In one sense, the Constitution of Canada is very old and, in another sense, it is very new.
The Constitution Act of 1867 (formerly called the British North America Act 1867 and still known informally as the BNA Act), is a major part of Canada's Constitution. The Act created a federal dominion and defines much of the operation of the government of the country including its federal structure, its bicameral legislature, the justice system, and the taxation system. The British North America Acts, including the 1867 Act, were renamed in 1982.
In the past, only the British sovereign could amend the Constitution. In 1982, Canada patriated its Constitution, which means it adopted mechanisms to amend it itself, following an agreement between the federal government and nine of the provinces. Quebec refused to sign the agreement, primarily because it wasn’t granted special constitutional status.
Furthermore, since 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is entrenched in the Constitution. Despite these changes, Canada remains a constitutional monarchy and the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, is still the Queen of Canada.
A key feature of the Canadian political system is the difference between the largely French-speaking province of Québec which has a large measure of autonomy and the rest of Canada which is overwhelmingly English-speaking. At times, the political pressures inside Québec for the province to secede from the remainder of Canada have been very powerful but currently seem to be more dormant.
Descriptions of Canada's Government
Canada's government can be very difficult to understand. It is a complex system that can be described in four ways. The government can be called a Constitutional Monarchy, a Federal System, a Party System, and a Representative Democracy.
The term constitutional monarchy means that the country is associated with some sort of Monarch (royal figure), while the actual governing of the country is done by an elected body.
Canada has a federal structure because of its vast size. This system of government was created to ensure that the needs of the country as a whole were not jeopardized by the needs of its distinct regions.
People elected to positions in the government are members of a political party. A political party is a group of people that have common goals and beliefs about how the government should run the country, province, or town. The major political parties in Canada are the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives, the New Democratic Party, the Reform party, and the Bloc Quebecois.
A democracy is country that is ultimately run by its people. Canada falls into this category because they elect representatives to do the governing for us. This makes Canada a representative democracy.
Levels of Government
In Canada, there are 3 levels of government. Each level of government has different responsibilities.
Federal government (the Government of Canada) - Responsible for things that affect the whole country, such as citizenship and immigration, national defence and trade with other countries.
Provincial and territorial governments (for example, the Province of Ontario) - Responsible for such things as education, health care and highways.
Municipal (local) governments (cities, towns, and villages in Ontario) - Responsible for firefighting, city streets and other local matters. If there is no local government, the province provides services.
At the federal level, there are 3 parts of government:
Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, is Canada's formal head of state. The Governor General represents the Queen in Canada and carries out the duties of head of state.
The House of Commonsmakes Canada's laws. Canadians elect representatives to the House of Commons. These representatives are called Members of Parliament (MPs)and usually belong to a political party. The political party that has the largest number of MPs forms the government, and its leader becomes prime minister.
The prime minister is the head of government in Canada. The Prime Minister chooses MPs to serve as ministers in the cabinet. There are ministers for citizenship and immigration, justice and other subjects. The cabinet makes important decisions about government policy.
The Senate reviews laws that are proposed by the House of Commons. Senators come from across Canada. The prime minister chooses the senators.
At the provincial level:
The Lieutenant Governor represents the Queen.
The Legislative Assemblymakes law. In Ontario, elected representatives are called Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs).
The political party that has the largest number of MPPs forms the government, and its leader becomes premier. The premier is the head of government in Ontario.
The premier leads the government and chooses MPPs to serve as ministers in the cabinet. The cabinet sets government policy and introduces laws for the Legislative Assembly to consider.
Visit Civics 101 for more information about how the provincial government works. Watch videos and interviews with politicians, ask an MPP your questions, use a budget simulator and more.
Municipal (Local) Government
At the municipal level:
The Province of Ontario defines the structure, finances, and management of the local governments of cities, towns and villages.
Residents of the municipality elect the mayor and council members to lead the local government. Committees of councillors discuss budget, service and administrative issues that are then passed on to the council for debate. Citizens, business owners and community groups can present their concerns to councillors at committee meetings.
Municipalities may also be part of a larger county or regional government (for example, York Region).
The Federal Government
The federal parliament has power over many areas of the country. Some of these areas are international trade, taxation, national defence, shipping, currency, banking, citizenship, and criminal law.There are three main branches to the federal government, and each one of these branches has special components.
ExecutiveLegislativeJudiciary - Queen - House of Commons - Supreme Court of - Prime Minister - Senate Canada - Cabinet
Executive power is the power to run the country and carry out the laws.
Legislative power is the power to make laws.
Judicial power deals with deciding who has broken the law, and what penalties they should receive.