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How Canadians Govern Themselves

by Eugene A. ForseyGet the PDF
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1

Parliamentary Government


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1.1
Its Origins
1.2
How It Operates
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1.1

Its Origins

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Nova Scotia (which, till 1784, included what is now New Brunswick) was the first part of Canada to secure representative government. In 1758, it was given an assembly, elected by the people. Prince Edward Island followed in 1773; New Brunswick at its creation in 1784; Upper and Lower Canada (the predecessors of the present Ontario and Quebec) in 1791; and Newfoundland in 1832.

Nova Scotia was also the first part of Canada to win responsible government: government by a cabinet answerable to, and removable by, a majority of the assembly. New Brunswick followed a month later, in February 1848; the Province of Canada (a merger of Upper and Lower Canada formed in 1840) in March 1848; Prince Edward Island in 1851; and Newfoundland in 1855.

Canada, 1867
Canada, 1867
By the time of Confederation in 1867, this system had been operating in most of what is now Central and Eastern Canada for almost 20 years. The Fathers of Confederation simply continued the system they knew, the system that was already working, and working well.

For the nation, there was a Parliament, with a Governor General representing the Queen; an appointed upper house, the Senate; and an elected lower house, the House of Commons. For every province there was a legislature, with a lieutenant-governor representing the Queen; for every province except Ontario, an appointed upper house, the legislative council, and an elected lower house, the legislative assembly. The new Province of Manitoba, created by the national Parliament in 1870, was given an upper house. British Columbia, which entered Canada in 1871, and Saskatchewan and Alberta, created by Parliament in 1905, never had upper houses. Newfoundland, which entered Canada in 1949, came in without one. Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec have all abolished their upper houses.


1.2

How It Operates

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The Governor General (and each provincial lieutenant-governor) governs through a cabinet, headed by a prime minister or premier (the two terms mean the same thing: first minister). If a national or provincial general election gives a party opposed to the cabinet in office a clear majority (that is, more than half the seats) in the House of Commons or the legislature, the cabinet resigns and the Governor General or lieutenant-governor calls on the leader of the victorious party to become prime minister and form a new cabinet. The prime minister chooses the other ministers, who are then formally appointed by the Governor General or, in the provinces, by the lieutenant-governor. If no party gets a clear majority, the cabinet that was in office before and during the election has two choices. It can resign, in which case the Governor General or lieutenant-governor will call on the leader of the largest opposition party to form a cabinet. Or the cabinet already in office can choose to stay in office and meet the newly elected House — which, however, it must do promptly. In either case, it is the people’s representatives in the newly elected House who will decide whether the “minority” government (one whose own party has fewer than half the seats) shall stay in office or be thrown out.

If a cabinet is defeated in the House of Commons on a motion of censure or want of confidence, the cabinet must either resign (the Governor General will then ask the leader of the Opposition to form a new cabinet) or ask for a dissolution of Parliament and a fresh election.

In very exceptional circumstances, the Governor General could refuse a request for a fresh election. For instance, if an election gave no party a clear majority and the prime minister asked for a fresh election without even allowing the new Parliament to meet, the Governor General would have to say no. This is because, if “parliamentary government” is to mean anything, a newly elected House of Commons must at least be allowed to meet and see whether it can transact public business. Also, if a minority government is defeated on a motion of want of confidence very early in the first session of a new Parliament, and there is a reasonable possibility that a government of another party can be formed and get the support of the House of Commons, then the Governor General could refuse the request for a fresh election. The same is true for the lieutenant-governors of the provinces.

No elected person in Canada above the rank of mayor really has a fixed term of office. Recent legislation in several provinces and territories, as well as a May 2007 Act of Parliament, provides for general elections to be held on a fixed date every four years under most circumstances. In practice this means that the expected term of office for a member of Parliament (or of a legislature with a fixed date law) would normally be four years. However, the Governor General’s power to dissolve Parliament is not affected by the fixed date legislation. The prime minister can still ask for a fresh election at any time, although, as already stated, there may be circumstances in which he or she would not get it. There can be, and have been, Parliaments and legislatures that have lasted for less than a year. With extremely rare exceptions, no Parliament or legislature may last more than five years.

The cabinet has no “term.” Every cabinet lasts from the moment the prime minister is sworn in till he or she resigns, dies or is dismissed. For example, Sir John A. Macdonald was Prime Minister from 1878 until he died in 1891, right through the elections of 1882, 1887 and 1891, all of which he won. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was Prime Minister from 1896 to 1911, right through the elections of 1900, 1904 and 1908, all of which he won. He resigned after being defeated in the election of 1911. The same thing has happened in several provinces. An American president or state governor, re-elected, has to be sworn in all over again. A Canadian prime minister or premier does not.

If a prime minister dies or resigns, the cabinet comes to an end. If this prime minister’s party still has a majority in the Commons or the legislature, then the Governor General or lieutenant-governor must find a new prime minister at once. A prime minister who resigns has no right to advise the governor as to a successor unless asked; even then, the advice need not be followed. If he or she resigns because of defeat, the governor must call on the leader of the Opposition to form a government. If the prime minister dies, or resigns for personal reasons, then the governor consults leading members of the majority party as to who will most likely be able to form a government that can command a majority in the House. The governor then calls on the person he or she has decided has the best chance. This new prime minister will, of course, hold office only until the majority party has chosen a new leader in a national or provincial convention. This leader will then be called on to form a government.

The cabinet consists of a varying number of ministers. The national cabinet has ranged from 13 to more than 40 members, and provincial cabinets from about 10 to over 30. Most of the ministers have “portfolios” (that is, they are in charge of particular departments — Finance, National Defence, Environment, Health, etc.), and are responsible, answerable and accountable to the House of Commons or the legislature for their particular departments. On occasion there can be ministers without portfolio. There may also be “ministers of state,” who may assist cabinet ministers with particular responsibilities or sections of their departments, or may be responsible for policy-oriented bodies known as “ministries of state.” (These assisting ministers, sometimes called “secretaries of state,” should not be confused with historically important departmental ministers once known as the Secretary of State for Canada and the Secretary of State for External Affairs.) Ministers of state and secretaries of state are not always members of the cabinet.

The ministers collectively are answerable to the House of Commons or the legislature for the policy and conduct of the cabinet as a whole. If a minister does not agree with a particular policy or action of the government, he or she must either accept the policy or action and, if necessary, defend it, or resign from the cabinet. This is known as “the collective responsibility of the cabinet,” and is a fundamental principle of our form of government.

The cabinet is responsible for most legislation. It has the sole power to prepare and introduce bills providing for the expenditure of public money or imposing taxes. These bills must be introduced first in the House of Commons; however, the House cannot initiate them, or increase either the tax or the expenditure without a royal recommendation in the form of a message from the Governor General. The Senate cannot increase either a tax or an expenditure. However, any member of either house can move a motion to decrease a tax or an expenditure, and the house concerned can pass it, though this hardly ever happens.


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