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How Canadians Govern Themselves

by Eugene A. ForseyGet the PDF
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Canadian and American Government


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Canada and the United States are both democracies. They are also both federal states. But there are important differences in the way Canadians and Americans govern themselves.

One fundamental difference is that the United States has no official languages, whereas Canada has two. The Fathers of Confederation deliberately chose to make it so.

Our official recognition of bilingualism is limited, but expanding. For example, it was at the specific request of the New Brunswick government that the adoption of French and English as the official languages of that province was enshrined in the Constitution. Ontario, which has the largest number of French-speaking people outside Quebec, has provided French schools and an increasing range of services in French for Franco-Ontarians. Several other provinces have taken steps in the same direction.

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But under the Constitution, every province except Quebec, New Brunswick and Manitoba is absolutely free to have as many official languages as it pleases, and they need not include either English or French. For example, Nova Scotia could make Gaelic its sole official language, or one of two, three or a dozen official languages in that province. Alberta could make Ukrainian its sole official language, or Ukrainian, Polish and classical Greek its three official languages. Quebec, New Brunswick and Manitoba also are free to have as many official languages as they please, but they must include English and French.

A second basic difference between our Constitution and the American is, of course, that we are a constitutional monarchy and they are a republic. That looks like only a formal difference. It is very much more, for we have parliamentary-cabinet government, while the Americans have presidential-congressional.


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What does that mean? What difference does it make?

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First, in the United States the head of state and the head of the government are one and the same. The president is both at once. Here, the Queen, ordinarily represented by the Governor General, is the head of state, and the prime minister is the head of the government. Does that make any real difference? Yes: in Canada, the head of state can, in exceptional circumstances, protect Parliament and the people against a prime minister and ministers who may forget that “minister” means “servant,” and may try to make themselves masters. For example, the head of state could refuse to let a cabinet dissolve a newly elected House of Commons before it could even meet, or could refuse to let ministers bludgeon the people into submission by a continuous series of general elections. The American head of state cannot restrain the American head of government because they are the same person.

Capitol, Washington, D.C.© Dianne Brydon
Congress meets in the Capitol, in Washington, D.C.
For another thing, presidential-congressional government is based on a separation of powers. The American president cannot be a member of either house of Congress© Dianne Brydon. Neither can any of the members of his or her cabinet. Neither the president nor any member of the cabinet can appear in Congress to introduce a bill, or defend it, or answer questions, or rebut attacks on policies. No member of either house can be president or a member of the cabinet.

Parliamentary-cabinet government is based on a concentration of powers. The prime minister and every other minister must by custom (though not by law) be a member of one house or the other, or get a seat in one house or the other within a short time of appointment. All government bills must be introduced by a minister or someone speaking on his or her behalf, and ministers must appear in Parliament to defend government bills, answer daily questions on government actions or policies, and rebut attacks on such actions or policies.

In the United States, the president and every member of both houses are elected for fixed terms: the president for four years, the senators for six (one-third of the Senate seats being contested every two years), the members of the House of Representatives for two. The only way to get rid of a president before the end of the four-year term is for Congress to impeach and try him or her, which is very hard to do.

As the president, the senators and the representatives are elected for different periods, it can happen, and often does, that the president belongs to one party while the opposing party has a majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives or both. So for years on end, the president may find his or her legislation and policies blocked by an adverse majority in one or both houses. The president cannot appeal to the people by dissolving either house, or both: he or she has no such power, and the two houses are there for their fixed terms, come what may, until the constitutionally fixed hour strikes.

And even when the elections for the presidency, the House of Representatives, and one-third of the Senate take place on the same day (as they do every four years), the result may be a Republican president, a Democratic Senate and a Republican House of Representatives or various other mixtures.

A president, accordingly, may have a coherent program to present to Congress, and may get senators and representatives to introduce the bills he or she wants passed. But each house can add to each of the bills, or take things out of them, or reject them outright, and what emerges from the tussle may bear little or no resemblance to what the president wanted. The majority in either house may have a coherent program on this or that subject; but the other house can add to it, or take things out of it, or throw the whole thing out; and again, what (if anything) emerges may bear little or no resemblance to the original. Even if the two houses agree on something, the president can, and often does, veto the bill. The veto can be overridden only by a two-thirds majority in both houses.

So when an election comes, the president, the senator, the representative, reproached with not having carried out his or her promises can always say:
“Don’t blame me! I sent the bill to Congress© Dianne Brydon, and the Senate (or the representatives, or both) threw it out, or mangled it beyond recognition”;
“I introduced the bill I’d promised in the Senate, but the House of Representatives threw it out or reduced it to shreds and tatters (or the president vetoed it)”;
“I introduced my bill in the House of Representatives, but the Senate rejected it or made mincemeat of it (or the president vetoed it). Don’t blame me!”

So it ends up that nobody — not the president, not the senators, not the representatives — can be held really responsible for anything done or not done. Everybody concerned can honestly and legitimately say, “Don’t blame me!”

True, a dissatisfied voter can vote against a president, a representative or a senator. But no matter what the voters do, the situation remains essentially the same. The president is there for four years and remains there no matter how often either house produces an adverse majority. If, halfway through the president’s four-year term, the elections for the House and Senate return adverse majorities, the president still stays in office for the remaining two years with enormous powers. And he or she cannot get rid of an adverse House of Representatives or Senate by ordering a new election. The adverse majority in one or both houses can block many things the president may want to do, but it cannot force him or her out of office. The president can veto bills passed by both houses. But Congress can override this veto by a two-thirds majority in both houses. The House of Representatives can impeach the president, and the Senate then tries him or her, and, if it so decides, by a two-thirds majority, removes him or her. No president has ever been removed, and there have been only three attempts to do it. In one, the Senate majority was too small; in the second, the president resigned before any vote on impeachment took place in the House of Representatives; and in the third, although the president was impeached, he was acquitted by the Senate.

Our Canadian system is very different. Terms of office are not rigidly fixed. All important legislation is introduced by the government, and all bills to spend public funds or impose taxes must be introduced by the government and neither house can raise the amounts of money involved. As long as the government can keep the support of a majority in the House of Commons, it can pass any legislation it sees fit unless an adverse majority in the Senate refuses to pass the bill (which very rarely happens nowadays). If it loses its majority support in the House of Commons, it must either make way for a government of another party or call a fresh election. If it simply makes way for a government of a different party, then that government, as long as it holds its majority in the House of Commons, can pass any legislation it sees fit, and if it loses that majority, then it, in its turn, must either make way for a new government or call a fresh election. In the United States, president and Congress can be locked in fruitless combat for years on end. In Canada, the government and the House of Commons cannot be at odds for more than a few weeks at a time. If they differ on any matter of importance, then, promptly, there is either a new government or a new House of Commons.

Presidential-congressional government is neither responsible nor responsive. No matter how often either house votes against the president’s measures, there he or she stays. The president can veto bills passed by both houses, but cannot appeal to the people by calling an election to give him or her a Congress that will support him or her. Parliamentary-cabinet government, by contrast, is both responsible and responsive. If the House of Commons votes want of confidence in a cabinet, that cabinet must step down and make way for a new government formed by an opposition party (normally the official Opposition), or call an election right away so the people can decide which party will govern.

An American president can be blocked by one house or both for years on end. A Canadian prime minister, blocked by the House of Commons, must either make way for a new prime minister, or allow the people to elect a new House of Commons that will settle the matter, one way or another, within two or three months. That is real responsibility.

A third basic difference between our system and the Americans’ is that custom, usage, practice and “convention” play a far larger part in our Constitution than in theirs. For example, the president of the United States is included in the written Constitution: his or her qualifications for the position, the method of election, the method of removal — all the essential powers of office, in black and white, unchangeable except by formal constitutional amendment.

Canadian Parliament Buildings© Library of Parliament/Tom Littlemore
The Senate and the House of Commons meet in the Parliament Buildings.
The Canadian prime minister did not appear in the written Constitution until 1982. It still contains not one syllable on prime ministerial qualifications, the method of election or removal, or the prime minister’s powers (except for the calling of constitutional conferences). Nor is there anything on any of these matters in any Act of Parliament, except for provision of a salary, pension and residence for the person holding the recognized position of first minister. Everything else is a matter of established usage, of “convention.” There is nothing in any law requiring the prime minister or any other minister to have a seat in Parliament© Library of Parliament/Tom Littlemore; there is just a custom that he or she must have a seat, or get one within a reasonable time. There is nothing in any law to say that a government that loses its majority in the House of Commons on a matter of confidence must either resign (making way for a different government in the same House) or ask for a fresh general election.

A fourth basic difference between the American and Canadian systems is in the type of federalism they embody. The American system was originally highly decentralized. The federal Congress was given a short list of specific powers; everything not mentioned in that list belonged to the states “or to the people” (that is, was not within the power of either Congress or any state legislature). “States’ rights” were fundamental. The Fathers of Confederation, gazing with horror at the American Civil War, decided that “states’ rights” were precisely what had caused it, and acted accordingly.

“Here,”
said Sir John A. Macdonald,
“we have adopted a different system. We have expressly declared that all subjects of general interest not distinctly and exclusively conferred upon the local governments and legislatures shall be conferred upon the general government and legislature. We have thus avoided that great source of weakness that has been the disruption of the United States. We hereby strengthen the central Parliament© Library of Parliament/Tom Littlemore, and make the Confederation one people and one government, instead of five peoples and five governments, with merely a point of authority connecting us to a limited and insufficient extent.”


The Fathers also, as we have seen, gave a long list of specific examples of exclusive national powers. They further provided that the members of the Senate, and all judges from county courts up (except judges of probate in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) should be appointed by the national government, and that all lieutenant-governors of the provinces should be appointed, instructed and removable by the national government. They gave the national government and Parliament certain specific powers to protect the educational rights of the Protestant and Roman Catholic minorities of the Queen’s subjects. They gave the national government power to disallow (wipe off the statute book) any acts of provincial legislatures, within one year of their passage.

In both the United States and Canada, however, the precise meaning of the written Constitution is settled by the courts. In the United States the courts have, in general, so interpreted their Constitution as to widen federal and narrow state powers. In Canada, the courts (notably the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council, which, till 1949, was our highest court) have in general so interpreted the Constitution Act, 1867, as to narrow federal power and widen provincial power. The result is that the United States is, in actual fact, now a much more highly centralized federation than Canada, and Canada has become, perhaps, the most decentralized federation in the world. Nonetheless, the fact that under our Constitution the powers not specifically mentioned come under the national Parliament gives the central authority enough strength and leeway to meet many of the changed and changing conditions the years have brought.


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