If you have a large prostate? C’est la faute du fédéral!”
Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy. The head of state is the sovereign, currently Queen Elizabeth II, and the head of government is the Prime Minister, currently Justin Trudeau. Any citizen at least 18 years old may vote in any election, with two exceptions: the Chief and Deputy Chief Electoral Officers.
Since English and French are both official languages, any federal government service may be received in either language. In practice, it’s typically more complicated than that. Suffice it to say you can only get French-language service easily in Quebec, most of New Brunswick, Winnipeg, eastern and northern Ontario, and a few other locations, while you can get English-language service anywhere that is not rural Quebec.
The federal government consists of the House of Commons, the Senate, the Governor General, the Supreme Court and other lesser courts, and the usual assortment of bureaucrats, soldiers, and the like.
- The House of Commons of Canada has 338 members, all elected to represent districts known as “ridings” for a variable term not to exceed five years, with no limits on how many times they may be re-elected. In practice, this is typically four years (maximum, by law) for a majority government and usually less than two years for a minority government or "hung" parliament. Since the Canadian government is much more centralized (in certain areas) compared to their American counterparts, the House of Commons is responsible for passing laws relating to the postal service, the census, the military, navigation and shipping, fishing, currency, banking, weights and measures, criminal law, bankruptcy, copyrights, patents, First Nations, and naturalization. Only education, provincial officers, municipal governments, charitable institutions, and a few other strictly local or private avenues are at the jurisdiction of the local and provincial legislatures. (Of course, "private avenues" includes most of the private law in Canada, which as any lawyer will tell you forms the bulk of actual law in any country.)
- The size of this body varies, and in practice, it increases size every decade after each census. From the 2004 federal election until 2015, there were 308 ridings, whereupon thirty new districts were added beginning from the 2015 election. These ridings were added largely in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia to balance a shifting population. Many of the old ridings were simultaneously redrawn by a non-partisan federal commission at the same time and for the same reason.
- Following the election of Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the 2015 election, the Government pledged to reform the way in which MPs were elected, following a public consultation. When the public consultation and Commons committee work failed to yield a consensus (arguably by design), and public sentiment ran to electoral methods that Trudeau and his Cabinet did not favour, the Liberals abruptly dropped the idea.
- The Canadian Senate has 105 members, all appointed and serving until a mandatory retirement age of 75 (established under a 1965 law prior to which Senators served for life). In one case, the appointed Senator was chosen in a special election by the province he represents.note The Senate has generally rubber-stamped legislation from the House of Commons for decades and is not allowed to introduce financial legislation. Technically, the Senate is the place for “sober second thought”, where the mobbish tendencies of democracy can be curbed and where legislation can be considered away from public pressure. The Senate can suggest changes to the bills or delay a bill until it expires on the table, but it has almost never defeated one outright.
- The Senate, following a bit from its American counterpart, also allows for some regional representation, where the number of senators from each province is much more equalized. Indeed, it's almost reversed in some ways, with the more populous Western provinces having far fewer Senators per capita than the smaller Atlantic ones; as a result, Western premiers are the most likely to complain about Senatorial imbalance.
- In practice, the Senate is often useful to Prime Ministers as a means of rewarding cronies, getting troublesome allies out of the way, and keeping their own mark on Parliament long after they have lost election or left politics themselves. More recently, due to public concerns over patronage as well as occasional scandals over fraud and improper expense claims, there have been calls to reform or even abolish the Senate. The Liberals have generally supported the status quo, while a wide swath of the New Democratic Party wants to abolish the Senate altogether, and the Conservatives (historically strong in the West) have usually supported an elected Senate. However, after the 2015 election returned Justin Trudeau's Liberals, a small but significant reform was initiated, with Senatorial appointments being turned over to an independent commission to select experts based on merit. This has drawn criticism from some provinces, particularly (as expected) the Western ones, for failing to do anything about the lopsided distribution of seats; to this, the Government has replied that even if it wanted to do that, it couldn't, as that would require a constitutional amendment that could essentially never pass without the consent of at least one of the Atlantic provinces, whose influence would be correspondingly diluted (good luck with that).
- The Governor-General of Canada, currently Julie Payette, is the representative of the Sovereign, appointed in theory by the Sovereign and in practice by the Prime Minister, and has a mammoth assortment of powers, ranging from the ability to dissolve Parliament, appoint Senators, Supreme Court Justices, all high-ranking bureaucrats, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet, though they must keep the approval of the House of Commons. (S)he is also Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian military. However, these powers are bound by a large amount of unwritten convention, and are almost never used except on instruction from the Prime Minister — the last time they were, in 1926, the resulting “King-Byng Affair” resulted in a massive public outcry that ended in the re-election of Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King, whom Governor-General Lord Byng had rejectednote . The Governor-General is, in theory, supposed to be chosen by the Sovereign from a list of candidates chosen by the Prime Minister. For quite some time now, the Prime Minister’s list of Governor-General appointees has been exactly one name long.
- An event in which the G-G can become more critical is if the Prime Minister starts to show signs of getting dictatorial, at which point the Governor-General, as representative of the Sovereign, can deny Royal Assent to bills that violate fundamental liberties. If need be, as the Governor-General is also the Commander-in-Chief, they can order the army to depose the PM by force.
- This is taken directly from the Westminster System used by the British Parliament and Monarchy which serves as the basis for all Commonwealth Countries. Basically, they’re meant to keep each other in line.
- An event in which the G-G can become more critical is if the Prime Minister starts to show signs of getting dictatorial, at which point the Governor-General, as representative of the Sovereign, can deny Royal Assent to bills that violate fundamental liberties. If need be, as the Governor-General is also the Commander-in-Chief, they can order the army to depose the PM by force.
- The Supreme Court of Canada comprises nine justices, appointed for unfixed terms, though required to retire at age 75. Three are from Quebec, the other six from the rest of Canada, because Quebec civil law is structured differently than the English-derived systems used elsewhere in the country. By convention, three of the other six justices are from Ontario, two from the West or the North, and one from the Atlantic or Maritime provinces.
The Prime Minister is the head of the Canadian government for all intents and purposes; you must be chosen as your party’s leader on top of being an elected representative, in a manner strikingly similar to the Speaker of the House in American politics. Due to the nature of the Westminster-style parliament, Canada’s executive branch is purely ceremonial, so the usual executive powers are devolved to the office of the Prime Minister and their Cabinet, who are also sitting MPs (or rarely Senators). Canadians do not vote for the Prime Minister directly, however; instead, they vote for the Member of Parliament in their riding only. The party with the most seats in the House of Commons forms a majority government, when they control more than half the seats, or a minority government, when they control less than half the seatsnote , and the Prime Minister is then appointed by the party itself.note
In practice, Canadians know what candidate a party will nominate for Prime Minister during the election cycle: by so-far-unbroken convention, it is the party leader. In the readily possible event that the Prime Minister loses his/her riding, a junior member of the party will typically resign his/her seat for the party leader to win in a by-election, as the Prime Minister is normally expected to have a seat to serve in the government.note This happened as early as the 1870s, after John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government collapsed over the Canadian Pacific Railway scandal (see below) and he lost his own seat in Kingston, Ontario. From 1878 to 1882, he represented the riding of Victoria in British Columbia, since he couldn’t get elected in the part of the country he came from.
Federal responsibilities include foreign affairs, defence, justice,note agriculture, Indigenous affairs, administration of the territories (to an extent), governing interactions between the provinces, and providing equalization, essentially welfare payments to poorer provinces. The federal government also oversees a pile of agencies, such as Canada Post, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)note and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Provincial and Territorial Politics
Canada is divided into ten provinces — from east to west: Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (‘P.E.I.’), New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia (‘B.C.’) — and three territories: Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon.
Territories differ from provinces in that the power of a territory is conferred by the federal government with an Act of Parliament in the name of the Sovereign like all other legislation, while the power of a province is granted directly from the Sovereign by the province’s constitution. Thus each province is a sovereign constitutional monarchy — to wit, an independent kingdom — that, in terms of constitutional theory, has voluntarily surrendered a substantial chunk of its sovereignty to a different sovereign constitutional monarchy that rules over it in certain matters. That the monarch of each of these eleven (ten provincial, one federal) monarchies is exactly the same person is of no consequence. The territories, on the other hand, are administered directly by the federal government in the name of the Crown of Canada. In other words, it’s exactly like the difference between a U.S. state and a U.S. territory, except for the obvious difference that the United States, being a republic, has no Sovereign to confer legitimacy, and relies on ‘the people’ instead.
Each province elects a Legislative Assembly, whose members are normally named Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), though Ontario calls them Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs), Quebec calls them Members of the National Assembly (MNAs), and Newfoundland calls them Members of the House of Assembly (MHAs). All provinces and the Yukon use a similar electoral system as the federal House of Commons does, though generally the ridings are differentnote . The leader of the party with the most members generally becomes the Premier of a given province or territory, though there are occasional exceptions when two smaller parties form a coalition to create a majority — this happened in Ontario in 1985, when the Ontario New Democratic Party made a formal agreement with the Liberal minority government.
The Northwest Territories and Nunavut operate using a non-partisan consensus government model, unique to these territories: the premier and speaker are then chosen from among the elected MLAs, who are all officially independent of political parties. This is similar theoretically to the U.S. state of Nebraska’s non-executive legislature and most municipalities in Canada. This nonpartisan model is supposedly based on the traditions of the Inuit and other peoples indigenous to the territories. MLAs in Nunavut and the NWT may be affiliated with federal parties privately, however, and should they pursue federal politics, align with a federal party; at present, the three territories are represented by Liberal MPs in the House and a Liberal and 2 Conservatives in the Senate.
Each province’s representative of the Sovereign is appointed on recommendation from the Governor-General; in a province, this officeholder is called the Lieutenant-Governornote , and in a territory, the name is Commissionernote .
Provincial responsibilities include transportation, health, education, and administration of justice. This last includes (as mentioned above) the adjudication of disputes in private law — contract, tort, wills, trusts, estates, etc., which is to say, most of the actual work that law actually is. Also, in practice, whining about unfair treatment from the federal government is a major responsibility of Premiers (as demonstrated by one of the page quotes).
A large range of functions, such as immigration, pension plans, and employment insurance are under hybrid jurisdiction: essentially, the federal government sets up a framework, and provinces have the choice either to let the feds run the program, or run it themselves. Most provinces leave such things to the federal government, with Quebec being a notable exception, running among other things their own pension plan and their own immigration agency, complete with international offices in French-speaking countries. A peculiar case in Canadian law is corporate law, which is not hybrid but concurrent (that is, both the provinces and the federal government have full authority to legislate in the area);note businesses are free to incorporate at the provincial or the federal level based on their particular circumstances.note
One of the most interesting comparisons between the Canadian and U.S. political systems is in seeing how they have evolved since their founding. The American Founding Fathers conferred all powers not explicitly provided to the federal government to the states, leading to what was in theory a decentralized country. When The American Civil War broke out, many British North American observers blamed the conflict on America’s decentralized political structure. The Fathers of Confederation thus made sure that the new Dominion of Canada would have a much more centralized system, and even gave the federal government the power to explicitly disallow provincial legislation. Many of the English-speaking Fathers even wanted a “legislative union” like Britain, which would simply fuse all the colonies into a larger one, in the process erasing all colonial borders. However, the French-speaking Fathers of Lower Canada (which would become Quebec) were adamantly opposed to this because they would become a mere minority,note and so Confederation became a federal system, albeit a strongly centralized one.
However, while the Canadian government had more power on paper, various factors ranging from court decisions to simple constitutional convention (the unwritten expectations of how the system works) meant that the Canadian provinces gained much stronger control over their constitutional areas of responsibility, even as the federal government’s powers to disallow provincial legislation have pretty much fallen into disuse. In the U.S., on the other hand, the federal government has encroached on traditionally state-controlled areas, mainly through an expansive reading of the Commerce Clause. That doesn’t fly north of the border. The U.S. has been more decentralized on paper but it has become more centralized over time, while Canada has gone in the opposite direction. More recently, Canada instituted a major regulatory overhaul in 2012 which mandates that the issuance of any new regulation that places a significant administrative burden on business must be accompanied by the elimination of at least one existing regulation of that type. So far, the U.S. has yet to institute such a reform.
Municipal and Regional Governance
Municipal politics are pretty much the same all over: the people of each town, city or regional municipality elect a mayor and some number of councillors, ranging from a handful in small towns to 44 in Toronto, generally depending on population. While party politics tend to be absent from smaller towns, bigger cities like Vancouver and Montreal tend to have formal political parties, though they are generally unrelated to the provincial and federal parties. Municipal governments are responsible for things like utilities, zoning, and making sure developments go through the proper channels, as well as any other responsibilities delegated to them by the provincial government.
Elections in Canada
Because of the multiparty system, where the party with the most votes may not have a majority, minority governments have occurred several times at both provincial and federal levels. Three of the last five federal elections have resulted in minority governments.
Canada also has a very short election cycle, which can, in theory, occur at any time. Due to a fixed election date law, federal elections usually occur on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year after the previous poll. However, if the government falls in a non-confidence vote, elections can occur outside of the usual time, which often happens in minority government situations sooner or later. A non-confidence vote occurs when a supply bill — that is, a bill dealing with the spending of money — is defeated, and reflects that the Parliament no longer believes that the Prime Minister is an effective leader. Essentially, it’s the legislative equivalent of "We’re firing you." This can force an election, and the Prime Minister can ask the Governor General to dissolve the government at any time — it is expected, but not legally required, that if it has not been at least six months since the last election, the Governor-General may simply ask the leader of the next-largest party to try and form a government rather than saying Here We Go Again!. Once government is dissolved, the election cycle normally lasts five to six weeks, during which candidates campaign and stump for votes.
A variation of the normal election cycle almost occurred in December 2008, when the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois drew up a formal agreement to topple the Prime Minister and the ruling Conservatives in a non-confidence vote (the previous October’s election had resulted in a minority government with the Liberals, NDP and Bloc together outnumbering the Conservatives) and then to request that the Governor-General install them as a majority coalition government, all without triggering a general election. While such an act is perfectly legitimate in a parliamentary democracy, the Conservatives launched a media blitz characterizing the act as a “coup d’état,” banking on the (correct) assumption that many Canadians did not know how their own Parliament actually works, and killed the idea when the Liberals backed down. The fact that the Liberals had just had substantial losses in the preceding election but would be leading the coalition nonetheless also made the idea troubling to some Canadians, as did the fact that the coalition would require the support of separatists in the form of the Bloc Québécois.
A new variation happened in the 2015 election: while Parliament could still have been dissolved at any time, the election date was fixed on October 19 as described abovenote (the third Monday in October 2015), meaning the campaign could have lasted anywhere from the standard 36–40 days to many months. Indeed, the latter scenario came to pass when the election was called and Parliament was dissolved on August 2, resulting in a modern-day recordnote campaign length of 78 days.
In federal politics, the three major parties are the centre-right Conservative Party (the "Tories"), the centrist/centre-left Liberal Party (the "Grits"), and the left-wing/social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP or "Dippers"). Historically, the Liberals and Conservatives have been the two major parties and the only ones to govern, although both have suffered periods of electoral collapse (the Conservatives from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s; the Liberals from the mid-2000s until 2015). The NDP was until recently a perpetual third/fourth party, but has been an important force in Canadian politics, propping up minority Liberal governments in 1972–74 and 2006 and frequently raising policy concerns that Liberal governments took forward. The Green Party, while still small compared to the big three, is increasing in visibility and mainstream support and won its first seat in the 2011 election. There are many other smaller parties (Marijuana Party, Communist Party, etc.), and a few frivolous yet funny ones (most prominently the Rhinoceros Party).
Other parties have also had a major impact in the past:
- The Reform Party (later the Canadian Alliance), a conservative party with support in the western provinces, did well from 1993 to 2000 before merging with the Progressive Conservatives (from which they had initially broken off in 1987) to form the current Conservative Party.
- The Progressive Party, a centrist party who got established in the early 1920s when the Conservatives were going through a period of electoral weakness, and even became the second-largest party for a while. They quickly fell back into obscurity when it turned out the party's members views were a bit too diverse for them to put forward a coherent platform, though remnants of the party would later merge with the original Conservative Party (who had been wrecked as an electoral force due to their poor handling of The Great Depression) to form the Progressive Conservatives.
- The Social Credit party, who started out as a right-wing party focused on the western provinces in the 1930s, before becoming more focused on Quebec nationalism in the 1960s. Probably the most extreme right-wing of the "mainstream" parties who have achieved any parliamentary representation in Canada, to the extent that the party held openly anti-Semitic policies until the mid-1950s, while their most famous leader, Réal Caouette, made the headlines for proclaiming Hitler and Mussolini to be his political idols, and trying to downplay the holocaust by claiming that the Nazis only killed Jews who were also a burden on society. After Caouette's death, the party was taken over by Neo-Nazis in the 1980s, resulting in it rapidly collapsing.
- The Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party with a very slight centre-left orientation overall, was the dominant party in Quebec and a significant force in Parliament from 1993 to 2011, but lost its party status and all but four seats in the 2011 election, leaving them as The Remnant. They made a modest comeback in 2015, winning ten seats, which was still not enough to return them to official party status. In early 2018, disagreements over the Bloc's newest leader led to the tiny caucus splintering further to create the "Quebec parliamentary group".
A thing of note for American readers: as a rule, the Canadian political "centre" (as used to describe parties here) is to the left of the American center, much as it is in Western Europe. Canadian conservatives might be "Rockefeller Republicans" when there was still such a thing in Congress, right-leaning "Blue Dog Democrats" or moderate Democrats like Barack Obama, Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton in the USA, while the Liberals’ politics are closer to those of the left wing of the Democrats (e.g. Nancy Pelosi or Elizabeth Warren). The NDP are to the left of anything mainstream in the USA; a few prominent names on the American version of the "extreme left", such as Bernie Sanders, would probably be considered moderate progressives within the NDP.
American-style social conservatism is conversely regarded as a fringe view, with the conservative politicians focusing on fiscal issues. Indeed, this was a bone of contention for some of Prime Minister Harper’s own, more moralistic, backbenchers, and remains a issue for the Conservative Party post-Harper. Canadian conservatives tend to be fiscally conservative, supporting low taxes and local control, while remaining much more socially liberal and secular compared to their American counterparts. Their closest relatives on the U.S. right are libertarians like Ron Paul or Gary Johnson.
The Liberal Party has had a truly remarkable run in Canadian politics: in the last century, the Liberals have spent more time governing Canada than the Communists have governing Russia, and they were in charge for 80 of 110 years between 1896 and 2006; small wonder that the Liberals are sometimes referred to as Canada's "natural governing party". It didn’t hurt that the Liberals have frequently adopted various minor parties’ most popular policy proposals and then claimed credit for them, such as the postwar welfare state originally proposed by the NDP or, conversely, the drastic spending cuts of the 1990s advocated by the Reform Party. These policies were implemented by Liberal governments, but the third parties played no small part in getting the ball rolling for them.note
In the 2011 federal election, a Wham Episode came about when the NDP, largely by gaining major support in Quebec — where they had never before been a contender — gained a third of the seats in the House of Commons and became the Official Opposition for the first time in their history. This development was also responsible for the demise of the Bloc Québécois, who fell from long-time dominance in Quebec to The Remnant of only four seats, not enough to qualify them as an official party. The Liberals, for the first time in their history, fell to third-party status. The Conservatives, for the first time since 1988, were elected to a majority government. Finally, the Green Party won its first-ever seat in Parliament, with its leader Elizabeth May being elected in a B.C. riding. This polarized Canadian politics to an unprecedented degree, as the NDP is further to the proverbial left than the Liberals are on most issues, and the current Reform-derived Conservatives are further right than the Progressive Conservative Party that preceded them.
As if that wasn’t enough drama for one year, NDP leader Jack Layton, whose popularity played a significant role in the NDP’s newfound success, died of cancer a few months following the election. Nycole Turmel was appointed the interim party leader, and Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader in April 2012. Since the NDP had never previously held Official Opposition status, the leadership race faced greater scrutiny than ever before, primarily due to the fact that the NDP could plausibly be selecting an individual who might become the country’s next Prime Minister.
However 2015 had another shift in store. After the longest election campaign since the 19th century — 78 days, which may seem quaint to other countries — the balance of power shifted again, though unlike the previous election, many noted this to be more of a return to a previous equilibrium. In a stunning electoral win and borderline Curb-Stomp Battle, the Liberal Party of Canada more than quintupled their seat count to 184 seats from 34, an electoral upset unprecedented in Canadian history, making Justin Trudeau the new Prime Minister, having won several seats in every province as well as sweeping the Atlantic provinces and all three territories. The Conservatives were reduced to 99 seats with several influential ministers losing their seats. Finally, the NDP dropped back to 44 seats, a substantial disappointment after having been the Official Opposition, losing to the Liberals several of what they considered very safe seats. Little changed for the Bloc Québécois, which rebounded slightly to ten seats in the Commons, while Green Party leader Elizabeth May retained her seat in British Columbia.
As of this point:
- The Liberal Party still reigns supreme as a majority government. At Justin Trudeau's swearing-in, he made headlines by appointing a gender-equal cabinet consisting of 15 men and 15 women. When asked why, he said simply, “Because it’s 2015”. The early optimism and adulation that persisted for much of 2015 and 2016 has gradually faded as Trudeau and his government have repudiated a series of promises they made during the 2015 campaign, including a prominent commitment to end the "first past the post" electoral system in favour of reform. An embarrassingly gaffe-prone state visit to India in 2018 and the unpopularity of Ontario's Liberal government further eroded public approval of Trudeau and his government, though they remain generally in first place in the polls. The Liberals have received a bit of a boost recently from their handling of the trade dispute with the US (in addition to the Ontario Liberals no longer weighing them down now that they're out of power).
- The Conservatives have settled into a fairly comfortable Opposition state, winning 99 seats. Following his loss in 2015, outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper graciously accepted defeat and resigned as party leader, eventually also resigning his seat in Calgary and returning to the private sector. After a period under interim leader and Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose, the Conservatives selected Saskatchewan MP and former Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer as their new permanent leader in 2017 (from among a field of 13 candidates). As the Liberals have gradually lost trust among Canadians, the Conservatives have slowly prospered and now challenge the Liberals for the polling lead.
- The NDP, once favored to rise high into the political scene and stay there, was relatively devastated at least as much as the Conservatives due to the Liberal wave in 2015. At the party's convention in April 2016, the party membership voted to oust leader Thomas Mulcair and elect a new one before the next election. In late 2017, they elected Jagmeet Singh, a former MPP from Ontario, and now the first person from a visible minority to lead a federal political party in Canada. In the polls, the NDP has recovered somewhat from a period of substantial weakness following the 2015 election and Mulcair's removal, and now stands about where they were when the 2015 election concluded.
- The Bloc Québécois did a bit better in 2015 than in 2011, but with a twist. While they managed to secure ten seats (up from four), party leader Gilles Duceppe notably lost his own seat to the NDP candidate (again). He has since resigned from politics (again), his initial successor declined to run for the leadership full-time, and the subsequent leader Martine Ouellet is controversial enough among the membership that seven of the party's ten MPs in the Commons broke off in early 2018 to form their own political group (including the longest-serving MP in the House, Louis Plamondon). The breakaway group announced in May of that year that they would not return to the Bloc and would instead form a new party, Québec Debout, which has led to predictions that, barring a miracle, the next election will be the end of the road for the Bloc. In another twist, the party membership voted to oust Ouellet herself the following month, but maintain her secessionist platform; in response, two of the breakaway MPs returned to the Bloc, but the remaining five opted to remain with Québec Debout, leaving the future of both parties still up in the air.
- Pretty much nothing has happened to the Green Party in the 2015 election, with Elizabeth May continuing to hold the Greens' single seat in the House of Commons. A second Green MP, Bruce Hyer, who crossed the floor from the NDP during the previous parliament, lost his seat when he ran again in 2015. The Greens have, however, been bolstered by the recent successes of their provincial parties in recent years.
Provincial politics tends to also have the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP as the primary parties, though there are exceptions: both Saskatchewan's Saskatchewan Party and B.C.'s Liberal Party are in practice mergers of provincial Liberals and Conservatives in opposition to both provinces' powerful NDP, Alberta conservatives saw a decade of division between the more conservative Wild Rose Party and the old Progressive Conservatives before they reunited in 2017, and Quebec politics is just plain weird.note The NDP does frequently win in provincial elections, especially in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbianote .
Alberta is also an interesting case — having been a province since 1905, they have experienced only three changes of government: one during the Depression, one after popular premier Ernest Manning (father of Reform Party founder Preston Manning) resigned and was succeeded by the much less skillful Harry Strom, and the latest being because of the introduction of an unpopular budget that resulted in the shocking election of a NDP majority government. From 1971 to 2015, a string of PC leaders won a majority in every election, to the point where Alberta was routinely considered a one-party state, and it was only half a joke.note
The result of the above is that although parties can have the same name at federal and provincial levels, often that’s all they have in common. The NDP is an exception, in that all provincial NDPs are branches of the federal NDP, while most of the provincial Liberals (Liberals in the Atlantic provinces being an exception) and Conservatives are independent of their federal counterparts. Canadians, in general, are well aware of this; so nobody blinks when, say, a former NDP Premier of Ontario like Bob Rae can make a serious run at leadership of the federal Liberal Party; the former head of the federal Progressive Conservatives, Jean Charest, can become the Liberal Premier of Québec, or the former NDP Premier of British Columbia, Ujjal Dosanjh, can also switch parties to become a federal Liberal cabinet minister.
Municipal politics tends to be officially nonpartisan, except in British Columbia and in Montreal, Quebec. However, individual councillors and mayors are often known to have particular partisan leanings — for example, Jack Layton, former leader of the federal NDP, was a member of the Toronto City Council before he won the leadership, and the current Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, once led the Ontario PC party and worked in the federal PC party before it collapsed.
One significant difference when it comes to individual politicians compared to the United States is that there is no equivalent in Canadian constitutional law to the “natural-born citizen” requirement for President and Vice-President, and in general Parliament (and some of the provincial legislatures) will have a higher number of naturalized immigrants than jurisdictions in the United States. As of February 2010, there were more Muslims sitting in Parliament (all of them foreign-born, including one who was a veteran combat pilot in the Pakistani Air Force) than had ever been in Congress, as well as 15 Sikhs, most of them immigrants as well. Four prime ministers (including the first, John A. Macdonald, and most recently John Turner, PM for less than three months in 1984note ) were born outside Canada, albeit all in the United Kingdom. The previous two Governors-General (Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean) were also immigrants (from China — well, Hong Kongnote — and Haiti, respectively). As well, following the 2015 election, five ministers are immigrants to Canada, including the first Sikh to command a regiment in the Canadian Forces (who is a major badass)note .
Of note is the fact that a practising Muslim, Naheed Nenshi, was elected Mayor of Calgary in October 2010, a first in Canadian cities and only the second in North America (after Mohammed Hameeduddin of Teaneck, New Jersey). This is of particular significance as Calgary is located in southern Alberta, which is generally considered to be one of the most conservative parts of Canada.
Besides the usual sorts of issues that surface in most countries’ elections (the economy, taxes, foreign trade, defence, foreign affairs, et al.), healthcare and national unity are major issues in Canadian elections. Canada has a national healthcare system that is considered excellent but underfunded by the populace (and starting to show it in the form of long waiting times for certain procedures); figuring out how to pay for it is always a major point in any party’s platform.
The half-ton gorilla in recent Canadian politics has been "national unity". A minority of Quebecers want Quebec to leave Canada and become an independent country, while many non-separatist Quebecers believe in Quebec having rights to greater autonomy. There have been two referenda on independence, in 1980 and 1995, the first of which was defeated with 60% of the vote, and the second of which was defeated with 50.6% of the vote.note The Parti Québécois keeps threatening to call another one, though it hasn’t had another majority since 1995 with which to try.note The other federal parties take various positions on how to respond to this, which frequently involve special concessions for Quebec.
The environment has also become a hot topic in recent years. The Green Party has put environmental regulations at the center of their platforms, the NDP and Liberals also support reforms, and the Conservatives are more cautious, but still interested in, at minimum, seeming like they care. The Conservatives’ environment platform in government was effectively "We’ll Just See What the U.S. Does", and the U.S. didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, so Canada didn't either. In fact, under Harper's government, no provinces save Québec reached their targets under the Kyoto Protocol and a few even skyrocketed their greenhouse gas emissions since the Prime Minister simply refused to follow the Protocol's targets. It remains to be seen what the more explicitly pro-environment Liberal government will do on that file. In the meantime, the provinces are generally content to sit and bitch at each other about who gets what money. This has been described as “exactly like the European Union, just with more land”.
What, you think Canadians are polite and honest all the time? In one of the earliest national scandals, back in 1873, John A. Macdonald was accused of taking bribes in relation to the funding of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Two of the more recent scandals are the “sponsorship scandal,” where large sums of money earmarked for national-unity advertising programs in Quebec were used improperly (read: given away to friends of the then-ruling Liberal Party), and the “Airbus affair,” wherein then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stands accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a German arms dealer as kickbacks on the purchase of Airbus jets for Air Canada, which the government owned at the time. More recently, in 2013, several Senators (some Liberals, but mostly Conservatives) were accused of claiming excessive amounts of expenses, particularly living expenses note , and are being investigated by the RCMP. When the Senate ordered them to repay the money, some did so while others went to court. This led to another round of discussion regarding Senate reform, which almost inevitably change very little.
Sex scandals are rarer than in the States. Despite stereotypes that Canadian politicians are better behaved in this respect, it is just more probable that the Canadian media are less likely to report on it and/or the Canadian populace less inclined to care. Two notable exceptions are the Gerda Munsinger case, which embarrassed the federal government of John Diefenbaker and prompted the resignation of a federal Cabinet minister, and the Colin Thatcher case, which centered around a former minister in the Saskatchewan provincial government who was arrested and convicted of the murder of his wife JoAnn after she divorced him for his numerous extramarital affairs.
Two more recent cases of what could be described as "sex scandals" have happened within the past few years. One involved the very public 2005 breakup of two prominent Conservative MPs, Belinda Stronach and Peter MacKay, who had been dating, when Stronach defected to the Liberals for a Cabinet post — which she lost the next year after the Liberals lost an election — leading to a stunned-looking MacKay standing on his farm talking about how “at least my dog is loyal”, and a narrow aversion of an election in the now evenly-divided House (since the government can’t fall on a tie, and Stronach’s defection got them up to parity). It also led to a massive variety of ribald jokes at Stronach’s expense from prominent Conservatives, the most notable of which is then-Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's assertion that “She didn’t have a Conservative bone in her body … okay, maybe one,” many of which naturally proved controversial in their own right. The other involved the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs dating a woman with connections to a chapter of the Hell’s Angels and actually leaving important classified documents lying around her apartment followed by their mysterious disappearance, in a classic Real Life case of ‘Too Dumb to Be Prime Minister’.
A real sex scandal occurred in 2016 when Liberal Fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo was resigned from his cabinet post and removed from the Liberal caucus (thus sitting as an independent MP). While the initial reports were that it was due to issues with alcohol (for which Tootoo entered rehab), it later surfaced that a significant factor earning Prime Minister Trudeau's ire had been Tootoo sleeping with a staffer, who had been found by security trashing his parliamentary office. While the affair alone would generally have been dismissed as a minor offense, it was soon reported that the reason she was trashing the office in fury was her discovery that Tootoo had also been sleeping with her mother. The government has never officially commented on the story and, in Canadian fashion, once he'd resigned and thrown out of caucus to become an unimportant independent backbencher, the media didn't bother pursuing the case as it was considered a private matter and no longer relevant.
In February 2010, Conservative cabinet minister (for the status of women!) Helena Guergis was accused of throwing a hissy fit at the Charlottetown airport, located in Canada’s smallest province, P.E.I. The minister allegedly threw shoes across the security screening area and banged on a security door. When media and the Liberals asked for the security tapes, CATSA (the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) could not provide them (many suspect Conservative meddling).
Prime Minister Harper stood by her for a while (in the face of public information), then rumours began to rise that Guergis had been letting her husband, a former cabinet minister, use her office to promote his business. Apparently some photos surfaced of the two in a shady strip club with cocaine and, reportedly, “busty hookers”. Guergis was then expelled from cabinet by Harper, not to mention expelled from the Conservative Party caucus, and an RCMP investigation was launched (all thanks to private information). Even after the RCMP cleared Guergis of wrongdoing, she continued to sit as an independent MP, though she lost her seat to the Conservative challenger in the subsequent election. This led to the joke that Harper now always stands behind his cabinet members because it’s easier to push them under a bus from that position.
The more recent ‘robocall’ scandal had its roots in the 2011 federal election. It came to light that someone was sending automated ‘robocalls’ (and, in some cases, targeted live calls) to non-Conservative or ex-Conservative voters in a number of different ridings, falsely directing them to incorrect polling stations or otherwise harassing them into not voting at all. Elections Canada got wind of these incidents via complaints from the public, and since the scandal broke they have accumulated over 31,000 reports of similar calls from across Canada. In the most high-profile case, in the riding of Guelph in Ontario, Elections Canada has traced at least some of the calls to a subsidiary of an automated calling company in Edmonton, which in turn was contacted both by the Guelph Conservative campaign as well as a disposable mobile phone registered under the alias “Pierre Poutine” of “Separatist Street” in Joliette, Quebec. (The “Pierre Poutine” name was likely taken off of an independent food caterer in Guelph, while the “Separatist Street” location was probably a crude attempt at a Take That! to the Quebec independence movement.) In another riding where voter suppression tactics have been alleged (Nipissing–Timiskaming), the Conservative won by just eighteen votes, and this was far from the only close riding across the country, potentially making the difference between a majority and minority government.
The opposition NDP and Liberals rather predictably reacted with outrage, while the Conservatives naturally denied any responsibility, though a low-ranking Conservative staffer from the Guelph campaign has since resigned his position at the office of a Toronto-area MP. Spinoff allegations have included voter registration fraud as well as illegal campaign financing. Federal opinion polls have registered minimal (if any) impact as a result of the ‘robocall scandal’; a federal judge offered the Tories a not-quite-absolution in April 2013.
On the municipal level, in May 2013, reporters from the Toronto Star and gossip website Gawker reported that they had viewed and been offered a video showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine and making homophobic slurs. Though Ford had a well-documented history of mild to belligerent public intoxication, he denied and evaded questions for several months — until, in October 2013, the Toronto police reported that they had recovered a deleted copy of what appears to be that same video from a hard drive seized in an anti-drug raid. Ford then changed his story and admitted to “probably” having used crack cocaine in the midst of a “drunken stupor,” while blaming the media for not asking the right questions (which they had, and he had ignored) and claiming to not be an addict. With Ford and several of his associates and assistants now under police investigation, Toronto City Council banded together to strip him of most of his powers (at least those which they could remove under provincial laws) along with his staff and budget, and shift them to the deputy mayor. Rob Ford has since responded by playing the victim of a “coup d'état” while proudly going on to contest the 2014 municipal election. Not long after losing most of his mayoral powers, another crack video surfaced, this time with screenshots, forcing Mayor Ford to enter rehab. He continued to run for Mayor upon leaving rehab, but a hospital visit revealed an abdominal tumor. Mayor Ford withdrew from the mayoral race, opting to run for his old Ward 2 seat. He passed away March 22, 2016. Rob’s brother Doug (the current Ward 2 councillor) submitted his papers to run for mayor with one hour to spare before the nomination deadline. In the end, John Tory became the new mayor of Canada’s largest citynote .