Canada’s political systems are similar to those of both Great Britain and the United States, with a few key differences. Canada is governed by the Parliament of Canada, which includes the Senate of Canada, the House of Commons and a sovereign ruler who is represented by a governor general. Eligible voters elect members to the House of Commons every four years, while the governor general appoints senators, who serve until the age of 75, upon the advice of a prime minister. This system provides some continuity within the government, and the senate is also intended to represent all of Canada’s provinces, territories, regions, and minority groups. Canada’s supreme law is the Canadian Constitution. Canada has two official languages, French and English.
Constitutional Rights and Freedoms
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of the Canadian Constitution. The Charter grants rights and freedoms of a democratic society, including freedom of expression, the right to live and work anywhere in Canada, equality rights, aboriginal peoples’ rights, the right to use either of Canada’s official languages and protection of Canada’s multicultural heritage. Entrenching the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution means that all federal, provincial and territorial laws must be consistent with it.
Canada’s political system is a democratic constitutional monarchy. While a sovereign -- currently Queen Elizabeth II of England -- is head of state and is represented in Canada by the governor general, the prime minister is the head of government and is elected. Canadians do not vote directly for the office of prime minister. Instead, the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons becomes prime minister. In this system, the prime minister is likely to have the support of the House of Commons, enabling more efficient passage of legislation. Having an appointed senate helps prevent gridlock between the House and Senate.
Federal and Provincial Powers
Legislative powers in Canada are divided between the federal government and provincial governments. The federal government rules matters of national interest including citizenship, currency, taxation, banking, census, postal service, defence, bankruptcy, patents, marriage and divorce and criminal law. Provincial governments have power over local matters including education, municipalities, hospitals, property and civil rights and taxation within the province. Some powers are shared between the federal and provincial governments, including environment and health issues. This system gives provinces power to enact legislation according to local factors, while ensuring consistency across the country on issues that affect all Canadians.
All Canadians have health care insurance through a publicly funded, not-for-profit system. The Canada Health Act of 1984 establishes federal standards for health care services, which are delivered by the provinces and territories. While provincial governments may decide how much to spend on health care services, they must meet federal standards in order to receive full funding from the federal government. These federal standards require that all residents must be covered for medically necessary services, and health care services must be provided on uniform terms and conditions without direct or indirect financial charges, and with no discrimination based on age, health status or financial circumstances.
Limits on Campaign Finance
Since 2007, corporations and trade unions may not donate directly to political candidates or parties. The amount that individual contributors may give to a political candidate or party is limited in 2013 and 2014 to $1,200. Canada also limits the amount registered political parties may spend on elections, and the amount third parties may spend on election advertising in total and in any single riding. During the 2013 fiscal year, third party campaign advertising is limited to a total of $200,100, while the limit on advertising spending in individual ridings was just under $4,000 in 2008. Such limits help to ensure that elections focus more on political issues and hold candidates responsible to citizens rather than their funders.
- Government of Canada: Canada’s System of Government
- Parliament of Canada: The Canadian System of Government
- Elections Canada: Limit on Election Advertising
- Elections Canada: Limits on Contributions
- Parliament of Canada: Canada’s Senators
- Parliament of Canada: The Canadian Parliament
- Simon Fraser University Political Science Department: Canadian Election Laws and Policies
- Government of Canada: Canadian Heritage: Part 1 – An Overview of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
- Government of Canada: Intergovernmental Affairs: The Constitutional Distribution of Legislative Powers
- Council of Canadians: Understanding the Canada Health Act
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