There are three key facts about Canada’s system of government: it is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy and a federal state.
Canada has three levels of government – federal, provincial or territorial, and municipal. Each level of government has different responsibilities and a different role to play in the country.
The federal government is based in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada. It is responsible for national and international matters, such as national defence, foreign affairs, Employment Insurance, currency, banking, federal taxes, postal services, shipping, railways, telephones and pipelines, Aboriginal lands and rights, and criminal law. In general, the federal government deals with laws that affect the whole country. The federal government is led by the Prime Minister who is the most senior or “first” minister in the government.
Provincial and territorial governments
There are 10 provinces and three territories in Canada. Each province is led by a Premier and has its own elected legislature. It has the power to change its laws and manage its own public lands. Each of the territories is also led by a Premier and carries out many of the same functions as a province, but the federal government manages the public lands.
In each of the 10 provinces in Canada, the provincial government has a variety of responsibilities identified in the Constitution Act, 1867. These include education, health care and road regulations. Provincial governments sometimes share responsibilities with the federal government. For example, federal and provincial governments share power over agriculture, natural resources and immigration.
This is the level of government that governs a city, town or district (a municipality). Municipal governments are responsible for areas such as public transportation, fire protection, local police, local land use, libraries, parks, community water systems, roadways and parking. They receive authority for these areas from the provincial governments. Municipal governments are led by a mayor.
First Nations governance
Across the country there are also band councils that govern First Nations communities. Band councils are similar to municipal governments; the members of a band elect the band council, which makes decisions that affect their local community.
Parliament has three parts: the Sovereign (Queen or King), the Senate and the House of Commons. In Canada’s parliamentary democracy, the people elect representatives to the federal House of Commons in Ottawa. The people also elect representatives to provincial and territorial legislatures as well as to their city council. These representatives are responsible for passing laws, approving and monitoring spending, and keeping the government accountable.
Canada is a constitutional monarchy. This means that the Queen or King of Canada is the head of state, while the Prime Minister is the head of government. Since the founding of New France in the 1600s, Canada has always had a monarch and enjoyed Royal patronage and protection.
The personal ties between Canada and Queen Elizabeth II are strong and longstanding. In 1937, the Queen, then the 11-year-old Princess Elizabeth, met the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King. Her Majesty has known all eleven prime ministers from Louis St-Laurent (1948–56) to Stephen Harper (2006– ).
As Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen (also known as the Sovereign) links Canada to 53 other nations that cooperate to advance social, economic and cultural interests, including the 16 other countries of which Her Majesty is Sovereign.
The Sovereign is represented in Canada by the Governor General and 10 Lieutenant-Governors. The Governor General is appointed by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister, usually for a five-year period. In each of the 10 provinces, a Lieutenant-Governor represents the Sovereign.
For more information on democracy and government in Canada, read the CIC Discover Canada publication available at www.discovercanada.gc.ca.