Skip to main content

How Canadians Govern Themselves

by Eugene A. ForseyGet the PDF
Print this page



The Institutions of Our Federal Government


Go to the Parliamentary Puzzle
Canada System Of Gouvernement

By the Constitution Act, 1867, “the executive government of and over Canada is declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.” She acts, ordinarily through the Governor General, whom she appoints, on the advice of the Canadian prime minister. The Governor General normally holds office for five years, though the tenure may be extended for a year or so.

The House of Commons in session.© Library of Parliament/Martin Lipman
The House of Commons in session.
Parliament consists of the Queen, the Senate© Library of Parliament/Martin Lipman and the House of Commons© Library of Parliament/Martin Lipman.


The Queen

Queen Elizabeth II© Canadian Heritage
The Queen performs many ceremonial duties when visiting Canada.
The Queen is the formal head of the Canadian state. She is represented federally by the Governor General, and provincially by the lieutenant-governors. Federal acts begin: “Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and the House of Commons, enacts as follows...”; acts in most provinces begin with similar words. Parliament (or the provincial legislature) meets only at the royal summons; no house of Parliament (or legislature) is equipped with a self-starter. No federal or provincial bill becomes law without Royal Assent. The monarch has, on occasion, given the assent personally to federal acts, but the assent is usually given by the Governor General or a deputy, and to provincial acts by the lieutenant-governor or an administrator.

The Governor General and the lieutenant-governors have the right to be consulted by their ministers, and the right to encourage or warn them. But they almost invariably must act on their ministers’ advice, though there may be very rare occasions when they must, or may, act without advice or even against the advice of the ministers in office.

Go to Parliament in Action

The Senate

The Senate© Library of Parliament/Martin Lipman usually has 105 members: 24 from the Maritime provinces (10 from Nova Scotia, 10 from New Brunswick, four from Prince Edward Island); 24 from Quebec; 24 from Ontario; 24 from the Western provinces (six each from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia); six from Newfoundland and Labrador; and one each from Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. There is provision also for four or eight extra senators to break a deadlock between the Senate and the House: either one or two each from the Maritime region, Quebec, Ontario and the West; but this has been used only once, in 1990.

The senators are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the prime minister. Senators must be at least 30 years old, and must have real estate worth $4,000 net, and total net assets of at least $4,000. They must reside in the province or territory for which they are appointed; in Quebec, they must reside, or have their property qualification, in the particular one of Quebec’s 24 senatorial districts for which they are appointed. Till 1965, they held office for life; now, they hold office until age 75. The Constitution Act, 1867 sets out certain grounds whereby senators can be disqualified from office, including missing two consecutive sessions of Parliament.

Go to Follow that Bill
The Senate can initiate any bills except bills providing for the expenditure of public money or imposing taxes. It can amend or reject any bill whatsoever. It can reject any bill as often as it sees fit. No bill can become law unless it has been passed by the Senate.

In theory these powers are formidable, but, as an appointed body, the Senate exercises its power with restraint. For over 40 years the Senate did not reject a bill passed by the House of Commons, and very rarely insisted on an amendment that the House rejected. Then, in 1988, it refused to pass the Free Trade Agreement bill until it had been submitted to the people in a general election. Since that time, there have been several other instances in which the Senate has rejected or simply not adopted bills before the end of a session, thereby effectively stopping them from becoming law.

Most of the amendments the Senate makes to bills passed by the Commons are clarifying or simplifying amendments, and are almost always accepted by the House of Commons. The Senate’s main work is done in its committees, where it goes over bills clause by clause and hears evidence, often voluminous, from groups and individuals who would be affected by the particular bill under review. This committee work is especially effective because the Senate has many members with specialized knowledge and long years of legal, business or administrative experience. Their ranks may include ex-ministers, ex-premiers of provinces, ex-mayors, eminent lawyers and experienced farmers.

The Senate also conducts investigations into important public concerns, such as mental health, aging, national security and defence, indigenous affairs, fisheries, and human rights. These investigations have produced valuable reports, which have often led to changes in legislation or government policies. The Senate usually does this kind of work far more cheaply than Royal Commissions or task forces, because its members are paid already and it has a permanent staff at its disposal.

Go to Parliament in Action

The House of Commons

The House of Commons© Library of Parliament/Martin Lipman is the major law-making body. In each of the country’s 338 constituencies, or ridings, the candidate who gets the largest number of votes is elected to the House of Commons, even if his or her vote is less than half the total. The number of constituencies may be changed after every 10-year census, pursuant to the Constitution and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, which allot parliamentary seats roughly on the basis of population. Every province must have at least as many members in the Commons as it had in the Senate before 1982. The constituencies vary somewhat in size, within prescribed limits.


Political Parties

Our system could not work without political parties. Our major and minor federal parties were not created by any law, though they are now recognized by the law. We, the people, have created them ourselves. They are voluntary associations of people who hold broadly similar opinions on public questions.

The party that wins the largest number of seats in a general election ordinarily forms the government. Its leader is asked by the Governor General to become prime minister. If it has the most seats but not a clear majority, it may still be able to form a minority government with support from other parties; this has happened more than a dozen times since Confederation. If the government in office before an election comes out of the election with only the second largest number of seats, it still has the right to meet the new House of Commons and see whether it can get enough support from the minor parties to give it a majority of votes in the House and continue governing. This happened in 1925–26 with Mackenzie King, and in 1972 with Pierre Trudeau.

Number of seats

The second largest party (or, in the rare circumstances just described, the largest) becomes the official Opposition and its leader becomes the person holding the recognized position of leader of the Opposition. The leader of the Opposition gets the same salary as a minister. The leader of any party that has at least 12 seats also gets a higher salary than an ordinary member of the House of Commons.

Each of these recognized parties — including the government and the official Opposition — gets public money for research.

Why? Because we want criticism, we want watchfulness, we want the possibility of an effective alternative government if we are displeased with the one we have. The party system reflects the waves of opinion as they rise and wash through the country. There is much froth, but deep swells move beneath them, and they set the course of the ship.

Go to the P.M. Challenge

The Prime Minister

24 Sussex Drive© NCC/CCN
The Prime Minister's official residence is 24 Sussex Drive, a home originally named Gorffwysfa, Welsh for “a place of peace.”
As we have already noted, the prime ministership (premiership), like the parties, is not created by law, though it is recognized by the law. The prime minister is normally a member of the House of Commons (there have been two from the Senate, from 1891 to 1892 and from 1894 to 1896). A non-member can hold the office but, by custom, must seek election to a seat very soon. A prime minister may lose his or her seat in an election, but can remain in office as long as the party has sufficient support in the House of Commons to be able to govern, though again, he or she must, by custom, win a seat very promptly. The traditional way of arranging this is to have a member of the party resign, thereby creating a vacancy, which gives the defeated prime minister the opportunity to run in a by-election. (This arrangement is also generally followed when the leader of the Opposition or other party leader does not have a seat.)

The prime minister is appointed by the Governor General. Ordinarily, the appointment is straightforward. If the Opposition wins more than half the seats in an election, or if the government is defeated in the House of Commons and resigns, the Governor General must call on the leader of the Opposition to form a new government.

The prime minister used to be described as “the first among equals” in the cabinet, or as “a moon among minor stars.” This is no longer so. He or she is now incomparably more powerful than any colleague. The prime minister chooses the ministers in the first place, and can also ask any of them to resign; if the minister refuses, the prime minister can advise the Governor General to remove that minister and the advice would invariably be followed. Cabinet decisions do not necessarily go by majority vote. A strong prime minister, having listened to everyone’s opinion, may simply announce that his or her view is the policy of the government, even if most, or all, the other ministers are opposed. Unless the dissenting ministers are prepared to resign, they must bow to the decision.

Cabinet© Library of Parliament/Doug Millar
Cabinet meets around this oval table.

The Cabinet

As mentioned, the prime minister chooses the members of the cabinet. All of them must be or become members of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. Privy Councillors are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister, and membership is for life, unless a member is dismissed by the Governor General on the same advice. All cabinet ministers and former cabinet ministers are always members, as are the Chief Justice of Canada and former chief justices and, usually, ex-Speakers of the Senate and of the House of Commons. Various other prominent citizens can be made members simply as a mark of honour. The whole Privy Council as such never meets. Only the ministers and a handful of non-ministers attend the rare ceremonial occasions when the Privy Council is called together, such as proclaiming the accession of a new King or Queen and consenting to a royal marriage. The cabinet, “the Committee of the Privy Council,” is the Council’s operative body.

By custom, almost all the members of the cabinet must be members of the House of Commons, or, if not already members, must win seats. Since Confederation, on occasion, people who were not members of either house have been appointed to the cabinet (as happened most recently in 1996 and 2006), but they had to get seats in the House or the Senate within a reasonable time, or resign from the cabinet. General Andrew McNaughton was Minister of National Defence for nine months in 1944–45 without a seat in either house, but after he had twice failed to get elected to the Commons, he had to resign.

Senators can be members of the cabinet; the first cabinet, of 13 members, had five senators. Twice between 1979 and 1984, there were three or four senators in the cabinet. The Conservatives, in 1979, elected very few MPs from Quebec, and the Liberals, in 1980, elected only two from the four Western provinces. So both parties had to eke out the necessary cabinet representation for the respective provinces by appointing more senators to the cabinet. Until recently, most senators appointed leader of the government in the Senate were cabinet ministers. No senator can sit in the House of Commons, and no member of the House of Commons can sit in the Senate. But a minister from the House of Commons may, by invitation of the Senate, come to that chamber and speak (though not vote).

By custom, every province must, if possible, have at least one cabinet minister. Of course, if a province does not elect any government supporters, this becomes difficult. In that case, the prime minister may put a senator from that province into the cabinet, or get some member from another province to resign his or her seat and then try to get a person from the “missing” province elected there. In 1921, the Liberals did not elect a single member from Alberta. The Prime Minister, Mr. King, solved the problem of Alberta representation in the cabinet by getting the Hon. Charles Stewart, Liberal ex-premier of Alberta, nominated in the Quebec constituency of Argenteuil and then elected. Whether Mr. King’s ploy would work now is quite another question. The voters of today do not always look with favour upon outside candidates being “parachuted” into their ridings. The smallest province, Prince Edward Island, has often gone unrepresented in the cabinet for years at a stretch.

By custom also, Ontario and Quebec usually have 10 or 12 ministers each, provided each province has elected enough government supporters to warrant such a number. Historically, at least one minister from Quebec was an English-speaking Protestant, and there was at least one minister from the French-speaking minorities outside Quebec, normally from New Brunswick or Ontario, or both. It also used to be necessary to have at least one English-speaking (usually Irish) Roman Catholic minister. Since the appointment of the Hon. Ellen Fairclough to the cabinet in 1957, women have won increased recognition, and cabinet appointments now better reflect Canada’s diverse and multicultural population.


The Speakers

The Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the prime minister.

The Speaker of the House of Commons is elected by the House itself after each general election or if a vacancy occurs. He or she must be a member of the House. The Speaker is its presiding officer, decides all questions of procedure and order, oversees the House of Commons staff, and is expected to be impartial, non-partisan and as firm in enforcing the rules against the prime minister as against the humblest opposition backbencher. The Speaker withdraws from day-to-day party activities; for example, he or she does not attend caucus meetings.

For many years, the Commons’ Speaker was nominated by the prime minister. In 1985, however, the Commons adopted a new system whereby the Speaker was elected by secret ballot in the Commons chamber. Any member, except ministers of the Crown, party leaders and anyone holding an office within the House, may stand for election. The system goes a considerable way toward securing the Speaker against any lingering suspicion that he or she is the government’s choice and that the speakership is simply one of a number of prime ministerial appointments. Since the introduction of the secret ballot election, the Speaker has occasionally been re-elected following a change of government.

This new procedure also resulted in a break with the earlier custom of an alternating French- and English-speaking Speaker in the Commons. Similarly, it used to be the case in the House of Commons that if the Speaker was English-speaking, the Deputy Speaker must be French-speaking, and vice versa; this is no longer always true. The Deputy Speaker has occasionally been chosen from one of the opposition parties.

In many instances, an anglophone Speaker of the Senate has been succeeded by a francophone, and vice versa. However, since 1980, the pattern of alternating linguistic groups has not been maintained.

Page bottom