A Primer On Canadian Politics

Another election is coming in Canada, and a few American Twitterers (is that the proper noun) are interested in what’s going on up here, so I thought I’d put out a quick primer on Canada’s electoral system, how things work here, what’s going on, and what might happen in the election. To the best of my ability I’m going to try to frame this as a comparative piece to the USA’s political system to try to make it more understandable for our cousins to the south.

So, where to begin…?

Canada uses a multiparty parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. The Parliament consists of two chambers: first the elected House of Commons, which consists of 308 seats. Each of the 308 Members of Parliament are elected by voters to respresent their electoral district, which is called a “riding”. For example, I presently live in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, which covers a large but fairly sparsely populated geographic area of the Province of Nova Scotia. I’ll actually probably reside in another riding by the time the election happens, as the dates being batted around are May 2nd or 9th, and I’m moving on May 1 to take up residence in the riding of Halifax West. The second is the Senate, an appointed body of 105.

Theoretically each riding is supposed to represent a comparable, proportional amount of the population of Canada, but in practice that’s not quite accurate. Prince Edward Island, for example, is home to about 0.5% of the population of Canada, but has four electoral ridings – more than double what they should have proportionately. Ridings are modified as needed, which usually gets at least some hackles raised about gerrymandering, but such is the nature of our system.

There are several major differences between the Canadian and US political processes. Canadians, first of all, do not vote for anywhere near as many people as Americans do. Since our legislative and executive functions are fused, we vote solely for our Member of Parliament. Whichever party wins the most seats is customarily invited to form a government by the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative in Canada. That party’s leader then becomes Prime Minister and forms his cabinet to run the show.

There are no fixed election dates in Canada. A government may serve for up to five years before an election, but in practice it’s rarely longer than four. At a time of the government’s choosing – or sometimes not (I’ll explain below) – the Prime Minister pays a call to the Official Residence of the Governor-General at Rideau Hall to request Parliament be dissolved and an election called. This is known as “dropping the writ”.

Another difference: Senators in Canada are appointed, not elected. This is a rather controversial topic in some circles, but I don’t see any significant Senate reform on the horizon in Canada. The Senate of Canada is called the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought” and rarely originates any legislation. It also rarely interferes with legislation from the House of Commons. When it passes a Bill, it then goes to the Governor-General for Royal Assent, which makes it law. While theoretically a Governor-General can refuse Royal Assent, it just doesn’t happen, since the G-G is an appointed position, and is primarily ceremonial.

There are four major political parties in Canada holding seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party Of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, held the largest plurality of seats after the last election, but not a majority. This situation is referred to as a “minority government”, because the governing party doesn’t have sufficient votes in the House of Commons to pass whatever it wants, therefore it must work with opposition parties to get things passed. The Liberal Party of Canada, led by Michael Ignatieff, is the second largest party and is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe is the next largest. The BQ is something of an enigma. They only run candidates in the Province of Quebec, and their platform is mainly built around furthering the interests of a sovereign (read: independent) Quebec. Finally, there’s the New Democratic Party, lead by Jack Layton. Interestingly, in terms of “spectrum”, the parties start on the right with the Conservatives and move consistently to the left, the NDP being social democrats.

Back to the minority government issue – when there’s a minority government, they are vulnerable to something called a motion of non-confidence. That is to say, they serve as the government so long as they have the confidence of the House of Commons. If the opposition parties see fit, they can bring down the government by voting against anything deemed a confidence measure. Budgets (“money bills”) are always confidence measures. Lately, PM Harper’s used confidence measures as a form of political brinkmanship with the opposition Liberals. Today, the 40th Parliament found Stephen Harper’s government in contempt for failing to disclose information related to some big ticket purchases, and passed a motion of non-confidence, ending the second minority government of Mr. Harper.

And so, in about a month, Canadians will go to the polls to elect another Parliament. For now, it looks like there will be very little change to the composition of the House of Commons, meaning Harper will return as Prime Minister, still with a minority. It is for this reason that there’s some debate likely about the wisdom of an election when there’s going to be no change. There is, however, a possibility that the Liberals, the Bloc, and the NDP could agree to form a formal coalition which would have more seats in the House and could present themselves to the Governor-General as being most suited to lead. This would likely make Ignatieff the Prime Minister, but whether that will actually work/happen is doubtful, because the idea of anyone colluding with the Bloc Quebecois to get power isn’t particularly palatable. It was suggested in 2008, when Harper used a procedure called prorogation to stave off a confidence vote that he was almost certain to lose. At the same time, his party ramped up attack ads on the idea of a “coalition with socialists and separatists”. There was much controversy. In 2009, a second prorogation happened, with some speculation that it was to deflect attention from inquiries into the handling of detainees in Afghanistan, but with the “official explanation” being that it allowed politicians to participate in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

This is just a starter piece. Please comment with any questions or gaps you see and I’ll work to build it up a little more!


12 comments so far

  1. lostmuskrat on

    Excellent concise summary. I noticed you used PEI as an example of a province with more ridings than population would allow. All ridings like this are special cases – PEI’s being related to a compromise in the 1930s to solve a conflict between the BNA Act and PEI’s terms of entry into Confederation.

    I could explain more, but I doubt anybody would really care 🙂

    • warriorbanker on

      How do you suppose it is that I know about that situation…?

      Back when you told me that I was just some ignorant guy from “out west”.

  2. lostmuskrat on


  3. […] itself to minority governments, but most of what I wanted to discuss kept coming back to the great “enigma” of Canadian politics: the rise of the Bloc Québécois over the past 20 years as a political force […]

  4. Radical Centrist on

    Small correction: there are fixed election dates in Canada. To date, BC, ON, NB, NL, SK and PEI, as well as the NWT have such legislation. Also, fixed election date legislation was passed at the federal level – Harper chose to completely ignore it in 2008 (and of course it doesn’t prevent a government from being defeated earlier). Thus far, however, provinces with such legislation have respected the legislation (some will be holding their first elections under the fixed election date legislation this year-SK and PEI). Of course, the main difference is that nothing in the legislation prevents the GG or LG from calling an election whenever, but it isn’t 100% correct to say that we don’t have fixed-election dates here.

  5. warriorbanker on

    I was referring to federal politics primarily, and as a comparative primarily for an American audience, so I didn’t want to get too far into the weeds on it. 🙂

  6. serendopeity on

    I would like it alot more if we could cast one vote for the PM and one for the person in the riding that we thought was vest for the riding. I know, it’s an American thing voting for the PM, but personally I would find it much easier to vote when the time comes.

    @serendopeity on twitter

  7. Jo on

    Hey Warriorbanker,
    I know this is an old post, but it’s honestly one of the rare pieces in the Interweb out there that is essentially… (for lack of a better phrase) Canadian politics for dummies.

    I definitely appreciate this article – I know this may sound like a terrible idea, but if you have knowledge of it, could you briefly hash out the differences you personally find between the current Liberal platform and the current Conservative platform? Or even, what would “typical” Liberal goals and interests be compared to “typical” Conservative ones?

    I’m from Ontario and I was talking to a coworker today about the Liberals enacting Bill 115 against the teacher’s union and my coworker was saying how this action is quite contrary to Liberal “history” as they have always been teacher-friendly. This got me interested in what Liberals and Conservatives generally aim for/appeal to and was hoping to find more info online but everything seems a little too difficult for someone who is fresh out of school.

    Anyways, happy new year and thanks for blogging.

    • Nick on

      Platforms at provincial and federal levels are a complicated mess because they can vary wildly. This isn’t something I’ve been following too closely, but maybe I’ll update the entry a bit at some point, though it will have to happen when I have the time to do the research. Thanks for the feedback.

  8. Sunil on

    “Canada uses a multiparty parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. The Parliament consists of two chambers: the elected House of Commons, which consists of 308 seats.”

    What is the other chamber?

    • Nick on

      The other chamber is the Senate, an appointed chamber of 105. They’re responsible for “sober second thought” and the existence and nature of the senate is a frequent political football.

    • Nick on

      The Senate – I made a minor amendment to make it a little clearer. I didn’t get into the Senate much because they’re not really all that interesting or important.

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