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Canada in context (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 22, 2022

Political, constitutional, juridical, and socio-cultural aspects of the origins and development of the Canadian State

Formally speaking, Canada is a federal constitutional monarchy of the (British) Commonwealth with a parliamentary, not congressional, system. The head of the federal government and the primary decision maker is the prime minister, the leader of the party with the majority of members in the federal House of Commons (divided into geographic electoral districts colloquially called "ridings" from which members are elected on a "first-past-the-post" basis). Executive and legislative functions are conjoined in the Canadian Parliament, and a prime minister with a full majority in the House of Commons is formally much stronger than an American President (even when the President’s party controls both Houses of Congress) because of the prime minister's tight control over his or her own Cabinet of Ministers (almost always consisting entirely of sitting M.P.'s); over the other members of Parliament in his or her own party; and over his or her own party-structures. The prime minister is the main focus of the Canadian political system, even though he or she exercises authority with the symbolic permission of the monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented by the governor-general at the federal level, and lieutenant-governors at the provincial level).

There is a Senate, or upper house, which can only delay legislation, whose members are de facto appointed by the prime minister (until recently, it was an appointment for life, but now there is a mandatory retirement age of 75) as vacancies arise. This practice of late has been discredited by increasingly partisan appointments, and the Senate expense scandals, and it earlier became a hot issue in constitutional talks. Some have argued for an American-style Senate, others for its outright abolition.

The normal limit for a government's exercise of power is five years, but the calling of an election is at the discretion of the prime minister, at any point before the five years are over, or in a forced situation where a major government bill is defeated (which could happen if the government lacked a majority in the House of Commons). A party can exercise power in a so-called minority government situation when it has – however transiently – the support of other parties in the House of Commons – although the situation is inherently unstable. When the ruling party in a minority situation loses an important vote (called “a question of confidence”) in the House of Commons, a new government may sometimes be formed by a coalition of the other parties – or an election is immediately called.

Because of the supposed advantage of a prime minister or premier calling an election at the time of their choosing, it has become increasingly practiced for the incoming party to legislate a set date for the next election, shortly after their taking power.

Canada is a federal state, with a federal government (which also has jurisdiction over the sparsely populated northern territories) as well as ten provinces with their own elected governments and premiers (who play a role similar to the prime minister's, within their own jurisdictions). Balancing off the competing regional interests of the Atlantic provinces (the Maritimes and Newfoundland), Ontario, Quebec, and Western Canada (the Prairie provinces and British Columbia), is a crucial aspect of Canadian politics.

Canada’s current federal structure was formally constituted at Confederation on July 1, 1867, when the long-pre-existent historical regions of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia together formed the four new Provinces of the Dominion of Canada. There had been a centuries-long history of the French and British in Canada before 1867. The British North America (BNA) Act which constituted Canada was formally ratified by the Parliament of Westminster (in London, England). The central ideals of the Canadian Founding were “peace, order, and good government” – in marked contrast to the American ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It has been argued by some that, until the 1960s, Canada was in fact a substantively more ordered, conservative society than the United States – while at the same time – due to the archetypical Canadian politeness -- avoiding many of the harsh and ugly aspects of America such as racism and excessive commercialism.

The Western Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba were fully formed in today’s boundaries by 1905. To be precise, Manitoba and the North-West Territories joined Confederation in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, and the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905. Tiny Prince Edward Island joined (with the status of a full province) in 1873. Newfoundland (currently called Newfoundland and Labrador) remained a Crown Colony of Britain (and was also for a time a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire) until 1949. The far-northern territories of the Yukon and the North-West Territories have remained under Canadian federal jurisdiction. In 1998, Nunavut was formed as the Inuit homeland. In the last few years, there has been a move towards vastly increased recognition for the Aboriginal peoples – moving towards a situation of self-government or semi-sovereignty for many of the former reservation areas. (The term “Indian” is infrequently used today, becoming replaced by “Native” and “First Nations”, and now, increasingly “Indigenous”. “Indian” is now increasingly used to refer to people from India.)

The provinces are similar to American states, but, generally speaking, they are comparatively larger in size and influence, in regard to their respective polities, and have more extensive effective powers. The larger provinces would approximate major regions in the United States. Ontario, for example, represents about 42 per cent of the total Canadian economy (according to a Statistics Canada report of October 31, 2003). Ontario provincial employees represent 23 per cent of total provincial and territorial government employees, according to that report. Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, with over fourteen-and-a-half million people, and is the destination for over half of immigrants to Canada. Toronto has especially become a cosmopolitan entrepot, with close to half of its population (according to the 2006 Census) consisting of visible minorities (a term of official usage). Until very recently, when immigration has shifted somewhat to Western Canada, 43 per cent of immigrants to Canada have settled in Toronto. The so-called Greater Toronto Area has a population approaching six million.

Canada (including Quebec) currently has a population of over 38 million. From 1988 until recently, Canada had been receiving about a quarter-million persons a year. Justin Trudeau raised it to over 400,000 in the next three years, including 2021. According to official statistics, 75% of all immigrants to Canada between 1981 and 1991 were from non-European countries. That ratio is now increasing. In Canada, 20% of the population is foreign-born, whereas in the United States, it is about 10%.

To be continued.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher. ESR

Partially based on an English-language text that appeared in Polish translation under the title “Kanada – eksperyment wielokulturowosci.” (Canada: an experiment in multiculturalism) trans. Olaf Swolkien. Miedzynarodowy Przeglad Polityczny (International Political Review) (Warsaw, Poland: Fundacja Srodkowoeuropejska – The Foundation for Central European) no 5 (no 10) (December 2004-January 2005), pp. 221-231.


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