Canadian Government 101


Ah, the government. That thing that… governs everything we do. But #realtalk, it can be a little complicated to understand the different parts of government, right? So, if you’re looking for a refresher on what you learned back in school, keep reading.

The Basics

The Canadian Political System is divided into three levels:

1.     Federal – The top guy: Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada

2.     Provincial or Territorial – Think John Horgan, the Premier of British Columbia

3.     Municipal – Think Valérie Plante, the Mayor of Montreal


The Canadian Federal system is modelled after the parliamentary system of the U.K.  Quick history lesson: until July 1st, 1867, Canada was under British rule. That’s why we celebrate Canada Day on July 1st every year.

Canada’s Parliament has three main branches:

1.      The Executive branch – this includes the Queen (and her rep in Canada, the Governor General), the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet (i.e. the group of Ministers selected by the PM to manage government policies relating to their assigned portfolio, like Health, Finance, etc.). It’s the job of the members of the executive branch to put laws into effect.

2.     The Legislative branch – this includes the Queen/the Governor General (again), the Senate, and the House of Commons. The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch executes them.

Queen (1).png

3.     The Judiciary branch – interprets and applies the laws. This branch works independently from the above two branches so it can remain neutral. Its main purpose is to protect the rights of citizens and punish those who break laws.

And three parts:

1.      Governor General – elected by the Queen on the PM’s recommendation.

2.     The Senate – members are appointed by the Governor General on the PM’s recommendations.

3.     House of Commons – Members of Parliament (MP) are elected by the citizens of Canada (us!) through federal elections.

Canadians elect MPs. In other words, when you go to vote in a Federal election, you’re voting for your local MP, not the leader of each party vying for the PM position. It’s the leader of the party whose MPs get the most seats in parliament (as voted by you) who goes on to become Prime Minister.

There are 338 MP seats in the House of Commons, broken out by districts (AKA ridings) within Canada. If a party wins more than 50% of the seats, then it is a majority government. Every party wants this because it makes it much easier to get laws passed in the House. If the winning party wins 169 seats or fewer (less than 50%), it forms a minority government. In order to get laws through the House, a minority government has to collaborate with MPs of other parties and adjust policies as necessary.

Responsibilities of the federal government include national defence (how will Canada manage nuclear threats from North Korea?), employment insurance, federal taxes, and making laws. I.e. Legalization of marijuana.

Thing to know: “First past the post” – a voting system that means the person who gets the most votes in a riding gets a seat in Parliament, even if the number of votes doesn’t equal over 50%of the total votes. Canadians currently use this system to vote for MPs. For example, let’s say there are 10 people running in your riding and 100 people voting. The winner doesn’t need the majority of votes, he/she just needs the most number of votes. This will come up before the next election. It’s a system that Trudeau wants to get rid of because it doesn’t actually represent the majority. He created a committee to figure out what would replace it and how long it would take. A new system called the “proportional representation” is a popular alternative, where the percentage of votes earned across the country = the percentage of seats earned in the Parliament.

Upcoming election alert:

• Canada is voting for a new Prime Minister on Oct. 21, 2019.


The provinces and territories are responsible for issues such as healthcare, education, energy (that pesky hydro bill), and transportation. They work closely with the federal government to implement new laws and deals, which can sometimes make things easy (if they’re on the same side) but more often than not, it requires a lot of negotiating. The Kinder Morgan pipeline extension between B.C. and Alberta is an example of how provinces struggle to work together with the federal government. It doesn’t matter that Trudeau already approved the project, the B.C. premier is not on board, so now, construction is at a standstill.

The good news is that the Provincial electoral process is very similar to the Federal process. A province is divided geographically based on districts (AKA ridings) each with their own elected representative. In Ontario, each riding is represented by one elected Member of the Provincial Parliament (MPP). But representatives are called different things in different provinces and territories. In B.C., they’re called Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA).

The leader of the political party* with the most elected MPPs (or MLAs, etc.) becomes the premier of the province. Just as with the federal system, this may result in majority governments or minority governments depending on how many seats the largest political party wins.

*Party leaders (i.e. Doug Ford, leader of the PC Party of Ontario) within a province or territory are voted in by their party members. Party members are regular people like us who pay for memberships to be granted certain rights and privileges, i.e. having the right to vote for a leader if the opportunity comes up. An election for a new leader is triggered by things like resignations (looking at you, Patrick Brownformer leader of the PC Party of Ontario) and no confidence votes (i.e. when the rest of the party no longer trusts the leader and decides to push him/her out).


Municipalities are responsible for things like waste management, roads, police and fire services, and libraries. A Municipal election usually involves electing a mayor, councillor and, often, a school board trustee, though this differs city by city. Unlike the Federal and Provincial election, where you vote for a representative of a leader from a certain political party, in a Municipal election, you vote for the actual leader. There are no majority or minority governments. And there are no party affiliations.

The Parties

There are more than 10 registered political parties in Canada, including one called the Rhinoceros Party. Yes, really. But Canada is pretty much dominated by five major parties:

1.      The Liberal Party – leader, Justin Trudeau

2.     The Conservative Party – leader, Andrew Scheer

3.     The New Democratic Party – leader, Jagmeet Singh

4.     The Bloc Quebecois – leader, Martine Ouellet

5.     The Green Party – leader, Elizabeth May


I.e. The current leading party of Canada.

The Liberals are best known for driving in the centre of the lane when it comes to politics. They’re not too conservative in their views but aren’t fully sold on the more socialist (or far-left) principles. The Liberals try to keep a tight budget but are socially progressive. What does that look like, you ask? The Liberals back social programs such as universal healthcare and old-age pension. They also support abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. When it comes to the economy, Liberals take a more conservative stance – they agree that the markets should be governed by consumers and the principles of supply and demand, rather than being regulated by the government.


I.e. The official opposition party (because they have the most seats after the Liberals)

Canada’s Conservative Party is pretty much that – conservative. They fight for “traditional” values – think issues concerning the typical middle-class family, blue-collar worker, or new business owner. Working for a strong military, making sure taxes stay low and the government stays out of the markets, and supporting a tough-love stance on law and order issues are other things they fight for.


I.e. the underdog – FYI, Canada has never had an NDP Prime Minister.

The New Democratic Party of Canada hangs to the left of the Liberal Party. The NDP dares to be different in its policies which are often geared towards more social programs that benefit those below the middle class. The NDP champions issues related to LGBTQ rights, international peace, and the environment. In terms of getting involved in Canada’s economy, the NDP likes to stay heavily in the loop, preferring a “mixed economy” in which the government tightly regulates it but doesn’t run it entirely – definitely more hands-on than the Liberals or Conservatives would like.


The Bloc Quebecois (sometimes just called the Bloc) has one thing on their agenda – how to get the hell out of Canada. They are considered separatists, meaning they, and the province they represent, Quebec, want to split from Canada and become its own country. There’s only one problem – because the party only runs in Quebec, it will never get enough votes to form the government of Canada. Regardless, the Bloc hits up Ottawa to defend the interests of Quebec, such as ensuring the French Canadian language and culture are never taking a backseat. When it’s election time, a vote for the Bloc pretty much equates to a middle finger to the Canadian government.


Canada’s Green Party champions all things that grow, with their platform curbed around fighting climate change and protecting the environment. But that’s not all they stand for. The Green Party also has core values rooted in supporting social justice, implementing a renewable energy economy, expanding universal healthcare and ensuring Canada addresses global conflicts with peacekeeping policies rather than sending in the troops to wage war.

There’s your summary. The main thing to remember is that no matter how complicated the government might feel, you have control. So, make sure you always get to the ballot box and vote!

Jacqueline Leung