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Politics of Canada

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Government Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a federal system, a parliamentary government, and strong democratic traditions. Many of the country's legislative practices derive from the unwritten British parliamentary custom in which the executive and legislative branches of government are merged. In that context the executive tends to apply strict party discipline on members of its party, with the net effect of seriously diminishing the influence of its own "backbenchers" and opposition parties alike.

This situation, where control is held in the hands of the Prime Minister, has been characterized recently by Liberal Party leadership candidate, Paul Martin, Jr., as a "democratic deficit". The situation may be contrasted with the written constitutional provisions of its American neighbor that provide for the separate elections of a president and a legislature.

The political system under which Canada operates was first set forth by the British North America Act (commonly treated as the "Constitution") adopted by the British Parliament in 1867. An effect of this was that any amendments to Canada's "constitution" required the approval of the British Parliament. Over time, and particularly after World War I citizens of the self-governing "dominions" began to develop a strong sense of identity, and in the Balfour Declaration 1926 the British government expressed its intent to grant full independence to these dominions. Thus in 1931 the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster giving legal recognition to the independence of Canada and the other "white" dominions. The British Parliament still retained its power to amend the Canadian Constitution. This was an improvement, but still unacceptable for many Canadians even as this power was only treated as a formality. However, political partisanship and the inability to obtain consensus on an amending process led to the status quo remaining in effect until 1982.

Queen Elizabeth II, as Queen of Canada, has no power but serves as a symbol of traditon. She appoints a governor-general, but only one requested by the Prime Minister of Canada, usually for a 5-year term that may be extended. The Prime Minister is the leader of the political party in power and is the head of the cabinet. Members of the cabinet remain in office solely at the will of the Prime Minister.

Canada's parliament consists of an elected House of Commons and a Senate whose members are appointed by the Prime Minister alone without the review or concurrence of anyone. Legislative power rests with the party that won the majority of seats in the House of Commons which is elected from a current 301 constituencies (or electoral districts) for a period not to exceed 5 years. This period has only been extended once, in 1916. The prime minister alone may ask the governor general to dissolve parliament and call new elections at any time during that period; that request was also refused only once, during the minority government of 1926.

Referenda have never popular among Canadian politicians. Since 1867 there have been only three Canada-wide referenda.

Criminal law, based largely on British law, is uniform throughout the nation and is under federal jurisdiction. Civil law is also based on the common law of England, except in Quebec, which was granted the right by Britain in 1774 to retain the French civil code. Justice is administered by federal, provincial, and municipal courts. Beyond the lower courts and Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada is the court of final jurisdiction.

Each province is governed by a premier and a single, elected legislative chamber. A lieutenant governor, appointed by the governor general but only the person requested by the Prime Minister of Canada, represents the Crown in each province. A lieutenant governor, like the governor-general, is a symbol who in practice carries no real power.

Principal Government Officials

Head of State -- Queen Elizabeth II
Governor General -- Adrienne Clarkson
Prime Minister -- Jean Chretien
Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Finance -- John Manley
Ambassador to the United Nations -- Paul Heinbecker[?]

Political conditions

The current Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, is a Quebecer and, for almost forty of the past fifty years, that position has been held by a Quebecer. Quebecers have always been prominent in the federal cabinet, and Quebecers, by law, must hold three of the nine positions on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal Party won another majority victory in the November 2000 general elections. Mr. Chrétien, a member of parliament from his native Quebec, became the first prime minister to lead three consecutive majority governments since 1945, as the Liberals increased their majority in Parliament to 57% (172 of the 301 Parliamentary seats), with 40.9% of the popular vote. The Canadian Alliance, which did well in western Canada but was unable to make significant inroads in the East, won the second-highest number of seats (66).

Federal-provincial relations is a regular issue in Canadian politics: Quebec wishes to preserve and strengthen its distinctive nature, western provinces desire more control over their abundant natural resources, especially energy reserves, industrialized central Canada is concerned with its manufacturing base, and the Atlantic provinces strive to escape from being less affluent than the rest of the country.

The government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has responded to these different regional needs by seeking to rebalance the Canadian confederation, giving up its spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction, while attempting to strengthen the federal role in other areas. The federal government has reached agreement with a number of provinces returning to them authority over job training programs and is embarked on similar initiatives in other fields. Meanwhile, it has attempted to strengthen the federal role on interprovincial trade, while also seeking central regulation of securities.

National Unity

The issue of Canadian political unity hinges around the Quebec issue. Following the failure of many constitutional initiatives since 1968, Canada is still seeking a settlement that will satisfy the voters of the French-speaking province of Quebec. The issue has been a fixture in Canadian history, dating back to the the forced Union of 1841. For more than a century, Quebec was Canada, a French colony, and the rest of Canada was controlled by Britain or not conquered by Europeans yet. In 1763, in the treaty ending the Seven Years' War, France chose to hand over control of its colony in Canada to the British in order to keep its sugar-rich colony of Guadaloupe. This was a time when France, England, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other European colonial powers imposed their language, religion, and their laws on all colonies. Many of these colonial dictates were enforced until the middle of the 20th century resulting in Canada and 29 other countries having French as an official language. In 1774 the British Parliament's decision to allow Quebec to retain its religious rights, language and legal system was unprecedented.

The early 1960s brought the Quiet Revolution to Quebec, leading to a new assertiveness and sense of identity among the Quebecois, who make up about 24% of Canada's total population. This was very different from the earlier Catholic nationalism of Father Lionel Groulx and others in that in March of 1963 the first bombs by the Québec Liberation Front (FLQ) terrorist organization were set off. Violence and bombs became a method for certain extremists to obtain independence of Quebec from Canada, culminating in 1970 with what is known as the October Crisis.

Several political movements evolved in the early 1960s, and in 1966, Union Nationale Party (an older but newly reinvigorated party) won election in Québec. Party leader Daniel Johnson Sr.[?] became Premier using the slogan "Equality or Independence". The new Premier of Quebec stated: "As a basis for its nationhood, Quebec wants to be master of its own decision-making in what concerns the human growth of its citizens -- that is to say education, social security and health in all their aspects -- their economic affirmation -- the power to set up economic and financial institutions they feel are required -- their cultural development -- not only the arts and letters, but also the French language -- and the Quebec community's external development -- its relations with certain countries and international bodies".

For the federal government this demand for an enormous shift in power to a province done under a threat of a possible unilateral declaration of independence, was cause for great alarm. In 1967, on the initiative of Premier John Robarts of Ontario, a provincial First Ministers' conference was held in Toronto to discuss the Canadian confederation of the future. From this, a first round of what would become annual constitutional meetings of all Provincial Premiers and the Prime Minister of Canada, was held in February 1968. On the initiative of Prime Minister Lester Pearson the conference undertook to address the desires of Quebec. Amongst numerous initiatives, the conference members examined the recommendations of a Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission, the question of a Charter of Rights, regional disparities, and the timeliness of a general review of the Constitution (the BNA Act).

In 1968, the Parti Québécois was founded by René Lévesque, whose Mouvement souveraineté-association joined forces with other political groups, espousing the independence of Quebec, to create the Parti Québécois. That same year, Pierre Trudeau from Montreal won the leadership of the federal Liberal Party and became Prime Minister of Canada. He would undertake numerous legislative measures to enhance the status of Quebec within Canada, including the passage into law in 1969 of the "Official Languages Act[?]" that expanded upon the original official language status of both French and English from the 1867 BNA Act.

Canada and its Provinces have several different political parties and its electoral districts are on a "winner takes all" rather than proportional representation. In 1976, in the Province of Quebec, three major parties contested the election. Two parties won a combined 59% of the popular vote, but the separatist Parti Québécois won enough strategic electoral districts to take power with 41% of the popular vote, which is very common with first-past-the-post voting methods.

In a 1980 referendum, the Parti Québécois unilaterally sought a mandate from the people of Quebec to support "sovereignty association". After an 84% voter turnout, 60% percent of Quebec voters rejected the proposal. The proposal advocated independence for Quebec with the exact terms of association with Canada to be decided after independence. The actual text of the resolution:

"The Government of Québec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Québec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad - in other words, sovereignty - and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; no change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be effected without approval by the people through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Québec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Québec and Canada?"

After losing the 1980 referendum, the government of Quebec, passed Resolution 176 that states: "A lasting solution to the constitutional issue presupposes recognition of the Québec-Canada duality."

Meeting in Ottawa on June 9, 1980, the newly re-elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the Provincial Premiers set an agenda and gave their ministers responsibility for constitutional issues and a mandate to proceed with exploratory discussions to create a new Canadian Constitution. However, given the separatist government of Quebec's position that there be two nations established first in accordance with Resolution 176, approval by Quebec of any changes to the BNA Act were impossible. This assertion of national duality was immediately followed with Resolution 177 that stated: "Québec will never agree, under the existing system, to the patriation of the Constitution and to an amending formula as long as the whole issue of the distribution of powers has not been settled and Québec has not been guaranteed all the powers it needs for its development." As such, Quebec's government refused to sign the new Canadian Constitution a year later. This failure to sign was a highly symbolic act, but one without direct legal consequence as no one questions the authority of the Canadian Constitution within Quebec.

After losing the vote to secede from Canada, the Parti Québécois government of Quebec made specific demands as minimum requirements for the Province of Quebec. A list of demands that the Parti Québécois government made included absolute control by the Government of Quebec over:

  • the highest court in the province, replacing the Supreme Court of Canada with the Quebec Court of Appeals;
  • language and education;
  • economic development;
  • communications including cable TV, radio, and satellite;
  • natural resources, including oil and gas;
  • all forms of taxation, except customs duties;
  • tourism;
  • fisheries, including a partitioning of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Provinces;
  • scientific research;
  • recreation;
  • prisons;
  • labour relations;
  • the federal government of Canada paying for the above changes using federal tax funds

The Province of Quebec already had theoretically full control over education, health, mineral resources, supplemental taxation, social services, seniors' retirement pension funds, inter-provincial trade, and other areas affecting the daily lives of its citizens. Many Canadians viewed the additional demands as too greatly reducing the power of the federal government, assigning it the role of tax collector and manager of the national border with the United States. Others viewed these changes as desirable, concentrating power in the hands of Quebecois politicians, who were more in tune with Quebecois desires and interests.

Though the Parti Québécois government said that the federal government of Canada would be responsible for international relations, Quebec proceeded to open its own representative offices in foreign countries around the world. These quasi-embassies were officially named "Quebec Houses". Today, the international affairs minister is responsible for the less expensive Québec delegation system.

Subsequently, an agreement between the federal government and all provincial governments (except Quebec's) agreed to Canada's assumption of full responsibility for its own constitution in 1982 (formerly the responsibility of the United Kingdom). The agreement was enacted as "The Canada Act" by the British Parliament, and was proclaimed into law by Queen Elizabeth II on April 17, 1982. In Canada, this is referred to as the patriation of the Constitution.

This action (followed by the creation of a new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) came from an initiative by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau to create a multicultural and bilingual society in all of Canada. Some Canadians saw Trudeau's actions as an attempt to "shove French down their throats" (a common phrase at the time). Many Quebecois viewed his compromise as a sell-out and useless: Quebec already had a Charter voted in 1975 and was not interested in imposing French on other provinces, rather it wished to safegard it inside Quebec. Many Canadians recognize that the province of Quebec is distinct and unique but they do not conclude from this that Quebec merits a position of greater autonomy than the other provinces, which they feel would be the result of granting special powers that are unavailable to the other provinces.

The government of Quebec, in line with its policy of the duality of nations, objected to the new Canadian constitutional arrangement of 1982 (the patriation), with its formula for future constitutional amendments that failed to give Quebec absolute veto power over all constitutional changes.

Some believe that the leaders of Quebec used their refusal to sign the 1982 Constitution as a bargaining tool to gain leverage in future negotiations, because the federal Canadian government desired (though it is not legally necessary) to include all the provinces and territories willingly into the new Constitution. Quebec politicians are quick to reply that the National Assembly of Quebec rejected the repatriation unanimously. In spite of Quebec's lack of assent, the Constitution still applies within Quebec and to all Quebecois citizens. Many Quebecois felt that the other provinces' adoption of the Constitution without Quebec's assent was a betrayal of the central tenets of democracy. They referred to the decision as the "Night of the Long Knives."

Two later initiatives sought to address the Quebecois desire of securing greater autonomy within the Canadian federation. In 1987, the administration of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (born in Quebec) attempted to address the concerns of the leaders of Quebec and bring the province into an amended constitution. Quebec's provincial government, then controlled by a party who advocated remaining in Canada on certain conditions (The Liberal Party of Quebec), endorsed the accord (called the Meech Lake Accord). Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec referred to it as the first step towards gaining new powers from the federal government. However, the legislatures in Newfoundland and Manitoba did not support the Accord, primarily because they saw it as a change which granted exclusive powers to the province of Quebec and would severely and permanently weaken the country.

Quebec, the federal government, and other provinces then negotiated a second proposed constitutional accord in 1992 -- the Charlottetown Accord[?]. Despite near-unanimous support from the country's political leaders, this second effort at constitutional reform was rejected by Quebec and the rest of Canada in an October 1992 referendum. Only 32% of British Columbians supported the accord, because it was seen there and in other western provinces as blocking their hopes for future constitutional changes over such issues as Senate reform.

In the 1993 national election, the conservative vote was divided between two parties that resulted in the Bloc Québécois being elected as the official opposition. The Bloc Quebecois ran candidates only in the Province of Quebec and held independence for Quebec as a primary tenet of its platform. In 1994, the provincial Parti Québécois, also separatist, was elected to the provincial government of Quebec. The high profile of these two parties led to a second referendum on independence in 1995. The Parti Quebecois government declared that a resulting vote of 50% plus 1 (person) in favor would be a victory.

This referendum, was a major concern for the country as the question posed was not only ambiguous, but declaring the basis of a 50% plus 1 result meant that 12% of the citizens of the Province Quebec were able to determine the fate of the entire nation of Canada. Held unilaterally in Quebec on October 30, 1995 the referendum resulted in a narrow 50.56% to 49.44% victory for Quebec staying as part of Canada versus breaking up the country. The leader of the separatist cause, Quebec's Premier Jacques Parizeau[?], immediately vowed to hold another referendum, saying "It's true we have been defeated, but basically by what? By money and the ethnic vote." This remark caused a huge public outcry because it was percieved as racist.

Parizeau and his supporters claim that the money issue refers to the illegal spendings made by federal agencies for the October 27th federalist rally in Montreal. The total cost was estimated at approximately $ 4 million, which is more than was spent by both the Yes and No sides during the referendum. The ethnic vote issue supposedly refers to the liguistic voting paterns in Quebec. Francophones (who are mostly, but not entirely, french-canadian) split their vote between the federalists and the sovereignists. The anglophones vote nearly unanimously for Canadian unity. That is what statisticians call an ethnic vote, although it is really a linguistic vote. The allophones had traditionally given a very marginal support to the sovereignists, around 8% in the 1980 referendum. In 1995, allophone support for sovereignty dropped to 3%, despite tireless attempts at augmenting the support from the latino, haitian, and arab communities who are considered more open towards francophones. Another controversy is about the reference to the "nous" (we, us) by Parizeau that night. Speaking to his crowd, his said roughly "let's stop this political correctness non-sense for a minute will you. We (the francophones) voted for it this time. So next time, instead of being 60% or 61%, it will be 63% or 64% and it will be enough". This opinion is supported by some in the old elite of the PQ, who failed at gathering support from the anglophones and the other non-francophone minorities. Despite understandable frustrations, the Yes side accepted the No vote of Quebecers for a second time.

Immigrants and English-speaking citizens of Quebec, as well as in the rest of Canada, expressed great concern over the separatists' intention to hold another referendum and the possibility of a series of never-ending referenda to be undertaken until one gave the desired result. Many Canadians were also gravely concerned about the wording of the referendum. As such, in December 1999 the administration of Prime Minister Chrétien referred the matter of another sovereignty referendum in Quebec to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court ruled that Quebec, with less than 23 percent of Canada's population, cannot alone vote to break up the entire country unless the referendum has a clear majority in favor of a clearly worded question.

Following the Supreme Court's decision, the federal government introduced legislation known as the "Clarity Bill" which set forth the guidelines for any future referendum undertaken by the government of the Province of Quebec on the subject of separation. With a majority vote supported by all members of the House of Commons of Canada, except for members of the Bloc Quebecois party, both houses of the Federal Parliament of Canada approved the legislation.

In March 2001, Bernard Landry[?] succeeded Lucien Bouchard as Premier of Quebec (see List of Quebec Premiers) and pledged to promote independence for Quebec and to hold another referendum on separation from Canada. In April 2003 Quebecers elected Jean Charest as premier, the first solidly federalist premier since the 1960s.

Currently, such issues as medicare, unemployment, housing[?], education, taxes, trade and the environment preoccupy many Canadians more urgently than national unity.

Country name:

  • conventional long form: Canada
  • conventional short form: Canada
  • formerly called: Dominion of Canada

Data code: CA

Government type: [Constitutional Monarchy] Capital: Ottawa, Ontario

Administrative divisions: 10 provinces and 3 territories*; Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories*, Nova Scotia, Nunavut*, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory*

Independence: 1 July 1867 (from UK)

National holiday: Canada Day, 1 July (1867)

Constitution: 17 April 1982 (Constitution Act); originally, the machinery of the government was set up in the British North America Act of 1867; charter of rights Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms adopted in 1982, interpreted by case law and unwritten constitutional conventions

Legal system: based on English common law, except in Quebec, where a civil law system, centered around the Civil Code of Quebec and based on early French customary law and the Napoleonic Code prevails; accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, with reservations

Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal

Executive branch:

  • chief of state: Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada (since 6 February 1952), represented by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (since 7 October 1999)
  • head of government: Prime Minister Jean Chretien (since 4 November 1993)
  • cabinet: Federal Ministry chosen by the prime minister from among the members of his own party sitting in Parliament
  • elections: none; the monarch is hereditary; governor general appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister for a five-year term; following legislative elections, the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons is automatically designated by the governor general to become prime minister

Legislative branch: The bicameral Parliament consists of the Senate and the House of Commons. Currently the Senate is normally limited to 104 members, who are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister to serve until age 75. The number of normally allowed Senators was exceeded once when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sought to ensure the passage of a national sales tax. The House of Commons currently has 301 members elected by a plurality of popular votes in separate constituencies for terms that do not exceed five years. The five year term has been exceeded once when Prime Minister Robert Borden perceived the need during World WarI.

  • elections: House of Commons - last held November 27 2000
  • election results: percent of vote by party - Liberal Party 40.9%, Canadian Alliance 25.2%, Progressive Conservative Party 12.3%, Bloc Québécois 10.8%, New Democratic Party 8.5%, other 2.2%; seats by party - Liberal Party 173, Canadian Alliance 66, Bloc Québécois 37, New Democratic Party 13, Progressive Conservative Party 12
  • note: seats by party as of January 2001 - Liberal Party 172, Canadian Alliance 66, Bloc Québécois 38, New Democratic Party 13, Progressive Conservative Party 12

Judicial branch: Supreme Court, judges are appointed by the prime minister alone without review.

Political parties and leaders:by number of elected representatives

Notable Governmnet Departments, Agencies, and Crown Corporations

International organization participation: ABEDA, ACCT, AfDB, APEC, AsDB, Australia Group, BIS, C, CCC, CDB (non-regional), CE (observer), The Commonwealth, EAPC, EBRD, ECE, ECLAC, ESA (cooperating state), FAO, La Francophonie, G-7, G-10, IADB, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICC, ICFTU, ICRM, IDA, IEA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, IHO, ILO, IMF, IMO, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Interpol, IOC, IOM, ISO, ITU, Kyoto Protocol, MINURCA, MINURSO, MIPONUH, MONUC, NAM (guest), NAFTA, NATO, NEA, NSG, OAS, OECD, OPCW, OSCE, PCA, UN, UN Security Council (temporary), UNCTAD, UNDOF, UNESCO, UNFICYP, UNHCR, UNIDO, UNIKOM, UNMIBH, UNMIK, UNMOP, UNTAET, UNTSO, UNU, UPU, WCL, WFTU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTrO, Zangger Committee

Flag description: three vertical bands of red (hoist side), white (double width, square), and red with a red maple leaf centered in the white band (See Flag of Canada) See also

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