What's happening in Canada?

Canada just had an election six weeks ago, but we might have a new Prime Minister and cabinet from a different party in a week or so, without holding another election. What gives?


If you don’t live in a country like Britain, or Australia, that uses the Westminster System, what’s happening in Canada right now — to the extent that you’re paying attention at all — must seem very strange. For our American cousins, here’s how our system lines up with yours:

U.S. Canada
President (directly elected) Sovereign, represented by the Governor General (appointed and purely ceremonial)
Senate (directly elected) Senate (appointed and mostly ceremonial)
House of Representatives (directly elected) House of Commons (directly elected)
House Majority Leader (indirectly elected) Prime Minister (indirectly elected)

A question of confidence

Since only our House of Commons — equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives — is actually elected, it holds all the real power, and the leader of the ruling faction in the House — the Prime Minister — is the effective (but not constitutional) head of state and can appoint the other cabinet ministers (just like the party with a majority in the U.S. House can appoint the committee chairs).

The Prime Minister holds power, however, only to the extent that he or she can keep the confidence of the House of Commons. Any party leader can go to the Governor General and offer to form a government, but by tradition, the G-G will always give the first chance to the leader of the party that won the most seats. If that party has a majority of seats in the House, then forming a government will be a no-brainer (assuming that the leader can maintain party discipline); if the party has only a plurality of seats, then it has to prove that it can control the house and pass its major legislation; if not, then the G-G can offer a different party leader a chance to form a government.

Only MPs are elected

Although this might sound bizarre to people used to the American system, there’s nothing inherently undemocratic about it. Canadians elected 308 Members of Parliament (MPs) earlier this fall; we did not vote directly for a specific Prime Minister or a specific party. The Conservative Party won a plurality of the seats, but not a majority: that doesn’t guarantee them the government, only the first turn to try to form one. The Conservatives are about to bring their first major piece of financial legislation before the House, and if it is defeated, the G-G is required to conclude that the Conservative government does not have the confidence of a majority of the 308 MPs we elected, and (since the last election was so recent) to give another party leader a try if one can make a credible case.


Last time around, the Conservatives had no problem governing with a minority government — they just made sure that at least one of the other parties would support each piece of legislation they brought forward, and the opposition parties — especially the Liberals — were too timid to force an election by defeating them. This time, though, the Conservatives foolishly pushed the opposition parties just a little too far, by trying to cut government funding for political parties. This would hurt the opposition much more than the Conservatives (who are better at fund-raising), and whether the move was morally right or wrong, it was politically ignorant.

Suddenly, two of the opposition parties — the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP) — woke up out of their daze and realized that they could vote with the Bloc Québécois to defeat the Conservatives, then join together to form their own government. The Conservatives immediately panicked and withdrew the anti-funding proposal, but the genie was out of the bottle — the Conservatives’ only remaining hope is to try to appease the Bloc enough to keep their support.

Food for Junkies

So if you’re a political junkie who’s still in a slump after the end of the U.S. election, stay tuned — even Canadian politics can be exciting sometimes.

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14 Responses to What's happening in Canada?

  1. Robin Taylor Roth says:

    Just a note of reassurance to those US folks who might wonder: the party leader does have to win his/her own Parliamentary seat. That has caused a few problems, in the past, leading to hastily manoevered by-elections.

  2. Tim Fletcher says:

    An excellent writeup. Thanks!

  3. Nick says:

    One problem with the article though. It seems there is prrof of coalition talks the NIGHT AFTER the NDP and the Bloc lost the election. They were just waitng for the right time to let it out, and the first confidence motion was more than enough.

    Canada didn’t vote for Dion, and this is just an unacceptable power grab by the other parties.

  4. @Nick: opposition parties in a minority parliament were strategizing after the election!?!? OMG CALL THE NEWS IT’S UN-FREAKING-BELIEVABLE!

    Great article on the whole, one thing you might want to add to our potentially confused American cousins is how the our “congress” (parliament) is also the executive branch through the Cabinet. So the comparison to the leaders of congressional committee’s isn’t exactly apt, it’s more like the PM appoints the various executive branch equivalents (i.e. Minister of Foreign Affairs is like the Secretary of State, etc).

    anywho, good article =P


  5. david says:

    Nick: Canada didn’t vote for Harper, Dion, Duceppe, or Layton. The only people who voted for Stephen Harper were the constituents of Calgary West, and the only people who voted for Stéphane Dion were the consituents of Saint-Laurent – Cartierville — each riding elects its own MP, and then the 308 MPs get to decide who governs. Harper leads the party with the most seats, so he gets to go first, but if he cannot convince at least 155 of our elected representatives to support him, then Duceppe gets to give it a try next.

    It doesn’t really matter when or why the other parties started plotting against him — love it or hate it, this is how our system was set up and exactly how it’s supposed to work.

  6. Jeff says:

    Everybody’s saying that “we didn’t vote for Dion.” Well, unless you live in Calgary you didn’t vote for Harper either. That’s the way our system works. There are two power grabs going on here; the Conservative power grab has failed; we’ll see if the coalition power grab does better.

  7. Martin says:

    It’s weird to see how someone could find this way of building a government weird 😉 – at least from a European perspective.

    Isn’t this exactly what Pluralism is about? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluralism_(political_theory)

    Combining several political directions into one government to create policies that represent the views of most of the voters through a coalition doesn’t seem bad to me.

  8. B J says:

    The Governor General of Canada is the defacto ( in fact as opposed to dejure in law ) head of state.
    All provinces and states were released from the British monarchy as a result of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 to be Sovereign within their spheres ( free within their boundaries). Quebec recognizes this and is the only province in the geographic land mass commonly known as Canada ( not to be confused with the defacto government which is a corporation registered in Washington DC at the Canadian embassy) that recognizes this.
    The defacto federal government is encroaching on the exclusive powers of the provinces given to them under the BNA Act. Our politicians are actors who are passing acts and statutes which are the rules of the corporation known as Canada and registered in Washington. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is proof of this in section 32 of the defacto government produced copy ( not the internet version)wherein the last paragraph it states that the Charter only applies to Governments ( federal, provincial and municipal) and does not apply to individual,corporations or others.
    The acts and statutes apply to the employees of the corporations and not to the masses.
    Our ignorance through a controlled education system is keeping us enslaved.

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  10. The role of the sovereign and Governor General are not purely ceremonial. Close, but no. Likewise, the Senate is not as ceremonial as you make it sound, either — and in fact, there was a time when the Senate played more of a role in federal politics than it does today. The reason it’s more by the wayside is the strengthening of party politics in Canada since the start of Confederation.

  11. Heather says:

    “whether the move was morally right or wrong, it was politically ignorant”

    Doesn’t that just perfectly sum things up 🙂

    Canada didn’t vote for anyone this election – after all, less than 1/2 of the country voted (for clarity sake, I’m taking percentage of the countries population; not just registered voters).

  12. A US-Canada liberal “Axis of Good” would be cool!

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  14. Elizabeth Renaud Blavat says:

    Thank you for the excellent explantion. Mon Pere est Qubecois! I listen to the Canadian radio program broadcast on US’s NPR nightly (the name is completely slipping my mind at the moment!) but I have been confused, and fascinated with the process and drama happening in your wonderful country.

    So strange to hear you wonderfully cheerful, oh so civilized Canadians completely irate and caught up in this dramatic turn of events! We are political junkies, suffering the post election blues following our presidential election. We are so happy Obama won!

    I think the Conservative party of Canada failed to learn a lesson from our election: mean spirited, harsh rhetoric comments made about those who differ and accusing those whose views are different from theirs of being unpatriotic will not win any more elections or hearts and minds of free thinking intelligent citizens. O Canada! We are praying you can all forgive and forget when this is begind you. We love our northern neighbors and relatives in Quebec dearly, but you may keep your Arctic air masses to yourself! J/K!!

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