Canada is a mosaic of regions from the rugged mountains of the West, to the farm communities of the prairies, to the Industrial and Political powerhouse of Ontario, to the modern French culture of Québec, to the quaint fishing communities of the East Coast, and everything in between. While the beauty and diversity of Canada are proud icons of what Canada has become, they are also sources of political tension.
The structure of government is still based on the shared responsibilities defined in the British North America Act of 1867. There are ten Provincial governments, three Territorial governments, and the Federal government.
Provincial Political Structure
Each province has its Legislative branch (called Legislative Assembly or Provincial Parliament in most provinces or National Assembly in Québec) and Executive branch (called the Cabinet). Each province is separated into electoral regions (often called constituencies or ridings). One member is elected for the Legislative branch from each of these electoral regions. Whichever political party has the most representatives elected becomes the governing party, and its Leader becomes the Premier.
The Premier selects a Cabinet, almost always from among elected representatives. Each Cabinet Minister is responsible for a particular role in Government (i.e. Minister of Health is responsible for health issues, Minister of Transportion is responsible for transportation issues, etc.). The Premier governs for up to five years. Before this time is up, the Premier must call an election (but she is allowed by law to choose the actual date the vote will occur). A Premier deciding to step down before the next election will usually resign a year or two before they must, allowing their party the opportunity to select a new Leader (and thus, a new Premier) to contest the next election.
Federal Political Structure
The Federal government is structured in much the same way as the Provincial governments, except its electoral regions are much larger, and collectively cover the entire country. The Leader of the party with the most elected representatives is called the Prime Minister.
Unlike Provincial governments, the Federal government also has an upper chamber or Senate. Unlike the United States, the Senate is relatively weak. The composition of the Senate is weighted to representatives in Ontario and Québec (again, unlike the equal representation of each State in the United States). It is also relatively unaccountable and appointed directly by the Prime Minister. Because of all this, the Senate is quite unpopular, particularly in Western Canada. The province of Alberta actually held two province-wide elections for Senator, but the Prime Minister refused to appoint the second winner.
Separation of Powers
Though the Constitution gives more official responsibilities to Provincial governments, the power in Canada is actually very centralized. That is, the responsibilities of the Federal government outweigh those of the provinces. This is because the Federal government has moved in to some areas where they do not have a defined constitutional role. In cases where the split is not clearly defined, the Federal government usually takes a more prevalent role. And, in cases where there is no definition, the Federal government often takes the role by “default” (for example, Aviation Safety, and the Canadian Space Program are federally operated).
The Federal government also crosses over into areas where the Constitution clearly defines that they are not responsible. Two prevalent examples of this are Health and Education. Under the Canada Health Act, the federal government distributes money to the provinces if they meet certain standards in Health. The goal is to provide Universal Health Care of similar quality across the entire nation. Similarly, the Federal government runs many programs to assist students, provide scholarships, etc.
This infringing on Provincial responsibilities by the Federal government is often a source of political tension, particularly in Québec, and Western Canada. In several cases where the role is not specific, the government of Québec has opted out of the Federal program to develop their own (for example, the Canada Pension Plan and the Québec Pension Plan).
In areas such as taxation, unemployment and social programs, Canada is very similar to Western European countries. But with America so close, and as Canada’s largest trading partner, there are many in Canada that would like to adopt components of American-style government. This includes issues like lower taxes, smaller government and more emphasis on personal freedoms.
The British and French traditions are still very prevalent in Canadian politics today. Quite unlike most nations, Canada has two official languages: French and English. The Federal government and the Provincial government of New Brunswick operate in both languages, the Provincial government of Québec operates in French, and all other Provincial governments operate in English. Language and culture are two very important political issues in Canada today.