Canada Primer p2: Canada, eh

Canada, aka Canuckistan, is a parliamentary representative democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Which is a really fancy way of saying we’re technically a monarchy, but the monarch’s influence on politics has been narrowly defined such that they have no real” power. All laws approved by the legislative body must be signed off by the monarch’s appointee, the Governor General.

We keep the Queen because she generates ~$50 million/year in tourist revenue, which is more than the allowance afforded to the Royal Family.

“Underneath” the monarchy is the legislative body with the real power. It is divided into two parts, the elected Parliament and the appointed Senate. Any law approved in Parliament has to also go through the Senate, at which point it is passed off to the Governor General. As both the Governor General and the Senate are appointed, rather than elected, they seldom oppose the direction of the Parliament. (If it sounds insane that two thirds of Canada’s legislative body is appointed, I agree!)

Parliament is elected with a similar First Past the Post system we discussed from the Alberta primer. The country is carved up into districts, also called ridings, and each riding corresponds to a seat in Parliament. A person who wins the riding is called a Member of Parliament (MP). Theoretically, it is the Governor General who selects the Prime Minister among the MPs, a person who “holds the confidence of Parliament.” In practice, it’s the party leader of the party that won the most seats that becomes Prime Minister.

To quickly review: the de jure head of state is the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. The de facto head of state is the Prime Minister, but officially he is merely an adviser to the Queen. In essence, our elections are simply advisory directives to our monarch. Yes, we are talking about a so-called mature democracy. The main reason we aren’t rioting is that you can count on one hand the number of times the monarchy has fucked with Parliament.

Canada’s Cabinet is officially called “The Queen’s Privy Council of Canada,” and it is formed by the Prime Minister, with the PM at the head of Cabinet. It is informal practice to ensure a representative from each province has a position somewhere on the Cabinet. Ministries can be quickly formed, neglected, or dismantled. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is notable for creating the Ministry of “Environment and Climate Change.“*

Parliament has 338 seats, 182 of which are held by the Liberals, forming a majority government. The second place party, the Conservatives, have 97 seats and form the official opposition.

In addition to Parliament, there is a second chamber of the legislative body in the Senate. The Senate has 105 seats and is theoretically appointed by the Governor General, but at the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The Senate’s appointments last until the Senator hits the age of 75. It’s theoretically non-partisan but in practice totally fucking partisan. Unlike the Governor General, the appointed Senate does occasionally fuck with laws created by democratic representatives. This jimmies the rustles of the New Democratic Party, the Green Party, and the Bloc Québécois a fair bit, as well as anyone who can be arsed to pay attention to federal politics. In other words, not nearly enough people. #ElectTheSenate

There are five political parties in play in federal politics: The Conservatives, the Liberals, the New Democratic Party, the Green Party, and the Bloc Québécois.

The Conservatives and the NDP are going to be rebranding for the next election, so it is difficult to characterize them right now. Both parties are undergoing leadership elections and the results of those elections could see the parties change quite dramatically. The Conservatives have traditionally been right-leaning and the NDP left-leaning.

The Liberals like to brand themselves as left-leaning. In reality they have a tendency to adopt the same “big tent” strategy that cinches so many successes for the Conservatives. In practice, this makes their record as conservative as it needs to be to win. They are to the Conservatives what Bud lite is to Bud.

The Green Party are probably the only consistently and unapologetically left-wing party in play. They have exactly one seat held by their party leader–Elizabeth May. Their policy ranges from “pretty good” to “cuckoo land.”

The Bloc Québécois are practically a swear word in some parts of the country. As implied by the name, it is a federal party representing Quebec’s interests. Historically the party was a Quebec separatist movement–having been given a great deal of autonomy from the Anglo-Canadian government, the party mostly works to maintain said autonomy these days. Every so often they rattle some pots and pans over more separatism, but the Quebec public seems ambivalent on actually separating. The BQ’s policies are an interesting blend of left-leaning socialism with right-leaning xenophobia. In other words, they’re a great party–if you’re the right kind of French.

Because the Conservatives and the NDP are major wildcards for the federal landscape, they will be the focus of my writings. I’ll comment on the Liberal’s record as it develops, but the gist of it so far is “still Conservative, just with better public relations.”

Up next: GOP North.



*Sure, we made a Ministry of Climate Change. Wonder if they’ll report on all the pipelines the Liberal government approved.


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    Hey Shiv, this makes for interesting reading (for this USAian, at least). When you get a chance, I’d like to understand the process of redistricting of ridings (hmm, that phrasing seems awkward). The black art of gerrymandering is partly responsible for the mess your southern neighbors have.

  2. Siobhan says

    @Some Old Programmer:

    I haven’t studied Canadian gerrymandering extensively but my limited knowledge is that it’s harder to get away with because our districts are drawn by an agency called Elections Canada.

    That said, I freely admit I do not know enough about the issue to give informed commentary.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    The main reason we aren’t rioting is that you can count on one hand the number of times the monarchy has fucked with Parliament.

    Or –

    • Canadians are just too damn polite and civilized.

    • You sublimate your riotal urges vicariously through hockey brawls.

    • Somebody’s putting saltpetre in your poutine and your Tim Hortons.

  4. scottbelyea says

    | The de facto head of state is the Prime Minister,

    No, it’s the Governor-General.

    The PM is the head of government.

  5. Siobhan says


    The Governor General is the appointee of the monarch. That makes the monarch the “in writing” head of state even if the Prime Minister fulfills the function “in reality.” The GG just rubber stamps everything the PM brings to their table.

  6. scottbelyea says

    Yes, I understand that (although “rubber stamp” is a bit of an overstatement). None of that makes the PM the head of state in any sense. That’s the Queen or the GG.

  7. says

    It’s interesting that the calls for an elected senate are coming from the left now. For years, especially here in Alberta, it was a right-wing pet cause. Conservatives (both upper- and lower-case) wanted a Triple E senate – Elected, Equal, Effective. Pretty much they wanted a version of the American senate, and with all the provinces being equal they figured it would work to depower the Liberal governments that Ontario and sometimes Quebec would elect. Alberta’s provincial government would even hold senate elections concurrent with provincial elections, but on a separate ballot and with no actual power beyond “This is who we would like the PM to appoint, pretty please.”

    Then something odd happened. The Harper Conservatives won a majority government and over a decade swung the senate in their favour and all these cries for a Triple E senate just… disappeared. It’s almost like it wasn’t a principled cause and was really just about power. Of course it was. The right-wing really hates democracy, but it appears we’re able to rein them in more in Canada than the US is able to.

    What I found even more ironic was after all those years of Canadian conservatives wanting an elected senate and more evidence that it’s about power and not principle is the growing calls in the US among conservatives to go the opposite direction and not have their senate elected but appointed by the states. It’s weird that this is happening as most state governments are Republican and gerrymandering the hell out of any chance of that changing.

  8. Siobhan says


    I think it’s a stretch to say the PM fulfills no Head of State functions even if he doesn’t have the title. I don’t particularly care to debate semantics, though.


    t’s almost like it wasn’t a principled cause and was really just about power. Of course it was. The right-wing really hates democracy, but it appears we’re able to rein them in more in Canada than the US is able to.

    Moving forward, that will depend on who wins the Conservative leadership. Pandora’s Box might be at the steering wheel this time, and this time it won’t pretend to be moderate like Harper did.

  9. Eric O says

    Speaking as a fellow Canadian, good summary.

    And I’ll just echo Tabby’s comment. The whole idea of the elected senate was the one thing that I enthusiastically agreed with the Harper government on back in the day. So of course they reneged on it. If I were a solopsist, I’d probably believe that the entire party was formed for the sole purpose of pissing me off.

    I’m feeling a bit more confident that Trudeau will deliver on his electoral reform promise – that’s another major change that we sorely need. Australia seems to have a good system and I think it would serve as a decent model.