The state of Canada is one of many colonies of the Great Britain. These days is the Britain´s function as a “colonizer” and a ruler, of course, only a formality. As well as all provinces of the Commonwealth, Canada is also a parliamentary democracy which offers and secures equal rights for every member of the state, and is ruled by a government which is controlled by a parliament elected by the people. Canada is also a constitutional monarchy – this means that the country is governed by a king or queen who accepts the advice of a parliament.
The head of Canada is Elisabeth II., the Queen of Canada, who is also Queen of England and all its provinces. Britain had had after all a huge impact on its provinces and influenced mostly the government system and system of civil services. That’s why Canadian system of governing the country is very similar to Britain´s, in fact it had been created on the British pattern. As I have mentioned, Canada is a democratic country and the functions of the Queen are formal so the monarch (although s/he is the head of the state) has little real power. The main power is in hands of the government and the people of Canada.
The system of government as we know it today had to pass a long development. Representative government had been establishing since 1758 gradually and separately in every part of Canada. The first part was Nova Scotia (1758), than followed Prince Edward Island (1773), Brunswick (1784) etc. ( E. A. Forsey, 2003). Finally this process was framed by the confederation in 1867 by which one federal state with one federal government was created. The men who realized this creation are called “Fathers of Confederation”. This group of people didn’t have to “invent” new kind of the system of government, they just followed the tradition of the previous system of the particular states which was mostly the same: there was a Parliament, Upper and Lower house, with their fixed powers and duties (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
Before explaining how the Canadian government operates, we should know something about its basic structure and functions of the elements of this structure.
The basic difference between Canadian system of government and its British pattern is that Canada has a written constitution, while Britain doesn’t. The basic element of Canadian constitution is the Constitution Act from 1867 which was signed by the Fathers of Confederation. This written constitution together with its latest addition, the Constitution Act, 1982, is only part of the whole Canadian working constitution. It is only a “core”, while the rest of the “apple” is made by responsible government, the national Cabinet, the bureaucracy, political parties, legislation, customs, judgements of the courts, agreements between the national and provincial governments. The Canadian constitution is not a single document. It consists of 25 primary documents outlined in the Constitution Act, 1982: 14 acts of the British Parliament, seven of the Canadian and four British orders-in-council. The skeleton of this collection is still the Act of 1867. This, with the amendments added to it until the end of 1981, did 12 things (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
The Constitution Act, 1982 made several big changes in the Canadian constitution. One of them, probably the most important, was the setting out of the Canadian “Charter of Rights and Freedoms”. This can’t change neither parliament nor any provincial legislature acting alone. These rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter are:
- democratic rights (for example right to vote for every citizen),
- fundamental freedoms (conscience, religion, association…),
- mobility rights (to enter, remain in, or leave Canada or any province),
- legal rights (public trial by an impartial court, right to a fair, reasonably prompt),
- equality rights (no discrimination on grounds of race, national or ethnic origin,religion, sex…)
- official language rights
- minority language education rights in certain circumstances (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
The Canadian constitution is flexible; it reacts on actual needs of the country. For example under the constitution, every province except Quebec, Now Brunswick and Manitoba is free to have as many official languages as it pleases, and they don’t have to include either English of French. Quebec, New Brunswick and Manitoba also are free to have as many official languages as they please, but they must include English and French.
Finally, there is both English and French version of the written constitution from the Act of 1867 to the Act of 1982 and both versions are equally authoritative.
The Canadian government in general consists of three levels. The first one is the Federal or National government represented by the Members of Parliament (MPs). Federal government governs over the whole confederation and has the most important responsibilities. It has power to make laws and is responsible for matters that affect the whole country such as immigration, employment, international trade, criminal law, taxation, citizenship, health-care, defence, communications, transportations (V. Sauvé, M. Sauvé, 1996).
The other levels are the Provincial and Municipal governments. They manage particular parts of the country – provinces, towns and cities. Representatives of the Provincial governments are called Members of Legislative assembly (MLAs) or Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs). People who represent the government on a Municipal level are Councillors or Aldermen. The provincial governments deal with, for example, education, social services, labour laws, land titles, corporate registrations, tourism, worker’s health and safety, highways, the sale of alcoholic beverages etc. Municipal governments are responsible for such matters as schools, property, care of roadways, urban transportation, business licences, libraries, police and fire services (V. Sauvé, M. Sauvé, 1996).
The provinces can amend their own constitutions by an ordinary Act of the Legislature. Of course provincial legislatures are limited to the power explicitly given to them by written constitution, so no provincial legislature can take over powers which belong to the Parliament of Canada, and other way round, Parliament can’t take over any power of a provincial legislature. According to the Constitution Act, 1867, everything not mentioned as belonging to the provincial legislatures comes under the national Parliament (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
Canadian parliamentary system can be explained on grounds of this scheme:
As we already know, the head of state is the Queen, nowadays Elisabeth II. She is the formal ruler and is represented federally by the Governor General (these days Adrienne Clarkson), whom she appoints on the advice of the Canadian Prime Minister. On the provincial level is the Queen represented by the Lieutenant Governor for each province. Parliament (or the provincial legislature) meets only at the royal summons; no House of Parliament (or legislature) is equipped with a self-starter (E. A. Forsey, 2003). No federal or provincial bill becomes law without the Royal Assent. The Queen can give the assent personally to federal Acts, but this is only an occasional case. The Assent is usually given by the Governor General and to provincial Acts – by the Lieutenant Governor. Both of the governors must act on their Minister’s advice, however there may be occasions when they must, or may, act without advice or even against the advice of the Ministers, but these cases are of course very rare.
The third most important person after the Queen and the Governor General is the Prime Minister. S/he is appointed by the Queen or the Governor General and normally means the leader of the party which won the largest number of seats in general election. Prime Minister is normally a Member of House of Commons and by a tradition s/he is called a “primus inter pares” (Latin for “first among equals”) (O´Driscoll, 2000, p. 84). In fact the Prime Minister is not an equal to other MPs at all, s/he is much more powerful. The monarch’s or Governor General’s power to appoint people to all kinds of jobs and to confer honours on people is a fiction and is actually the Prime Minister’s power. All appointments etc. are being realized on the “advice” of the Prime Minister, though there are really few cases when the monarch or Governor General doesn’t obey Prime Minister’s “advice” or more exactly his/her “decision”. The Prime Minister chooses the Ministers in the first place, and can also ask any of them to resign. The MPs in the House of Commons are divided into two groups: Government (Prime Minister + Cabinet) and Opposition. If the Opposition wins more than half of the seats in an election, or if the Government is defeated in the House of Commons and resigns, the Governor General must call on the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
The Prime Minister is the ONE who makes choice and the rest of the Government has to go along with whatever the Prime Minister has decided (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
The Prime Minister also creates the Cabinet by choosing members of it from his/her party. All of the members of the Cabinet – called Ministers – are the leaders of some government department, for example Health, National Defence, Culture, Foreign Affairs etc. The Cabinet is quite powerful body because it can influence the decisions made by the government. In spite of the fact that every MP can present a bill in the House of Commons the major part of all bills are presented by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. All Cabinet Ministers must be or become members of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada. Privy Councillors are appointed by the Governor General (on the advice of the Prime Minister, of course) and the membership is for life. This Council is a formal body which meets occasionally when it is called together, for example on the accession of a new king or queen. Apart of the members of Cabinet, the Privy Councillors are also the Chief Justice of Canada, former chief justices, ex-speakers, senators… The Cabinet is an operative body of the Privy Council (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
The Prime Minister together with the Cabinet forms the executive branch of the government, while the Senate and House of Commons belong to the legislative branch.
Senate, or Upper House, is an appointed body, which means that the members of the Senate, the Senators, are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The Senate usually has 105 members who represent particular parts of Canada. The Senators must be at least 30 years old; they must live in the province or territory for which they are appointed. They can hold office until the age of 75 (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
Senate has the power to amend or reject bills coming from House of Commons. The Senators are from various professions: ex-Ministers, ex-Premiers of provinces, ex-mayors, eminent lawyers, experienced farmers etc. Due to this variability they are able to form committees dealing with particular problems areas according to their former profession and knowledge. These committees than research the bills and go over them clause by clause. In resent times the other area of the Senate’s work is - investigating important public concerns such as poverty, euthanasia, illegal drugs, human rights etc. (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
The mayor law-making body of Canadian government system is the House of Commons. Unlike the Senate, this one is an elected body which means that the Members of the House of Commons are elected by the people of Canada in general elections. These members are called MPs, what means Members of Parliament. They are at the same time representatives of some political parties and some particular parts of Canada, so called constituencies. We must know that before an election every constituency has a list of candidates who want to become a MP. That one, who gets the largest number of votes in his/her constituency, becomes a Member of Parliament to represent the constituency in the House of Commons. The candidates are members of political parties (the largest parties of these times are: Liberal party, Progressive Conservative party, New democratic party, Alliance party (V. Sauvé, M. Sauvé, 1996). The party who wins the larges number of seats in the House of Commons ordinarily forms a government and its leader becomes the Prime Minister. The second largest party becomes the Official Opposition and its leader becomes the Leader of the Opposition. This one gets the same salary as a Minister. House of Commons makes laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, and takes care on government activities and discuses those activities (O´Driscoll, 2000).
MPs are elected for not more than 5 years. The House of Commons has a Speaker, a preceding officer of the House of Commons. S/he chairs and controls discussion in the House, decides which MP is going to speak next and makes sure that the rules of procedure are followed. Government supporters sit to the Speaker’s right, Members of opposition parties to the left. The first few rows of desks on the government side, near the centre, are occupied by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Opposite of them sit the Leader of the Official Opposition and the chief members of his/her party (E. A. Forsey, 2003).
There is simultaneous translation, English and French, for all speeches, and all the proceedings are televised and recorded.
There is another branch of the government called juridical. Elements of this branch are courts, which are divided (similarly as the government in general) into three levels. The first one is created by the Supreme Court of Canada. On the second level is Federal Court and the last are Provincial Courts. The Supreme Court consists of nine judges appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the National Cabinet and hold office until they reach age 75. “This court has the final decision on constitutional questions and on defined classes of important cases of civil and criminal law. It deals also with appeals from decisions of the provincial courts of appeal” (E. A. Forsey, 2003, p. 33).
The Acts setting up the Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Court have the same provision. For summarisation we can commemorate that Cabinet and Prime Minister as the elements of executive branch present bills; in House of Commons and Senate (representing the legislative branch) is the bill discussed and becomes a law; and finally the courts, or the juridical branch, have the power to interpret the laws and use them in practice.
Now when we know all elements of the Canadian government we can easily understand its work. The basic job of the government is law-making. But every law is preceded by a bill, which is only a proposal of the law and this bill must pass long and quite difficult process which is finished by including the new law into collection of laws. The persons who can present a bill are: the Prime Minister, members of the Cabinet and every MP. The bill is introduced in the House of Commons where it has to pass through three readings. The first reading is only a formal announcement and there is no discussion about it by now. During the second reading the House debates the general principles of the bill and, often takes a vote. Than the bill is researched by a Committee of MPs who discuss and examine the bill in details, if necessary, they also vote on changes on ports of the bill. Then the House discuss the potential changes, which are called amendments, and considers of they are necessary or not. When all considerations are done, amended bill is debated as a whole. After the House decides that everything important was said and done and the bill is complete, it is sent to the Senate where it goes through much the same process. If the Senate doesn’t agree with the bill it sends it back to the commons, where it is further examined. The Senate can reject the bill only once, for the second time the Senators must amend the bill. Then follows the last stage – the bill becomes a law by a Royal Assent which is given by signature of Governor General (occasionally by the Queen, if she is present) (O´Driscoll, 2000).
Finally, there must be mentioned another important (but not the last) element of the government, which wasn’t commemorated yet. This element is represented by the people of Canada. The common people often forget this fact and think that the politics is only for the politics. The government is not any static and death machine, it’s a living body and it grows and changes as the people do. However people use to forget how powerful they are themselves. They can decide and make a government which would (at least try to) serve and protect them. If we take it like this, we can say, that the people in fact are governing themselves, because by voicing their opinion in the election they become the ports of their government.