name. The committee system is used to divide cabinet ministers into groups to deal with individual proposals from cabinet ministers. Cabinet ministers are expected to support one another publicly, despite any personal feelings to the contrary.

Public Service
The public service is the non-partisan body of civil servants charged with implementing government legislation and providing government with specialized expertise. The public service is the source of most deputy ministers that the prime minister appoints to work with cabinet ministers. The deputy ministers act more or less as ministerial general managers and bring technical experience to the job, providing legal and financial advice. This makes their positions unique because the deputy ministers are not elected by Canadians, yet have real influential power at the top-most echelons of government.

Parliament and the Legislature
This is the litmus test of government. The executive - that is the prime minister and cabinet - retain power only as long as they have the support of the legislature. This body consists of upper and lower houses - the upper being the Senate and the lower consisting of elected members of Parliament, known as the House of Commons. Both houses must pass a bill before it can get royal assent from the governor general. In most cases, however, the elected House of Commons is seen as having the real power. Only in rare instances (such as the 1988 free trade issue) does the Senate refuse to pass legislation passed by the lower house.

  The House of Commons (image courtesy the Library of Parliament).

House of Commons
The House of Commons is where draft bills are introduced and debated by all elected members before coming into law. It is here that, during question period, the Opposition gets a chance to take the governing party to task where it sees fit. The House of Commons consists of members of Parliament who are elected in federal elections and represent Canada's electoral districts. Generally speaking, representation in the House of Commons is based on population - meaning the greater the population of a given province, the greater the number of electoral districts and the greater number of seats. Special considerations are made for remote regions and less populous areas to ensure there is fair representation. The 2004 federal election will mark the first time that 308 House of Commons seats are contested. This is an increase of seven seats since the 2000 federal election. The increase reflects changes in electoral boundaries due to population growth.

Breakdown of available seats in the House of Commons (2004)

Province/Territory

# of seats

British Columbia

36

Alberta

28

Yukon Territory

1

Northwest Territories

1

Nunavut

1

Saskatchewan

14

Manitoba

14

Ontario

106

Quebec

75

New Brunswick

10

Newfoundland and Labrador

7

Prince Edward Island

4

Nova Scotia

11

TOTAL

308

 

  The Senate Red Chamber (image courtesy the Library of Parliament).

Senate
The Senate is where bills go for "sober second thought" after being tabled in the House of Commons. It is where bills are scrutinized and put through committees for revision, amendment and recommendation prior to being returned to the House. The Senate is composed of 105 senators who come from all walks. Seats are allocated by region and there is a set number for each province and territory. Most, though, are affiliated with a political party and have some tie with the prime minister who appointed them. The Senate is typically stacked by a prime ministers prior to calling an election or prior to stepping down. The mandatory retirement age is 75.

Breakdown of Canada's Senate

Province/Territory

# of seats

British Columbia

6

Alberta

6

Yukon Territory

1

Northwest Territories

1

Nunavut

1

Saskatchewan

6

Manitoba

6

Ontario

24

Quebec

24

New Brunswick

10

Newfoundland and Labrador

6

Prince Edward Island

4

Nova Scotia

10

TOTAL

105

 

  Supreme Court of Canada Justice Morris Fish addresses the high court after he was sworn in, in Ottawa, on October 15, 2003. (CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand)

Judiciary

Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court can render decisions on legislative and constitutional questions referred to it by the governor general, acting on the advice of cabinet. Except in Quebec, the Canadian judiciary is based on the English common law system. Quebec uses its own civil code which is based on the French tradition. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in Canada. Its judges are appointed by the governor general based on advice from cabinet.


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ELECTION RESULTSDetails>
1241035129
Total Elected and Leading
CON124036.27%
LIB103030.23%
BQ51010.48%
NDP29017.48%
IND10.52%
OTH005.02%

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