Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy. The head of state is the sovereign, currently Charles III (since 2022), who is represented by the Governor General, currently Mary Simon (since July 2021). The head of government is the Prime Minister, currently Justin Trudeau (since 2015).note 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 but 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 every other census. (Unlike the US, which conducts its census in years ending with 0, Canada conducts its census every five years, specifically in years ending in 1 and 6.) However, any declared size adjustment does not take effect until the next election after its announcement. 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 nonpartisan federal commissionnote at the same time and for the same reason.
- Following the election of Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the 2015 federal election, the new government pledged to reform the way in which MPs (Members of Parliament) 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.note
- 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 may not introduce financial legislation. Officially, 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 region is much more equalized.note 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 many New Democrats want to abolish the Senate altogether, and the Conservatives (historically strong in the West) have usually supported an elected Senate. However, after the 2015 election put Justin Trudeau's Liberals in power, 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 Atlantic province, whose influence would be correspondingly diluted (good luck with that).
- The Governor General of Canada, who has been Mary Simon since July 2021 (filling the position full-time after Richard Wagner, chief justice of the Supreme Court, served as Administrator from January to July that year after Julie Payette resigned as GG), is the representative of the Sovereign 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. The Governor General 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 rejected.note The Governor General is, in theory, supposed to be chosen by the Sovereign from a list of candidates suggested by the Prime Minister. For some time now, the Prime Minister’s list of Governor General appointees has been exactly one name long.
- An event in which the GG can become 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 GG can become 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, currently led by Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner (not to be confused with the German composer), comprises nine justices, appointed for unfixed terms with mandatory retirement at age 75. Three justices must always be from Quebec, because Quebec's French-derived civil law system is structured differently than the English-derived common law system used elsewhere in the country, and the other six from the rest of Canada. By convention, three of the other six justices are from Ontario, two from the West or the North, and one from the Atlantic provinces.
Canada's system of government separates the roles of head of government (day-to-day work of governing) from head of state (primarily ceremonial). The Prime Minister is the head of the Canadian government. To become prime minister 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 closely intertwined with the legislative, so executive powers are exercised primarily through 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 (though if their MP is the leader of their party, then one can say they're voting for a potential PM). The party with the most seats in the House of Commons forms the government with the leader of that party as Prime Minister. A government can be a majority government (when the governing party controls more than half the seats) or a minority government (when they control less than half the seats)note and the Prime Minister is then appointed based on having the "confidence" or support of the House of Commons.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 in a "safe seat" 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, British Columbia, since he couldn’t get elected in the part of the country he came from.
A list of prime ministers can be found here.
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 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, as 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 Yukon use a similar electoral system as the federal House of Commons does, though generally the ridings are different.note 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 nonpartisan 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 MPs from the Liberal Party (Yukon and NWT) and NDP (Nunavut) in the House and "Independent Senators Group" (Yukon and NWT; all senators appointed by Justin Trudeau during his first mandate got this designation automatically) and Conservative Party (Nunavut) in the Senate.
Each province’s representative of the Sovereign is appointed on recommendation from the Governor General, this officeholder is called the Lieutenant Governor.note In the territories, the equivalent position is the Commissioner. Unlike Lieutenant Governors, Commissioners are appointed by and represent the federal government and not the Crown directly because the territories constitutionally don't have the same status of sovereignty.note
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.note Also, in practice, denouncing unfair treatment from the federal government, whether there's substance to the accusation or not, is a major responsibility of provincial premiers (as demonstrated by one of the page quotations).
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, even explicitly giving the federal government the power to disallow provincial laws. 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 mainly French-speaking Fathers from 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 at the national level 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.
Intergovernmental relations are so important in Canada that since 2003, a permanent body called the Council of the Federation comprising all the subnational first ministers has met intending to promote such co-operation and mutual advancement. One reason the Harper government lost much of its support (and its mandate, eventually) was that people thought it (especially Stephen Harper) had come to denigrate the provinces' needs, just like its predecessors for some time before. Notably, Justin Trudeau named himself minister for intergovernmental affairs in his first cabinet, suggesting to many at the time that he took the issue more seriously than Harper; however, relations between the Liberal federal government and Conservative provincial governments soured in a matter of years. Some people accused Trudeau of trying to pander to the West, in large swaths of which his name was mud, when he reassigned Intergovernmental Affairs to Chrystia Freeland, formerly trade and foreign minister (she was born and raised in rural northern Alberta but represents and lives in a district in Toronto), after the 2019 federal election, though many other people called that hogwash. Several premiers have also assigned themselves that portfolio in their territory/province.
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 64 in Montreal, generally depending on population. While party politics tend to be absent from smaller towns, bigger cities like Vancouver and Montreal have formal political parties, though they are generally unrelated to the provincial and federal parties; not that councillors and mayors have no ideological stances or federal/provincial affiliations. Municipal political parties also tend to be less stable than parties at higher levels of government; often, although not always, they are simply ad hoc coalitions of councillors aligned with some mayoral candidate or another, and periodically dissolve to reconstitute entirely new political parties around new candidates.
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.
In most but not all provinces, municipalities are also part of a second layer of municipal governance, similar to counties in the United States. The term "county" is not always used to name them, however; some are called counties, while others use terms such as "district", "regional municipality", "regional district" or "regional county municipality". These governments are delegated certain responsibilities over shared services, such as policing and transportation, and are governed by councils which may be directly elected as separate bodies, or may simply consist of a joint meeting of some or all of the people who already serve as city or town councillors.
Nova Scotia technically has no cities at all, with all municipal governance taking place purely at the regional municipality level — even the province's major communities, such as Halifax, Dartmouth, Sydney and Antigonish, are not actual towns or cities in their own right, but simply "urban service areas" governed entirely by the regional council. Elsewhere, some but not all of the major cities (e.g., Toronto and Ottawa) are also not part of a county structure, but function like "consolidated city-county" or "independent city" governments in the United States.
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. Five of the last seven 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 passed in 2009, 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 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 GG may simply ask the leader of the next-largest party to try to 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 ruling Conservative minority government in a non-confidence vote just six weeks after the election and ask the Governor General to install them as a majority coalition government without triggering another election. While such an act is perfectly legitimate in a parliamentary democracy, it is quite unorthodox in Canada and the Conservatives countered by delaying the vote until January and launching a media blitz characterizing the act as a "coup d’état", banking on the assumption (proved correct) that many Canadians didn't know how their government actually worked. The uncertainty of the Great Recession and the fact the coalition would have required the support of the separatist Bloc Québécois and made the unpopular Stéphane Dion the next prime minister even though his Liberal Party had just suffered its worst vote-share (26%) since 1867 also made the idea troubling even to many who understood its constitutionality, and the idea died in December when the Liberals replaced Dion with Michael Ignatieff and backed down.note
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 (the third Monday in October 2015) as described above,note meaning the campaign could have lasted anywhere from the standard 36 to 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/right-wing 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 for a long time a perpetual third/fourth party, but has been an important force in Canadian politics, propping up minority Liberal governments in 1972–74 and 2004–05 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 populist conservative party with its greatest 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, an agrarian party with members from all over the political spectrum as we know it, 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 began as a right-wing, monetary-reform party focused on the western provinces in the 1930s, then became 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 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to be his political idols, and trying to downplay/excuse The Holocaust by claiming that the Nazis only killed Jews who were also a burden on society. After Caouette's death, neo-Nazis took over the party in the 1980s, resulting in it rapidly collapsing.
- The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation can be considered the forerunners of the modern New Democratic Party. They were formed in the mid-1930s, and went on to hold a fairly decent number of seats in the two decades ahead, before being forced to regroup and re-form as the NDP after the CCF won just eight seats in the 1958 election. Saw an unexpected comeback in 2018: when Erin Weir, the MP for Regina—Lewvan, was ejected from the NDP, he relabelled himself as a member of the CCF, though he didn't seek re-election the following year.
- 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 (twelve). In early 2018, disagreements over the Bloc's newest leader led to the tiny caucus splintering further to create the "Quebec parliamentary group", though the rebel MPs would return to the party later in the year. Come 2019, and the party received enough votes to be an official party once more, and the third-largest party overall given the many seats the NDP lost.
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 Rodham 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 in the NDP.
American-style social conservatism is conversely regarded as a fringe view,note with the conservative politicians focusing on fiscal issues. Indeed, this was a bone of contention for some of more moralistic Conservative MPs under Stephen Harper and remains an 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 than their American counterparts. Their closest relatives on the U.S. right are libertarians like Ron Paul and 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, both as praise and as condemnation, 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, the NDP, largely by gaining major support in Quebec — where they had never before been a contender — had 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 the B.C. riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands. 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 several seats they thought were very safe for them to the Liberals. 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.
Following the 2021 federal election, the current standings are as follows:
- The Liberal Party, having earned strong poll ratings for its handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic, were hoping to return to majority government status. However, Justin Trudeau's (MP for Papineau) calling an election for that September 20 nearly backfired disastrously, as the Conservative Party raced into a huge lead early in the campaign, due to backlash over the government's handling of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well was what was seen by some as Trudeau's hubris for calling the election in the first place. Despite this, the party slowly clawed back in the polls over the course of the campaign, with some help from Conservative gaffes. In the end they gained a handful of seats despite still being behind in the popular vote (albeit by less than in 2019), leaving Trudeau still in charge of a relatively comfortable minority government eerily similar to the one he had dissolved. Then in early 2022, the NDP and Liberals announced they had negotiated a supply-and-confidence agreement, where the NDP would support the Liberal Party on any votes on supply or confidencenote until the next scheduled election in 2025, and the Liberals would promise to implement certain key NDP policies, a national dental plan in particular. This benefited both parties, in that the Liberals can govern until 2025 without worrying about the opposition parties threatening to bring down the government and the NDP can see progress on their own concerns and policies, while also giving themselves more time to raise money for the next election (The NDP still had some debts left over from the 2019 election when Parliament was dissolved in 2021). The Conservatives naturally cried foul, and likened the deal to a socialist coup d'état (that the Liberals committed against themselves) which Canadians didn't vote for, even if a majority of Canadians did vote for either the Liberals or NDP, bringing back the arguments Stephen Harper used to discredit the 2008 Liberal–NDP–Bloc coalition agreement. Most Canadians were just relieved they didn't have to go through another election anytime soon.
- The Conservatives, barely a year after the election of Erin O'Toole (MP for Durham) as leader, seemed ill-prepared for an election, but nonetheless got off to a strong start in the campaign, leaving it suddenly looking possible that O'Toole might steer the party to an improbable victory. However, various factors — including vote-splitting caused by a stronger-than-expected performance from the People's Party, flip-flopping on gun control, a manifesto that was accused of being virtually indistinguishable from that of the Liberals, and Jason Kenney's provincial Conservative government in Alberta coming under fire for its diffident handling of a new COVID wave — eroded their poll lead and led to a performance virtually identical to that of 2019, actually leaving them slightly further behind the Liberals than they already were in terms of seats in the House. The following February, the parliamentary caucus voted to remove O'Toole as leader, leaving the party under the interim leadership of Candice Bergen (no, not that one; the MP for Portage—Lisgar) for the next seven months. In September 2022, Pierre Poilievre (MP for Carleton) was elected leader.
- The Bloc Québécois, having made a comeback in 2019 under the leadership of Yves-François Blanchet (MP for Beloeil—Chambly) after seeming dead and buried for most of the 2010s, appeared to be in a bit of trouble going into the campaign and were initially expected to lose some seats. Then came some unexpected help — from the moderator of the English-language debate. Blanchet was asked a question perceived by many in Quebec to be inflammatory and insulting, and the Bloc regained much of their lost support in the following days after being seen as defending Quebec values from English-speakers during the debate. On election night, they made modest progress, slightly improving their popular vote share and winning the same number of seats,note cementing their place as the third-largest party in Parliament.
- The NDP managed to win one more seat and a slightly higher proportion of the popular vote than in 2019. While seen as a slightly disappointing result after party leader Jagmeet Singh (MP for Burnaby South) earned consistently strong approval ratings and even led a couple of polls asking Canadians which party leader they liked best, it nonetheless arrested the gradual decline they had been in since 2015. Their current supply-and-confidence agreement with the governing Liberals has also raised their profile and give them a plank with which to campaign on come the next election.
- The Green Party were the major losers of the election. After having their best-ever result in the 2019 election, long-time party leader Elizabeth May (MP for Saanich—Gulf Islands) retired and was succeeded by Annamie Paul, who became the first woman of colour to lead a major Canadian political party. Despite an encouraging start to her leadership, which saw Paul only narrowly fail to win a 2020 by-election in Toronto Centre, the party soon descended into infighting, leading to one of the party's three MPs (Jenica Atwin, who as MP for Fredericton was the first Green MP from outside B.C.) crossing the floor to the Liberals. In the ensuing election, Paul was accused of neglecting the party's political base of British Columbia in favour of trying to make a breakthrough in Ontario, and while the party did succeed in winning their first seat in the province (Mike Morrice picked up Kitchener Centre, largely in part because the Liberals disowned their candidate and ceased campaigning there), they lost their other British Columbia seat of Nanaimo—Ladysmith, leaving them down to two MPs and, more noticeably, having lost over half their popular vote share from the previous election. As a result, Paul resigned in November 2021, after briefly looking like she might try to fight a leadership review. Amita Kuttner took over as interim leader for the next year, in the process becoming the first non-binary person to lead a major Canadian political party at the federal level, before things finally came full circle as Elizabeth May was re-elected as leader in November 2022.
- The People's Party of Canada (PPC), a right-wing libertarian breakaway party formed in 2018 by 2017 Conservative leadership contender Maxime Bernier, had largely been dismissed as a joke party after attracting just 1.6% of the vote in 2019. In 2021, however, while they again failed to win any seats, they more than tripled their share of the popular vote by appealing to the anti-vaccination crowd, moving ahead of the Greens in the popular vote tally. Though questions remain about their ability to win seats in Parliament (especially since Bernier himself went down to a far heavier defeat in his former riding of Beauce than in 2019), it looks like the PPC are in it for the long haul, and could potentially be a thorn in the side of the Conservatives, having cost them seats via vote-splitting in both 2019 and 2021.
Provincial politics tends to have the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP as the primary parties as well, though there are exceptions: both Saskatchewan's Saskatchewan Party and B.C.'s BC United Partynote 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 Wildrose Party and the old Progressive Conservatives before they reunited in 2017, and Quebec politics is just plain weird because it includes a secessionist-federalist spectrum in addition to the typical left-right and authoritarian-libertarian spectrums.note The NDP does frequently win in provincial elections, especially in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia where, for historical reasons, they're the only major left-wing party in a two-party system and thus viable contenders for government by default.
Alberta is also an interesting case. Since ratifying Confederation in 1905, its government has changed only four times: 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 able Harry Strom, and the latest being because of falling oil prices that resulted in an increasingly unpopular NDP majority government's replacement with a Conservative one (led, incidentally, by Jason Kenney, a former federal minister in the Harper 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 are usually 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 (and indeed be interim leader), former federal Progressive Conservative leader 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 and/or ideological leanings — for example, Jack Layton was a member of the Toronto City Council before he won the leadership of the federal NDP, and the former mayor of Toronto, John Tory, once led the Ontario PC Party and worked for the federal PCs before they 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
Another, less significant difference between Canadian and American politics is that the Color-Coded for Your Convenience scheme is partially reversed. In the U.S., "red states" are associated with right-wing conservatism, while "blue states" are associated with left-wing progressivism. In Canada, blue is more traditionally associated with Conservative parties and politics, while Red is the colour of Liberal parties and politics.note The U.S. also has no equivalent to the NDP, which is typically associated with orange.
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 especially significant as Calgary is in southern Alberta, which is largely 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.), health care and national unity are major issues in Canadian elections. Canada has a national health care 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 contemporary Canadian politics has been "national unity". A Vocal 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, both of which lost: the first with 60% of the vote, the second 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.
A lesser-known national unity issue is so-called "Western alienation", the notion held by some in the western provinces that they have been alienated (and in extreme cases excluded) from mainstream political affairs in favour of Ontario and Quebec. This has fueled separatist movements in the west in general and Alberta in particular, with that province currently having two active (though small) separatist parties. That said, western separatist sentiment has yet to reach the critical mass that it has in Quebec.
The environment has also become a hot topic of late. 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 Harper Conservatives’ environmental platform in government was largely to follow the United States' lead, and because the U.S. didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, 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 increased their greenhouse gas emissions since the PM 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 stood 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 Maxime Bernier, then the Foreign Affairs Minister 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.
A real sex scandal occurred in 2016 when Liberal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo resigned from his cabinet post and was 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 been removed from caucus to become an unimportant independent backbencher, the media stopped 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, expelled from the Conservative Party caucus, and became the subject of an RCMP investigation (all thanks to private information). Even after the RCMP cleared Guergis of wrongdoing, she continued to sit as an independent MP, but lost her seat to the Conservative challenger in the subsequent election. This led to the joke that Harper began standing behind his ministers because it was easier to push them under a bus from there.
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 Ontario riding of Guelph, 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 from 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 Nipissing—Timiskaming, another riding where voter suppression tactics were alleged, 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, and equally predictably, the Conservatives denied any responsibility, though a low-ranking Conservative staffer from the Guelph campaign 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 registered minimal 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 that he was not 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 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 on City Council. He died on March 22, 2016. Rob’s brother Doug (the then 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 mayor ... but Doug Ford got the last laugh by becoming premier of Ontario in 2018, a position Tory had run for in 2007 as leader of the Ontario Conservative Party and lost.
John Tory's own mayoralty came to an ignominous end in February 2023 when the Star reported that he'd been having a months-long affair with a member of his staff. Tory described the affair as "a lapse in judgement" and resigned as mayor. This triggered a mayoral by-election that attracted over one hundred candidates for the now-vacant mayor's chair.