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Canada US politics compared

The history of Canada-US relations indicates that much of Canadian politics is defined by reaction to, opposition to, following, or leading US trends. The two North American nations are so similar as to be often indistinguishable to a casual outsider, much as Canadians pride themselves on being somehow different. Cynical commentators have noted the difference between Canadians and Americans as: "Americans pronounce foreign words and names as if they were in Spanish. Canadians pronounce those words as if they were in French, say 'eh', and 'oot' and 'aboot' rather than 'out and about', use British spellings, and refer to the letter 'z' as 'zed'". (See Canadian English.)

Certainly there is a basis for saying that Canada and US politics are just as similar. The main differences are due to the Canadian constitution[?] that assigns a very limited role in criminal law to the provinces, but a very powerful role in civil law, natural resources, education (which is mostly public in Canada with very few private colleges or universities), and professional health care (which is almost entirely public institutions in Canada). U.S. states by contrast can have their own criminal code[?], must conform to US-wide standards in accounting, securities and civil law, and typically do not control the natural resources under their soil, this role being ceded to the federal government.

Table of contents

Division of powers

Both Canada and the United States are federations, they are both divided into a number of governmental sub-units. In Canada these are known as provinces, in the United States they are regfered to as states. While the founders of Canada intended their union to be stronger and more centralized than that the United States this has not come to pass. Canadian provinces have more power and a larger role in government than do US states. Canada is one of the only countries in the world where the combined budgets of the provinces exceed that of the federal government. Canadian provinces are responsible for most of Canada's social safety net[?], including health care, welfare, and education. Like the United States Canadian provinces became as smaller copies of the federal government. Over time, however, all the provinces have eliminated their upper house, and are now all unicameral. Many similarities remain, however while governors are similar in role to the President, so Canadian Premiers are comprable to the Prime Minister.

Municipal powers

Canadian municipalities have no rights whatsoever, legally, and are 'creatures of the province' in which they are located. They cannot sue nor can they apply moral purchasing standards in defiance of provincial standards. Provinces may merge and divide even cities at will, without consultation, and may ignore results of any referendum at the municipal level. For details of a current controversy, see the Toronto, Ontario article, and a discussion of the 1998 amalgamation.

Special powers of Quebec

Quebec is primarily French-speaking and, like Louisiana in the USA, follows the Napoleonic civil code with respect to its civil law. Quebec's public pension and social insurance schemes are kept in separate funds from those of the rest of Canada, and are managed by the powerful Caisse de Dépôt[?] fund, which often provides investment capital to Quebec-based businesses that are deemed strategic by its government.

Provincial politics in Quebec tend to revolve (since the 1970s at least) on the question of Quebec separation[?] from Canada, to create a new French-speaking nation-state. The large parties (Parti Quebecois is separatist, the Quebec Liberal Party[?] is federalist) are divided on the question, and only recently has Quebec politics shown signs of moving away from this polarization.

There is no state in the United States, by contrast, where state politics is so dominated by a party with the goal of separation from the USA.

Equalization payments

The richer provinces, notably Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, pay what are called 'provincial equalization payments' to the poorer regions, notably Newfoundland, the Maritimes, and the Territories, who are typically quite dependent on such payments. Quebec, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are typically not so dependent, nor called upon to contribute much, to the 'have-not provinces'.

The negotiations of provincial relief, and the draining of human capital (properly individual capital) from poorer provinces to richer ones, are constant concerns of Canadian provincial premiers. In the post-World-War-II period, Atlantic Canada lost many people to Central Canada (especially Ontario), and Western Canada (mostly Alberta in the 1980s oil boom and British Columbia later).

From time to time Canadian premiers have made intolerant remarks about this situation in public. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein once famously offered any unemployed person "a free bus ticket to Vancouver" (to exploit that government's more generous assistance). Ontario Premier Mike Harris[?] once famously referred to Atlantic Canada as "welfare bums". Both reflected underlying resentment of making payments to poorer regions, often voiced by constituents in their generally-more-politically-conservative provinces, who feel they are paying for the social assistance in these other places.

Although these politics of 'have' and 'have-not' states are also present in the United States, there is less subsidy of the latter by the former, and more appreciation of the role 'have-not' states play in providing labor to 'have' states, and in serving in the military.

Political parties

There are five political parties in the (federal) Canadian House of Commons, and typically three that have held power at some point in each of the provinces. Despite this, Canada continues to adhere to a first past the post system of electing its representatives, so regional differences and interests are exaggerated, vote-splitting is common, and most governments are majorities with far less than half the popular vote, accountable to no one until the next election.

In the United States, by contrast, the election of G. W. Bush in 2000 without winning the popular vote (won by Albert Gore) was unusual, having not happened in over a century. In Canada this is the normal state of affairs.

The five Canadian political parties in the federal parliament are:

The rise of the Bloc and decline of the Conservative party very drastically changed the political landscape of Canada. Before that, the largest change was the rise of the New Democrats that tended to split the Liberal vote, and elect more conservatives.

A consequence of these changes has been that the Liberal Party has tended to move more to the center, and has successfully split the vote between two parties 'on the right' (PCs and the Alliance), and two parties 'on the left' (Bloc and New Democrats). Since the Liberals are often referred to colloquially as the 'Grits', this condition of perpetual Liberal control is called 'the Grit lock'.

Although the Clinton-era Democrats also moved to dominate the center of the political spectrum in the United States, they did not manage to successfully divide and conquer their opponents, who were perhaps not so willing to be divided. Nonetheless the rise of the Reform Party of H. Ross Perot in 1992, and the rise of the Green Party of the United States in 2000, could both be said to have 'split the vote' and elected a candidate of opposite political views. Perhaps due to such annoying short-term results, 'third parties' in the United States have almost always been very successfully integrated into the two 'mainstream' parties, time and again. In Canada, by contrast, this worked until the postwar period, but in recent times has failed again and again, most recently when Prime Minister Jean Chretien (a Liberal) asked the New Democratic Party publicly to join the Liberal Party and cease to run candidates against each other. Numerous attempts to 'unite the right' in the 1990s have also failed.

In the United States, by contrast, splits in the solidarity of 'the right' and 'the left' have generally been rather temporary, and quickly re-formed by binding together new coalitions, despite a more distinctive and enduring "liberal vs. conservative" culture that tends to make American political culture more dualistic and interest-group driven. It also tends to lead to a polarization that is unusual in Canadian politics, where personalities can be often dominant over ideology in determining what really happens.

This may be a symptom of an over-centralized government (see below), or it may reflect a different attitude to parties in Canadian society. Most Canadian political parties are "broker parties" that contract deals with diverse interest groups and organizations. A good example is Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his successful integration of Quebec separatists and Alberta advocates of grassroots democracy in his party. This coalition dominated the government with an unprecedented (210 seat) majority government, then dissolved into just two seats.

This demonstrates the difficulty of holding coalitions together in a bilingual political culture with vast disparities in key values. The rise of regional parties, such as the Bloc (only in Quebec, by definition) and the Alliance (successful only in the West), seems to ensure that future Canadian governments will be coalitions of minority parties, or Liberal pluralities based on fewer than 50% of votes cast. At least until more electoral reform can occur, which will probably force parties to merge, co-operate, or dissolve as members go elsewhere.


A key and often un-noted difference between Canada and the United States is the role of professional bureaucrats. In Canada, as in the UK, very few appointed officials lose their jobs during a shift of government even to a new party. While the Prime Minister of Canada has power within his government and over his Supreme Court unknown elsewhere in the developed world (often leading to the comment that "we elect a dictator"), these powers do not extend to the unionized public service:

In the United States, by contrast, over 2500 jobs are direct.appointments of the President of the United States, cabinet ministers need not be drawn from elected Members of Congress/Parliament (and in fact are almost never drawn from the ranks of professional politicians), and "the whole top rank of every federal department is swept away and replaced" with each election. This is very very different from the UK public service[?] and Canadian public service[?] situation, and creates very different dynamics, most notably in the conduct of Ministers vs. Secretaries:

A British or Canadian Minister is often in his or her job for a short time, not a specialist in the particular area of government, and must trust his or her Assistant Deputy Minister (only the Deputy being a political appointee) to convey his or her requests to the bureaucracy underneath.

An American Cabinet Secretary always takes one job for the duration of the Administration, unless they are replaced or resign from the government entirely. They have great power to replace their assistants, which extends deep down into the agencies they control, which have no effective unions.

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. Foreign policy tends to be more consistent across administrations in Canada and the UK, as the same people tend to be in charge, and exercise great suasion over their Ministers, who are not typically specialists in foreign affairs, and are also more committed to United Nations and other forms of international law and cooperation. For instance, Canada has contributed judges to world courts often, and the first prosecutor to issue a Hague prosecution against a sitting head of state Slobodan Milosevic of (former) Yugoslavia, Louise Arbour, now sits on the Supreme Court of Canada. Britain likewise has many examples of judicial and bureaucratic personnel who have served in important international roles and institutions.

While there are plenty of globally-experienced Americans appointed by each President, they are of course different people, and tend not to be 'insiders' to international institutions, which engage in constant diplomatic and interest group intrigue, requiring constant attention. A consequence of this is that American presidential appointees tend to be perceived as arrogant or ignorant, perhaps unfairly, as they are more likely to be new on the job, and to have done non-government jobs during the prior administration, especially if it was of 'the other party'.

An interesting admonition of American foreign policy is that it is 'an amateur empire' that, each administration, is composed of new people that simply don't know the ropes. This may simply be an arrogant admonition from those very professional imperialists, the British. Canadians probably consider both arrogant, especially those of French descent, who often perceive themselves as a minority in an English-speaking Empire that has simply moved itself from London to Washington, and has a minor outpost in Ottawa.

Bilingualism in French and English is an absolute and inflexible requirement of Canadian federal politics at the Cabinet level, and of bureaucrats at literally every level. Unilingual politicians are confined to provincial politics. Weak other-language skills among Cabinet Ministers also tend to increase the power of the very fluent bureaucrats, who are responsible for briefing the Ministers and for the translation of documents from one language into another.

To summarize the differences:

  • Canada:
    • Hybrid liberalism civic nature with a strong strand of Tory deference.
    • Regional distinction
    • 2 Party qualified but more recently developed a more multiparty system.
    • Post-materialism of 1960s.
    • Oppositional relationship generally except for business links with parties and elites.
  • United States:
    • Constitutionalism
    • Acceptance of limited state
    • Individualism
    • Civic Culture
    • 2 Party System made up of catch-all parties.
    • Post-materialism and protest in the 1960s

centralization of power in cabinet


Canada is committed to the concept of multilateralism and collective security. It is one of the largest backers of the United Nations and supports most international initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocols, the International Criminal Court, and the International Ban on Land Mines[?]. The United States pursues both unilateral and multilateral policies at different times, depending on what is in their self interest. Many Americans have problems with the United Nations and are unwilling to see their sovereignty impinged by international organizations. Both Canada and the United States are committed to international economic organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

role of the military

acceptance of separatism

individual rights and role of judiciary in protecting them


health care

same-sex marriages

See also: Politics of Canada, United States Government, Canada-US relations, Canadian provinces and territories, states of the United States of America[?].

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