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Government in Canada
Citizenship and Immigration Canada


How is Canada governed?

Canada is a federation. The federal system of government means that powers and responsibilities are divided between the federal government and the 10 Canadian provincial governments. Canada also has territorial jurisdictions in the far north of the country.

The federal government includes the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Government members are members of parliament. The Parliament buildings are located in Ottawa. The laws passed in parliament are implemented by different federal departments.

What role does the Queen play?

Queen Elizabeth II is Canada's official head of state. She is represented in this country by the Governor General at the federal level and the Lieutenant Governors at the provincial level. All federal legislation must receive the assent of the Governor General, within the parameters of the Canadian constitution. This is what makes Canada a constitutional monarchy.

How is Parliament chosen?

Parliament consists of the House of Commons, the Senate and the Governor General.

The House of Commons is the national legislature elected by Canadian citizens. It is made up of 301 members. Members of parliament are usually associated with a political party, although some members do sit independently.

The Senate is the Upper House of Parliament. Members of the Senate are appointed by the Governor General upon recommendation by the Prime Minister. In addition to its consideration of parliamentary legislation, the Senate is also asked to investigate important economic and social issues.

With specific exceptions, all parliamentary legislation must be approved by the House of Commons, the Senate and the Governor General before it can become law. Most parliamentary legislation is introduced by the government.

How is the federal government formed?

By convention, the political party with the most elected members in the House of Commons will take the leading role in forming the government. If it has a majority of seats (151), then it automatically forms a majority government. If it has fewer than 151 seats, the leading party will seek the cooperation of other parties. The leader of this party becomes the Prime Minister. The party with the second highest number of seats usually becomes the Official Opposition. Its leader becomes the Leader of the Opposition. Since the federal election of 2 June 1997, there are five official parties in the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister chooses a Cabinet from members of the leading party in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and Cabinet must maintain the confidence of the House of Commons, a practice known as 'responsible government'.

Each member of Cabinet is responsible for the management of certain aspects of the federal government. To this end, most Cabinet members oversee the operations of one or more federal departments or agencies. The most senior officials in departments are called Deputy Ministers. They are not elected, and are, generally career public servants, directly responsible to the Cabinet Minister.

How are the provincial and territorial governments formed?

According to the practice of their federal counterparts, each provincial government is drawn from the elected members of the provincial assembly. The provincial leader, however, is called the Premier.

The provincial legislatures do not have a Senate. In order for provincial legislation to become law, it needs approval of the provincial assembly and the Queen's provincial representative, the Lieutenant Governor.

Territorial Governments

The territories are not sovereign units. Their powers are delegated by Parliament, and thus they are subordinate bodies. The territories also have elected assemblies that follow many of the same practices as the provincial and federal governments.

Local Governments

Local governments are elected regularly to manage municipalities, cities, towns and regions. Local governments do not have constitutional powers, but rather have functions delegated to them by other levels of government. Mayors, councillors and school board officials, for example, are elected to their positions directly. Usually, they do not formally represent political parties.

What are the responsibilities of the levels of government in Canada?

In accordance largely with the Constitution Act of 1867, the federal government handles such matters as

  • defence
  • criminal law
  • banking
  • postal system
  • foreign relations

The federal government is also involved in many other areas including transportation, communication, immigration, health, and environmental matters.

Provincial governments are constitutionally responsible for such matters as

  • civil justice
  • property
  • municipal institutions

In practice, the provinces share responsibility with the federal government for such matters as:

  • health services
  • agriculture
  • immigration
  • social assistance
  • transportation

Local governments are responsible for services within a city or region including:

  • schools
  • police and fire protection
  • water and sewage services
  • recreation
  • local public transportation

How and when are elections held?

By law, federal and provincial elections must be held at least every five years, although they can be called earlier. If a minority government has a bill defeated in the House of Commons, an election must take place. In all cases, the decision to call an election is taken by the Prime Minister.

All voting is by secret ballot.

At the local levels of government, elections are usually held every two or three years.

Who can vote?

To vote in a federal election, you must be a Canadian citizen and at least 18 years old. For provincial or municipal elections, the age and citizenship requirements may vary.

How is law enforced?

All individuals and organizations in Canada, including Parliament, are bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All individuals and organizations are also bound by the laws of Parliament. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have the responsibility of ensuring universal compliance with the laws of Parliament.

How is the Canadian legal system constituted?

Canada has an independent judiciary, with numerous levels of courts including the federal courts at the federal level and superior courts, county courts, provincial courts, family courts, juvenile courts and small-claims courts at the provincial level.

There are two forms of law in the country: those that deal with civil disputes and those that deal with criminal acts and punishment.

The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court in the land. It interprets constitutional matters and defines the limits of federal and provincial powers. There are nine Supreme Court justices, three of whom are always from the province of Quebec.

What is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of the Constitution Act, 1982, and enshrines the basic principles and values by which Canadians live and govern themselves. It also defines and guarantees personal rights and fundamental freedoms including freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

What is official bilingualism?

Official bilingualism allows all Canadians to communicate with the federal government, especially the courts and Parliament, in either English or French.

What is a multicultural society?

Canada is comprised of people from different national and ethnic backgrounds. Canadians celebrate this diversity. Canadian society actively encourages people to practise their customs and traditions, provided that they are in accordance with Canadian law.

How do Canadians view government?

Canadians are proud of their democracy, and see government as a body responsible to them. Canadians value principles of fair and equal access and the open exchange of ideas. Bribery and corruption at any level of government are not tolerated. The majority of Canadians vote regularly in government elections, and, indeed, see voting as a responsibility in a democratic society.


Please Note
This fact sheet contains information that was current at the time of publication. It is, however, a digest from many sources, and should not be confused with official statements of policy or programming. The Government of Canada is not responsible for information that changes between printings.

June 1997


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