Canada: Government

Geographic and cultural diversity offer unique challenges in governing the expansive country of Canada.Dilemmas arise from ongoing issues, such as Quebec's desire for secession, and newer issues, such as the self-governing of Nunavut. Being prepared to meet such challenges responsibly is an ongoing task of the Canadian government. In this chapter, you will read about early roles of government and prominent issues facing Canada's diverse governing roles.


As a democracy, Canada is governed using a federal parliamentary system. This system provides political authority for the entire country, with regional governments meeting the needs of smaller divisions, such as provinces and municipalities. In Canada, the authority for making laws and decisions at the federal level rests with Parliament. Provincial legislatures, territorial governments, and municipalities assume much responsibility for governing their individual regions.

Parliament, located in Ottawa, is responsible for governing those needs concerning all Canadians. This includes such responsibilities as trade with other nations, national defense, the banking system, criminal law, and citizenship. Headed by the Prime Minister, Parliament also has much responsibility for Aboriginal people and the lands reserved for them.

The provincial legislatures, each headed by a premier, are located in the capital city of each province. This level of government holds power over areas of concern for that province only. Education and health care are two significant matters receiving provincial attention. Territorial governments have powers similar to the provinces; one main difference is who controls the natural resources. The federal government controls most natural resources in the territories, but in the provinces, the provincial government assumes this responsibility.

Municipalities (governing areas smaller than provinces) are becoming increasingly involved with responsibilities of public services and day-to-day needs for residents living within that municipality. The municipal government makes decisions about road repairs, landfills and garbage collections, neighborhood parks, and locations of schools, among other issues.

Recently, larger issues such as health care and funding for municipal building projects have been pressed onto the shoulders of the municipalities. In bringing government closer to the people, municipal governments are indeed playing greater roles in the implementation of services and programs.


Parliament is comprised of the House of Commons, Senate, and the “crown” (or Queen), who is represented by the Governor General (from Canada). Members of the House of Commons (301 seats) are elected from political parties representing various regions throughout Canada. These members hold most of the governing power. The leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons becomes the Prime Minister. Jean Chretien, leader of the Liberal Party, became Prime Minister in 1993 when his party elected the most members to the House of Commons. He continued to hold this office in 2002, when this book went to press.

Senate members are appointed, not elected. The Prime Minister appoints new lifetime members to the Senate as seats become available. The Senate is comprised of up to 104 seats; seats are not filled at all times due to resignations, death, or seats left unfilled. All Senate members have limited power; rarely does the Senate go against the wishes of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister also appoints the Governor General. Along with signed approval from the House of Commons, the less powerful Senate and Governor General are also required to sign a bill for it to become a law.

Reform of the Senate is an issue that has arisen more and more in recent years. The Senate has played a useful role in improving bills by rejecting those portions that seem unfair to certain concentrations of Canada's population. Still, the public often views them as political members who receive plush salaries for minimal work and involvement in the governing of Canada.


Red coats, broad-brimmed hats, dark trousers, and majestic, muscled horses: These vivid images are descriptive of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), or “Mounties,” as they have become popularly known. (Now, the often-recognized clothing is mainly worn for official ceremonies throughout Canada and the world. The clothing is also worn for the Musical Ride—a traditional drill performance on horseback set to music.)

The RCMP is Canada's federal police force. The RCMP also polices most of the provinces (eight) and many municipalities. Originally called the North-West Mounted Police, the RCMP was established in 1873. The Canadian government decided a law-enforcement agency was needed to properly handle changes occurring in the newly acquired land in the north and west. Such events as the Klondike Gold Rush, considerable arrivals of settlers, and preserving the peace during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway were policed with “royal” diplomacy by the mounted (horseback-riding) police.

Today, the RCMP enforces federal laws dealing with narcotics, immigration and passport control, and national security. National security includes responsibility for protecting the Prime Minister and Parliament. Roles in peacekeeping missions around the world are also the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Additional peacekeeping roles are filled by the Canadian Armed Forces. Peace-enforcement training and expertise in “helping countries help themselves” are just two of the many tasks being conducted by the Canadian Armed Forces around the world.


When European colonization began in Canada, colonial governments were put into place. Treaties were signed with many Aboriginal peoples with the intent of shared lands and resources. A shift in the concept of “sharing” assumed more land and resource ownership for European settlements instead. As time went on, policies aimed at assimilating (merging) Aboriginal peoples into non-Aboriginal societies also came about. Cultural traditions of Aboriginal peoples were restricted and, in some cases, totally forbidden. The federal government's policies of assimilation had devastating effects. Aboriginal systems of government, already in place, were weakened. Aboriginal ways of life were threatened, and the recognition of Aboriginal rights was vanishing quickly.

As awareness for these past circumstances continues to become heightened today, federal and provincial governments are working together with Aboriginal peoples. They hope to reestablish recognition of the Aboriginals' self-governing heritage.

Having the power to govern their own population, the Aboriginal peoples will be in a better position to decide on matters affecting their unique lives and ways of the land. Since the 1990s, the federal government has been earnest in developing the process for self-government. Meetings with Aboriginal leaders at the federal, regional, and local levels have taken place. Under self-government, the differing Aboriginal groups will shape their own political, cultural, and economic circumstances. Provincial and territorial governments will become involved when their interests or jurisdictions are affected. Overriding laws at the federal level, such as the Criminal Code, will prevail.

One Aboriginal group has achieved self-government status. The territorial governing of Nunavut offers visionary distinctions as progress is made in this historical role.


Nunavut was previously governed from afar. Although a part of the Northwest Territories since 1870, the Inuit who live there sent no elected representative to the territorial government until 1966. In fact, it was only in 1960 that Aboriginal peoples in Canada received the right to vote in federal elections. The Inuit have campaigned since that time for land, mineral, and constitutional rights.

A shift in living from the land to living in settlements occurred when the Canadian government began providing education, health care, and housing. Parental desire for children to learn English as they attended school added momentum for the movement into settlements. The decline in the use of Inuktitut (Inuit language) was also affected by the satellite-available television that brought CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and “Hockey Night in Canada” to remote Arctic villages.

Along with the cultural changes, social and political changes also came. The Inuit traits of patience, acceptance, and enduring confidence that had ensured survival in the past benefited the quest for self-government in the future. Years of planning and negotiation, along with precedent setting Native Claims settlements (government return of limited land and resource claims to native populations), were essential to this transition of government.

Under the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, the Inuit received a settlement of $1.1 billion (Canadian Dollars). This compensation from the federal government is being paid over a 14-year period. (The money is being held “in trust,” or in reserve for future use, with the interest money being used for scholarships and business financing, along with other developmental plans.) The Inuit also gained control of approximately 18 percent of the land, including mineral rights in a carefully selected 10 percent of that land portion. In exchange for hunting rights, a share of resource royalties (from oil, gas, and mineral development), and greater roles in managing the land and environment, the Inuit signed away future aboriginal claims to all remaining lands and water in Nunavut.

The recently created, Inuit-governed territory of Nunavut faces many challenges. High levels of unemployment, low education levels, high costs for goods and public services, and high substance-abuse rates are issues being faced in the 28 scattered communities of Nunavut. Its residents will be responsible for education, health, social services, language, and culture, among other areas of responsibilities. Governmental agencies for these departments will be located in 10 communities away from the headquartered capital of Iqaluit (located on Baffin Island). This is being done to ensure access to services and jobs throughout the extensive territory.

Inuit values and beliefs are being incorporated into the contemporary system of government. The working language of Nunavut's government is Inuktitut, along with English, French, and Inuinnaqtun (a distinctive dialect spoken in the western portion of the Kitikmeot region). Inuktitut is being promoted throughout the educational system in the teachings of culture, traditions, and heritage.

Nunavut's economic future is strongly linked to its natural resources. Mining, petroleum development, commercial fishing, hunting, and ecotourism are ventures of opportunity. By moving forward into the future while still acknowledging the traditions and teachings of the past, the people of Nunavut remain determined. They are determined to maintain a distinct cultural community—not as a separate sovereignty, but within multiculturalistic Canada.


Unlike most industrialized countries, Canada has no federal education system. Rather, education in Canada consists of ten provincial and three territorial systems. Public schools, “separate” (denominational) schools, and private schools offer comprehensive educational opportunities for all students. The Constitution Act authorized each province and territory to be responsible for its own educational system. While similar in many ways, the curriculum of each provincial system reflects its particular history, culture, and region.

The Canadian government provides partial financial assistance for provincial education in the form of transfer payments. These funds, transferred from the federal government to the provincial government according to strict qualifications, are becoming more and more restricted as the economy changes. Substantial government subsidies (financial support) keep university and non-university (technical and community colleges) expenses to a somewhat attainable level. Financial commitments from the government rank Canada among the world leaders in public education funding per student. But this, too, is changing as fiscal responsibility restricts money flows.

Combining school boards and school partnerships with private businesses are two examples of cost-reducing measures being taken throughout Canada. Reform of provincial educational systems and increased accountability for ensured learning success are modifications being made to attain federal transfer payments. As with most democratic societies today, streamlined services are essential to the overall maintenance of such vitally important institutions. Streamlining of Canada's health care system is another governmental challenge for the country.


The future of Canada's health care system is a crucial concern to the people living in this land of socialized medicine. Under the socialized system, the government assumes financial responsibility for the health care of all Canadians. Questions of funding and mounting pressure to use new (and more expensive) technologies affect every province and territory.While the need for reform is widely recognized, the route for reform poses difficult questions.

In the late 1950s, Canadians hoped to improve public health and eliminate disparities among those receiving care. Whether one was poor, wealthy, or anywhere in between, it was desired that health care be available for all. To achieve this goal, provinces were legislated by the federal government to set up health insurance plans for every Canadian.

Although health insurance plans have not reduced health problems, they have increased security that health care is available for people with low incomes and those with serious illnesses. Economic disruption, however, has forced provincial governments to carefully examine their finances in order to balance budgets.

Under the Canada Act, the federal government pays a share of health care costs to the provinces and territories. The government originally promised to cover half of the costs in return for meeting qualifications, but it is now contributing only about 15 percent. This change is critically straining budgets of the more-populated provinces. British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario use nearly 40 percent of their total budgets to meet escalating health care needs. This funding issue will continue to get worse as more resources are needed to support an aging population.

Federal and provincial governments are in an awkward situation. Reform in health care spending must occur, or free health care will no longer be available for all Canadians. Faced with this crisis, plans are being discussed in several provinces to shift some payment responsibilities to patients by offering “user fee,” or fee-based, services. In 2001, a poll showed that 60 percent of Canadians supported the expansion of private health care services and user fees. Yet, in that same poll, 75 percent of Canadians were also willing to make compromises, such as paying higher taxes, to maintain the present system assuring equal access for all to health care.

The transformation of Canada's health care system will not come easily or immediately. Provincial reform efforts, along with local health care networks, are striving to work toward the goal of equitable access for quality health care. This is a desired expectation of the public, and one that brings difficult questions. Difficult questions also arise from the ongoing issue of Quebec's desire to secede (separate) from Canada.


For 35 years, a political struggle has been occurring between the Parti Quebecois and the rest of the Canadian government. This political party is dedicated to the secession (separation) of Quebec from the rest of Canada. They feel this “sovereign (independent) association” with Canada would allow for the preservation of the French Canadian culture and French language that offer a sense of identity for Quebec.

A centuries-long history of Francophone (French-speaking) vs. Anglophone (English-speaking) rivalry continues to drive debate. You may recall the battle on the Plains of Abraham where Quebec City fell to the British. This was followed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, requiring New France to surrender to the British.

While many in Quebec favor secession, not all people living in Quebec want to secede. The Aboriginal peoples of northern Quebec, many of the English-speaking minority (and even some of the French), and most recent immigrants are strongly opposed to the separatist movement.

In 1980, the first of two referendums (a vote on an issue being referred to the federal government) was held in Quebec. The referendum sought to allow the provincial government to negotiate “sovereign-association” status with Canada. The referendum was defeated, 60 percent to 40 percent. The Parti Quebecois had lost. One reason was that older citizens felt threatened by the possible outcomes a separatist change would bring. A considerable Anglophone voting population also affected the outcome.

Attempts to reconcile opposing views of the separatist issue accomplished little between the first and second referendums. Not only were many Canadians, including some residents of Quebec, frustrated with the amount of time, money, and energy being consumed in this issue, but economic and social progress were also being affected. An emotional second referendum took place in 1995. This referendum asked the people of Quebec to vote yes or no with regard to the question, “Should Quebec become sovereign?” The by-a-whisker vote was extremely close: 51 percent voted no, and 49 percent voted yes.

Following the failure of two referendums, the Quebec Secession Reference (1996) was heard by Canada's Supreme Court. This procedure refers legal and factual questions of importance for the Canadian government to the Supreme Court. Three questions of importance were asked with regard to the possibility of Quebec's secession. The Supreme Court ruled that a province could not unilaterally (one side only decides) secede; there had to be agreement among governing Canadians. The Supreme Court also ruled that any secession would require an amendment to the Constitution. This would be drastically difficult for the entire government of Canada to agree to. Another ruling stated that a “clear majority” would have to support secession with a clearly stated question (not an ambiguous one, as in the past) being asked. Later legislation (the Clarity Act of June 2000) set conditions for negotiation prior to the vote if Quebec holds another referendum on secession.

The outcome of this divisive issue is by no means settled. Does Quebec hold the illusion that it can separate without Canada's consent? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Quebec's economy must be looked after, regardless of the ongoing issue of secession. Abundant natural resources and hydroelectricity are aspects of Quebec's economy that need attention and care. You will read more about Quebec's economy and the economy of Canada in the next chapter.