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Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy. The head of state is the sovereign (currently Queen Elizabeth II), and the head of government is the prime minister (currently Stephen Harper). Any citizen at least 18 years old may vote in any election, with two exceptions: the Chief and Deputy Chief Electoral Officers.

A side effect of this system is a close similarity to the political systems of Britain, Ireland, Australia, and India.

The federal government consists of the House of Commons, the Senate, the Governor-General, the Supreme Court and other lesser courts, and the usual assortment of bureaucrats, soldiers, and the like.

  • The House of Commons has 308 members, all elected to represent districts known as "ridings" for a variable term not to exceed five years (in practice, it's usually four for a majority government and two for a minority), with no limit on how often they may be re-elected. The size of this body varies, and in practice increases size every 10 years after each census.
    • 30 new ridings are being added next election.
  • The Senate has 105 members, all appointed(though in one case the appointed Senator was chosen in a special election by the province he represents) and serving until age 75. It essentially does nothing. (Well, okay, it's more complicated than that, but the Senate, being appointed rather than elected in most cases, has rubber-stamped legislation from the House of Commons for decades. They are not allowed to introduce financial legislation.) Technically, the Senate is the place for "sober second thought", where the mobbish tendencies of democracy can be curbed and where legislation can be considered away from public pressure. The Senate can suggest changes to the bills, or delay a bill until it expires on the table, but it has almost never defeated one outright. The Senate--following a bit from the American Political System--also allows for some regional representation, where the number of senators from each province is much more equalized. Due to the fact that the senator's seat is usually employed as a way reward cronies or as a way to get troublesome allies out of the way, and due to a recent scandal where some senators seem to have spent most of their terms in Mexico on vacation, there as been a call for elections for senators, although the notion was soon discarded after the new government realized it could stack the deck with its own cronies.
  • The Governor-General, currently David Johnston, is the representative of the Sovereign, appointed in theory by the Sovereign and in practice by the Prime Minister, and has a mammoth assortment of powers, ranging from the ability to dissolve Parliament, appoint Senators, Supreme Court Justices, all high-ranking bureaucrats, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet (though they must keep the approval of the House of Commons). He is also Commander-in-Chief of the military. However, these powers are bound by a large amount of unwritten convention, and are almost never used except on instruction from the Prime Minister - the last time they were, in 1926, the resulting "King-Byng Affair" resulted in a massive public outcry that ended in the re-election of the Prime Minister who had been rejected by the Governor-General. (The Governor-General is supposed to be chosen by the sovereign from a list of candidates chosen by the Prime Minister. For quite some time now, the Prime Minister's list of Governor-General appointees has been exactly one name long.)
    • An event in which the GG can become useful is when the Prime Minister starts to show signs of getting dictatorial; at which point, the Governor General (as the Commander-in-Chief) can order the army to forcibly depose the PM.
      • Taken directly from the Westminster System used by the British Parliament and Monarchy, that serves as the basis for all Commonwealth Countries. Basically, they're meant to keep each other in line.
  • The Supreme Court consists of nine justices, appointed for unfixed terms, though required to retire at age 75. Three are from Quebec, six are from the rest of Canada, because Quebec law is structured differently than the English-derived systems. By convention, three of the other six are from Ontario, two from the West, and one from the Atlantic provinces.

The Prime Minister is the head of the Canadian government for all intents and purposes, similar to a Senate Majority Leader or Speaker of the House in American Politics (because of the Westminster-style parliament, Canada's executive branch is purely ceremonial, so the usual executive powers is devolved to the prime minister). However, Canadians do not vote for the Prime Minister directly; instead, they vote for their Member of Parliament in their riding only. The party with the most seats in the House of Commons forms a majority government (when they control more than half the seats) or a minority government (when they control less than half, but still more than any other party), and the Prime Minister is then appointed by the party itself [1]. In practice, Canadians know what leader a party will follow during the election cycle, by (unbroken) convention, it is the party leader. In the (remarkably likely) event that the Prime Minister loses his riding, a junior member of the party will typically resign his seat to give to the PM, as the PM must have a seat to serve in the government. This happened as early as the 1870s, after John A. Macdonald's government collapsed over the CPR scandal and he lost his own seat in Kingston. From 1878 to 1882, he represented the riding of Victoria in British Columbia, since he couldn't get elected in his home province of Ontario.

Federal responsibilities include foreign affairs, defense, justice, agriculture, Indian affairs, administration of the territories(to some extent), governing interactions between the provinces, and providing "equalization", essentially welfare payments to poorer provinces. They also oversee a pile of agencies, such as Canada Post, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Canada is divided into ten provinces - from east to west: Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island("PEI"), New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia("BC") - and three territories - Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon.[2] Each province elects a Legislative Assembly, whose members are normally named Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), though Ontario calls them Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs), Quebec calls them Members of the National Assembly (MNAs), and Newfoundland calls them Members of the House of Legislature (MHLs). All provinces and the Yukon territory use a similar election system as the federal House of Commons does, though generally the ridings are different. The leader of the party with the most members generally becomes the Premier, though there are occasional exceptions when two smaller parties form a coalition to create a majority(as happened in Ontario in 1985). The Northwest Territories and Nunavut operate using a non-partisan consensus government model, unique to the territories (though similar theoretically to Nebraska's non-executive legislature and most municipalities in Canada); the premier and speaker are then chosen from the elected MLA's, who are all officially independent of political parties. This model is supposedly based on the traditions of the Inuit and other peoples indigenous to the territories. MLA's in the NWT and Nunavut may be affiliated with federal parties privately, however, and should they pursue federal politics, align with a federal party (the two territories are represented by Liberal, NDP and Conservative politicians in parliament and the senate). Each province also has a Lieutenant-Governor (or a Commissioner in the three territories), the Sovereign's representative, appointed on recommendation from the Governor-General.

Provincial responsibilities include transportation, health, education, and administration of justice. Also, in practice, whining about unfair treatment from the federal government is a major responsibility of Premiers.

A large range of functions, such as immigration, pension plans, and employment insurance are under hybrid jurisdiction - essentially, the federal government sets up a framework, and provinces have the choice to either let the feds run the program, or run it themselves. Most provinces leave such things to the federal government, with Quebec as a notable exception, running among other things their own pension plan and their own immigration agency complete with international offices in French-speaking countries.

Municipal politics are pretty much the same all over: the people of each city elect a mayor and around some number(ranging from a handful in small towns to 44 in Toronto) councilors depending on population. While party politics tend to be absent of smaller towns, bigger cities tend to have parties, though they are generally unrelated to the provincial and federal parties.

Municipal governments are responsible for things like utilities, zoning, and making sure developments go through the proper channels.

Because of the multi-party system, where the party with the most votes may not have a majority, minority governments have occurred several times at both provincial and federal levels. Three of the last four federal elections have resulted in minority governments.

Canada also has a very short election cycle, which can, in theory, occur at any time. No party can retain control without an election for more than five years. In addition, a vote of no-confidence[3] can force an election, and the Prime Minister can ask the Governor-General to dissolve the government at any time (as long as it's been in power for at least six months). Once government is dissolved, the election cycle lasts exactly six weeks, during which candidates campaign and stump for votes.

  • A different variation of the normal election cycle occurred in 2008, when the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois drew up a formal agreement to topple the PM and the ruling Conservatives in a no-confidence vote (Canada was in a minority government--i.e. Liberals, NDP and Bloc together outnumbered the Conservatives), then request that the Governor-General install them as a majority coalition government, all without triggering a general election. While such an act is perfectly legit in a parliamentary democracy, the Conservatives launched a media blitz (banking on the correct assumption that many Canadians do not know how their government actually works) characterizing the act as a "coup d'etat" and killed the idea when the Liberals backed down. The fact that the Liberals had just had substantial losses in the preceding election, but would be leading the coalition nonetheless, also made the idea troubling to some Canadians, as did the fact that the coalition would require the support of the Bloc, a separatist party.

Since English and French are both official languages, any federal government service may be received in either language. It practice, it's typically more complicated than that. Suffice to say that French service is easily available only in Quebec, most New Brunswick, Winnipeg, Eastern and Northern Ontario, and a few other locations, while English service is readily available almost everywhere but small-town Quebec.

Parties

In federal politics, the three major parties are the moderate/right-wing Conservatives ("Tories"), the moderate Liberals ("Grits"), and the leftist/social democratic New Democratic Party. Historically, the Liberals and Conservatives have been the two major parties and the only ones to govern, although both have suffered periods of electoral collapse (the Conservatives from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s; the Liberals currently). The NDP was until recently a perpetual third (or fourth) party, but has been an important force in Canadian politics, propping up minority Liberal governments in 1972-74 and 2006 and frequently raising policy concerns that were taken forward by Liberal governments. The Green Party, while still small compared to the big three, is increasing in visibility and mainstream support and won its first seat in the 2011 election. There are many other smaller parties (Marijuana Party, Communist Party, etc.), and a few frivolous yet funny ones (most prominently the Rhinoceros Party).

Other parties have also had a major impact in the past. The Reform Party (later the Canadian Alliance), a conservative party with support in the western provinces, did well from 1993-2000 before merging with the Progressive Conservatives to form the current Conservative Party. A similar phenomenon happened in the 1960s-1980s with the Social Credit Party and the 1920s-1930s with the Progressive Party. The Bloc Quebecois, a Quebec separatist party with a leftist/social democratic orientation, was the dominant party in Quebec and a significant force in Parliament from 1993-2011, but lost its party status and all but four seats in the 2011 election.

A thing of note for American readers: the Canadian political centre (as used to described parties here) is to the left of the American center. Canadian conservatives might be right-leaning "Blue Dog Democrats" or moderate "Rockefeller Republicans" in the USA, while the Liberals' politics are closer to those of the left wing of the Democrats (e.g. Nancy Pelosi). The NDP are to the left of anything mainstream in the USA -- a few prominent names on the American version of the "extreme left", such as Bernie Sanders or Dennis Kucinich, would probably be considered moderate progressives within the NDP.

The Liberal Party has had a truly remarkable run in Canadian politics -- in the last century, the Liberals have spent more time governing Canada than the Communists have governing Russia, and they were in charge for 80 of 110 years between 1896 and 2006; small wonder that the Liberals are sometimes referred to as "Canada's natural governing party". It doesn't hurt that the Liberals have frequently stolen the most popular ideas from the platforms of the various third parties and then taken credit for them, such as the post-war welfare state originally proposed by the NDP or the drastic spending cuts of the 1990s advocated by the Reform Party. These policies were implemented by Liberal governments, but the third parties played no small part in getting the ball rolling for them.

The 2011 election saw a historic shake-up in Canadian politics, and how enduring it will be remains to be seen. The NDP, largely by gaining major support in Quebec -- where they had never before been a contender -- gained a third of the seats in Parliament and became the Official Opposition for the first time in their history. This development was also responsible for the demise of the Bloc Quebecois, who fell from dominance in Quebec to only four seats, not enough to qualify them as an official party. The Liberals, for the first time in their history, fell to third-party status. The Conservatives, for the first time since the 1980s, won a majority government. Finally, the Green Party won its first-ever seat in Parliament, with its leader Elizabeth May being elected in a BC riding. The current situation is more polarizing than ever before, as the NDP is further to the proverbial "left" than the Liberals on most issues, and the current Reform-derived Conservatives are further right than the Progressive Conservative party that preceded them.

As if that wasn't enough drama for one year, NDP leader Jack Layton, whose popularity played a significant role in the NDP's newfound success, died of cancer a few months following the election. Nycole Turmel was appointed the interim party leader, and Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader in April of 2012. Since the NDP has never previously held Official Opposition status, the leadership race was facing greater scrutiny than ever before, primarily due to the fact that the NDP could plausibly be selecting an individual who may become the country's next Prime Minister.

As of this point, the Conservatives continue to hold majority government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, though their caucus has been reduced by one member as one of their Alberta MPs is sitting as an independent while he faces a charge related to impaired driving. The NDP is still the Official Opposition, though they have been declining somewhat in opinion polls and have lost two MPs -- one being the deceased Jack Layton, while the other was a Quebec backbencher who crossed the floor to the Liberals several months after she was elected in 2011 (stating variously that she did not belong in the NDP and that Quebecers had voted for Layton, not the party itself). The Liberals are still the third party, though they have been bolstered by a strong performance from interim leader Bob Rae as well as the aforementioned floor-crossing. The four remaining Bloc MPs and Green Party leader Elizabeth May round out the House of Commons.

Provincial politics tends to also have the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP as the primary parties, though there are exceptions -- the Conservative Party of Saskatchewan imploded in corruption scandals and was replaced by the Saskatchewan Party, the BC Liberal Party is in practice a merger between the Liberals and Conservatives, the most recent provincial election in Alberta has seen the rise of the ultra-conservative Wildrose party, and Quebec politics is just plain weird[4]. The NDP does frequently win in provincial elections, especially in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and BC. Alberta is also an interesting case -- having been a province since 1905, they have experienced only two changes of government, one during the Depression and one after popular premier Ernest Manning (father of Reform Party founder Preston Manning) resigned and whose successor had nary a fraction of his political skills. Since 1971, a string of Conservative leaders have won a majority in every election, to the point where Alberta is routinely considered a one-party state, and it's only half a joke.

The result of the above is that although parties can have the same name at federal and provincial levels, often that's all they have in common. Canadians, in general, are well aware of this so there's no eyebrows raised when, say, a former NDP premier of Ontario (Bob Rae) can make a serious run at leadership of the federal Liberal Party; the former (and last) head of the federal Progressive Conservatives, Jean Charest, can become the Liberal premier of Québec; or the former NDP premier of British Columbia, Ujjal Dosanjh, can also switch parties to become a federal Liberal cabinet minister.

Municipal politics tends to be officially non-partisan, except in BC. However, individual councillors and mayors are often known to have particular partisan leanings -- for example, Jack Layton, previous leader of the federal NDP, was a member of Toronto City Council before he won the leadership.

One significant difference when it comes to individual politicians compared to the United States is that there is no equivalent in Canadian constitutional law to the "natural born citizen" requirement, and in general Parliament (and some of the provincial legislatures) will have a higher number of naturalized immigrants than jurisdictions in the United States. At the time of this writing (February, 2010), there are more Muslims sitting in the Parliament (all of them foreign-born, including one who was a veteran combat pilot in the Pakistani Air Force) than have ever been in Congress, as well as 15 Sikhs, most of them immigrants as well. The previous two Governors-General (Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean) were also immigrants (from China--well, Hong Kong[5]--and Haiti, respectively).

Of note is the fact that a practicing Muslim, Naheed Nenshi, was elected Mayor of Calgary in October 2010, a first in Canadian cities and only the second in North America (after Mohammed Hameeduddin of Teaneck, New Jersey). This is of particular significance as Calgary is located in southern Alberta, which is generally considered to be one of the most conservative parts of Canada.


Issues

Besides the usual sorts of issues that surface in most countries' elections (the economy, taxes, foreign trade, defence, foreign affairs), health care and "national unity" are major issues in Canadian elections. Canada has a national health care system that is considered excellent but underfunded by the populace (and starting to show it in the form of long waiting times for certain procedures); figuring out how to pay for it is always a major point in any party's platform. The half-ton gorilla in recent Canadian politics has been "national unity." A minority of Quebecers want Quebec to leave Canada and become an independent country, while many non-separatist Quebecers believe in Quebec having rights to greater autonomy. There have been two referenda on independence, in 1980 and 1995, the first of which was defeated with 60% of the vote, and the second of which was defeated with 50.6% of the vote. The Parti Québécois keeps threatening to call another one, though they haven't had another term of office since 1995 with which to try. The other federal parties take various positions on how to respond to this, which frequently involve special concessions for Quebec.

The environment has also become a hot topic in recent years. The Liberals and the Green Party have put environmental regulations at the center of their platforms, the NDP also supports reforms, and the Conservatives are more cautious, but still interested in, at minimum, seeming like they care. However, since most of the Conservatives' environment platform seems to be "We'll Just See What The US Does", and the US doesn't seem to be doing much of anything, Canada won't be doing much of anything with regards to the environment for the time being. In the meantime, the provinces are generally content to sit and bitch at each other about who gets what money. This has been described as "exactly like the European Union, just with more land".

Scandals

What, you think Canadians are polite and honest all the time? John A. Macdonald was accused of taking bribes back in 1873 in relation to the funding of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Two of the most recent scandals are the "sponsorship scandal," where large sums of money earmarked for national-unity advertising programs in Quebec were used improperly (read: given away to friends of the then-ruling Liberal Party), and the "Airbus affair," where then-prime minister Brian Mulroney has been accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a German arms dealer as kickbacks on the purchase of Airbus jets for Air Canada, which was government-owned at the time.

Sex scandals are rarer than in the States. Arguably this is not because Canadian politicians are better behaved in this respect, but because the Canadian media is less likely to report on it and the Canadian populace is less inclined to care. Two notable exceptions are the Gerda Munsinger case, which embarrassed the federal government of John Diefenbaker and prompted the resignation of a federal Cabinet minister, and the Colin Thatcher case, which centered around a former minister in the Saskatchewan provincial government who was arrested and convicted of the murder of his wife JoAnn after she divorced him for his numerous extramarital affairs.

Two more recent cases of what could be described as sex-scandals have happened within the past five years. One involved the VERY public break-up of two prominent Conservative MPs, Belinda Stronach and Peter MacKay, who had been dating, when Stronach defected to the Liberals for a Cabinet post -- which she lost the next year after the Liberals lost an election -- leading to a stunned-looking MacKay standing on his farm talking about how "at least my dog is loyal", and a narrow aversion of an election in the now evenly-divided House (since the government can't fall on a tie, and Stronach's defection got them up to parity). It also led to a massive variety of ribald jokes at Stronach's expense from prominent Conservatives (like the next one, by former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein), the most notable of which is that "She didn't have a Conservative bone in her body ... okay, maybe one", many of which naturally proved controversial in their own right. The other involved the Foreign Affairs Minister dating a woman with connections to a chapter of the Hell's Angels and actually leaving important classified documents lying around her apartment (followed by their mysterious disappearance), in a classic Real Life case of Too Dumb To Be Prime Minister.

One can't forget another recent scandal to flag the Conservatives. In February 2010, Conservative cabinet minister (for the status of women!) Helena Guergis was accused of throwing a hissy fit at the Charlottetown airport, located in Canada's smallest province, PEI. The minister allegedly threw shoes across the security screening area and banged on a security door. When media and the Liberals asked for the security tapes, CATSA (the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) could not provide them (many suspect Conservative meddling).

Prime Minister Harper stood by her for a while (in the face of public information), then rumours began to rise that Guergis had been letting her husband, a former cabinet minister, use her office to promote his business. Apparently some photos surfaced of the two in a shady strip club with cocaine and, reportedly, "busty hookers". Guergis was then expelled from cabinet by Harper, not to mention expelled from the Conservative Party caucus, and an RCMP investigation was launched (all thanks to private information). Even after the RCMP cleared Guergis of wrongdoing, she continued to sit as an independent MP, though she lost her seat to the Conservative challenger in the subsequent election. This led to the joke that Harper now always stands behind his cabinet members because it's easier to push them under a bus from that position.

The most recent scandal to rear its head has its roots in the 2011 federal election. It has come to light that someone was sending automated "robocalls" (and, in some cases, targeted live calls) to non-Conservative or ex-Conservative voters in a number of different ridings, falsely directing them to incorrect polling stations or otherwise harassing them into not voting at all. Elections Canada got wind of these incidents via complaints from the public, and since the scandal broke they have accumulated over 31,000 reports of similar calls from across Canada. In the most high-profile case, in the riding of Guelph in Ontario, Elections Canada has traced at least some of the calls to a subsidiary of an automated calling company in Edmonton, which in turn was contacted both by the Guelph Conservative campaign as well as a disposable mobile phone registered under the alias "Pierre Poutine" of "Separatist Street" in Joliette, Quebec. (The "Pierre Poutine" name was likely taken off of an independent food caterer in Guleph, Ontario, while the "Separatist Street" location was possibly a stab at Quebec independence.) In another riding where voter suppression tactics have been alleged (Nipissing--Timiskaming), the Conservatives won by a mere 18 votes -- and this was far from the only close riding across the country, potentially making the difference between a majority and minority government.

The opposition NDP and Liberals have (rather predictably) reacted with outrage, while the Conservatives have naturally denied any responsibility, though a low-ranking Conservative staffer from the Guelph campaign has since resigned from his position at the office of a Toronto-area MP. Spin-off allegations have included voter registration fraud as well as illegal campaign financing. Federal opinion polls have registered minimal (if any) impact as a result of the "robocall scandal", but it remains to be seen whether actual charges may be laid and if they will have an effect.

Notes

  1. Theoretically, in any situation where there is a minority government, some of the other parties could get together and form a coalition government, but this has not happened since confederation; the one time it seemed like this might happen--in 2008--it was kiboshed by the ruling Tories' clever exploitation of Eagleland Osmosis and general distrust of the Bloc Quebecois.
  2. Territories differ from provinces in that the power of a territory is conferred by the federal government with an Act of Parliament in the name of the Sovereign (like all legislation), while the power of a province is granted directly from the Sovereign by the province's constitution. In other words, it's exactly like the difference between a US state and a US territory, except for the obvious difference that the US, being a republic, doesn't have a Sovereign to confer legitimacy, and relies on "the people" instead.
  3. A no-confidence vote occurs when a supply bill - that is, a bill dealing with the spending of money - is defeated, and reflects that the Parliament no longer believes that the Prime Minister is an effective leader. Essentially, it's the legislative equivalent of "We're firing you".
  4. It features the Parti Québécois (PQ), the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), and the newly-formed Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). The first is the separatist party, and is slightly left-leaning. The second is federalist, and is slightly right-leaning. The third is vaguely described as either centre-right (according to the media) or neither of the right or left (according to their own leadership). The newborn CAQ claims to eschew the entire federalism-separatism debate, and has lately been poaching voter support and MNAs from the Liberals, the PQ, and the defunct ADQ. One thing to note: Quebec is somewhat to the left of Canada in general, notably on social issues, and as such, the Quebec Liberal Party is very similar to the Federal Conservative Party; indeed, the current Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, rose to prominence as a Progressive Conservative minister under Bryan Mulroney -- and even became the leader of the party after the 1992 wipeout -- before becoming leader of the Quebec Liberals.
  5. Clarkson, born Adrienne Poy, was married to the English-born academic Stephen Clarkson 1963-1965 and retained his name after their divorce.
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