Guest post: Canada

November 8, 2010 § 10 Comments


I’m incredibly lucky in that Gael L’Hermine, author of the fantastic World Elections, and a Canadian, has written my Canada post for me. Here it is:

Who lives there?: Around 34.3 million people, with nearly 80% living within 150km of the American border. Remote northern regions are far more sparsely populated. Roughly 22% of the population speak and work in French, with the rest working in English and living in English or another non-official language. The vast majority of Francophones live in Quebec, where nearly 80% of the population in Francophone. There are smaller concentrations of Francophones in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba and all other provinces.

Around 16% of the Canadian population are considered visible minorities (non-white), and they form a majority of the population in Vancouver and a near-majority of the population in Toronto. Aside from nearly 4% claiming aboriginal or Inuit ancestry, the remainder of Canadians find their ancestors in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy or eastern Europe.

How does the system work? (the theory): Canada is a federal constitutional monarchy, member of the Commonwealth. The monarch is also the monarch of the United Kingdom. She is monarch of Canada in its own right, but she appoints, on the advice of the Prime Minister, a Governor General as her representative in Canada. The Governor General exercises power in name only and will always obey the wishes of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the Governor General and is almost always the leader of the largest party in parliament. The Prime Minister appoints a cabinet and together they exercise executive power. The legislative is bicameral. The lower house (or House of Commons) consists of 308 members. Elected by first past the post universal suffrage in 308 constituencies, they serve a maximum of five years but most Parliaments are dissolved after four years.

Elections are called by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister or when a government loses a confidence vote. The upper house (or Senate) consists of 105 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Senators serve until they retire or until they reach the age of 75.

Canada is divided into ten provinces and three territories, with the provinces having considerable autonomy in their own right. Provinces are solely responsible for health, education, welfare; the federal government is solely responsible for defense, foreign affairs, money and banking, trade, transportation and citizenship. Immigration and agriculture is shared between both levels. Provincial governments mirror the federal government, with a Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Governor General and the head of government, a premier, who is generally the head of the party with the most seats. Since 1968, all provincial legislatures are unicameral.

The setup of local government differs from province to province, but they have relatively few powers and public interest in local government is low. With the exception of local political parties in places such as Montreal, Vancouver and Quebec City; most local government is non-partisan. (Ed: Gael wrote a piece about local government in Ontario here)

How does the system work? (the practice): In practice, as in most Commonwealth realms, the Prime Minister and his cabinet exercise the most power. He is only responsible to the House of Commons, so the Prime Minister does not necessarily need a Senate majority given that the Senate will often rubber-stamp the legislation passed by the House of Commons.

Canada has a somewhat unique attitude towards minority governments given that, unlike in almost all other countries with similar situations, a party which wins a minority will rarely seek to form a coalition or even an informal pact with another party. Coalition governments have been rare to inexistent at the federal level, though some formal and informal coalitions have existed at the provincial level. The 2008-2009 parliamentary crisis was especially revelateur of Canada’s attitude towards parliamentary tradition and coalition governments.

How did we get there?: Canada became confederated as the Dominion of Canada, and more or less independent, in 1867 with the British North America Act (BNA Act). The opening of the west with the construction of the railway followed by the Klondike in the Yukon led to rapid economic growth and European immigration in the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. Canada progressively gained more power from Britain, notably with the 1931 Statute of Westminster.

Canada experienced rapid economic and population growth after the Second World War, something which led to the emergence of a new Canadian identity as well as the foundations of Canada’s liberal welfare state society. Yet, at the same time, profound social and economic changes in Quebec as part of the Quiet Revolution led to the emergence of Quebec nationalism. While Quebec regionalism and particularism was nothing new, the movement which emerged in the 1960s now supported the full independence of Quebec from Canada. In October 1970, the kidnapping of a British trade attache and a provincial cabinet minister by the radical Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) ignited the October Crisis in which Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, an ardent federalist (a term which refers to those which rejected Quebecois independence), invoked the War Measures Act and sent in the military to quell unrest in Quebec. The FLQ’s violent methods were rejected in favour of peaceful activism, led by the Parti Québecois which achieved power in Quebec in 1976. A 1980 referendum on independence was massively rejected by a 60-40 margin.

The Constitution of Canada was patriated by the Trudeau cabinet in 1982, without the approval of Quebec’s government, which to this date has not approved the Constitution Act of 1982.

The Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won power in 1984, and ushered in a Reagan-like period of neoliberal economic reforms, free trade with the US and attempts to include Quebec in the constitution through the ultimately unsuccessful 1987 Meech Lake and 1992 Charlottetown Accords. The Liberals led by Jean Chrétien won the 1993 election in a landslide, while the Conservatives, unpopular in the west, were decimated by the western-based Reform Party and the new Bloc Québécois. Chrétien’s cabinet, in power until 2003, balanced the budget and presided over a reduction in the size of government. In 1995, another independence referendum in Quebec was rejected by a hair, with 50.5% against.

Stephen Harper‘s Conservatives won power in the 2006 election.

Who’s in charge?: Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party formed a minority cabinet in 2006 and another following the 2008 election and has been in power since. Harper has been one of the most successful minority head of governments, managing to survive much longer than most minority prime ministers. Harper, at times a skillful politician, has depended on the low appeal of the opposition parties (and thus their reluctance to force an election) and on issue-by-issue support or abstention by one or more of the opposition parties. Though Harper’s Conservatives are not extremely popular, voters see him as the least worst of all parties and most find that he has done a fine job handling the economy though Harper has yet to win a majority government and is unlikely to do so in the next election.

The Conservative Party, which was formed in 2003 by the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance (successor to the Reform Party), is the major right-wing party with significant strength in the western provinces. Though Canada’s conservatism has long been of a moderate Red Tory brand, the former Alliance, which was far more right-wing and western-based, holds significant power within the new Conservative Party. The Conservatives won 143 seats in the 2008 federal election.

The Liberal Party is one of the dominant parties, with the Tories, since Confederation. Largely a centrist party, it has been seen as Canada’s governing party because it held power for most of the time since Confederation. At time it has leaned to the left (with Trudeau and Pearson) and more recently it has leaned to the right (with Chrétien). The Liberals are traditionally stronger in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes and have been far more centralist than the Tories. The party’s current leader is Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals won 77 seats in the 2008 federal election and currently holds 76

The New Democratic Party (NDP) was formed in 1961 and finds its roots in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which was formed in 1932. It is the main centre-left social democratic party in Canada, albeit with agrarian, Christian left populist roots in the western provinces. More recently, the NDP has been dominated by the New Left, which is less populist and more progressive. The CCF’s Tommy Douglas formed the first socialist government in North America in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944. The party’s current leader is Jack Layton. The NDP won 37 seats in the 2008 federal election and currently holds 36.

The Bloc Québécois, while broadly centre-left, is in reality a big tent party committed to the independence of Quebec, or, in the absence of that, defending the interests of Quebec. It was formed in 1991, a large part of its bench being formed by former Progressive Conservatives in the Mulroney government. The party’s current leader is Gilles Duceppe. It won the most seats in all federal elections in Quebec since 1993. The Bloc won 49 seats in the 2008 federal election and currently holds 47.

The Green Party has never won seats federally or provincially (though it briefly held a seat until the 2008 federal election, the result of a Liberal crossing the floor) but won 6.8% in the 2008 federal election. The party is led by Elizabeth May, and the direction of the Canadian Greens are notably much more to the centre-right than their American or British counterparts.

canada parties

Federal political parties do not exist at the provincial level, and thus a majority of provincial conservative parties retain the name “Progressive Conservative”. While no provincial conservative party has formal ties with the Conservative Party, all provincial-level NDPs are tied to the NDP and the provincial Liberals in all provinces but Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Colombia are tied to the federal Liberals.

Trade unions are somewhat powerful, especially in Quebec. Up until the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was extremely powerful in Quebec, which was then Canada’s most conservative province.

Provincial governments (the number of seats held by each party has changed since the last election, but figures included are those of the election)

New Brunswick held an election in September 2010. The PCs won 42 seats and the Liberals won 13 seats. The current Premier is David Alward (PC)

Nova Scotia held an election in June 2009. The NDP won 31 seats, the Liberals won 11 and the PCs won 10. The current Premier is Darrell Dexter (NDP)

British Columbia held an election in May 2009. The centre-right Liberals won 49 seats and the NDP won 35 seats. The current Premier is Gordon Campbell (Liberal), who will be leaving office when a new Liberal leader is chosen.

Quebec held an election in December 2008. The federalist Liberals won 66 seats, the pro-independence Parti Québécois won 51, the right-wing Action démocratique du Québec won 7 and the left-wing Québec solidaire won one seat. The current Premier is Jean Charest (Liberal)

Alberta held an election in March 2008. The PCs won 72 seats, the Liberals won 9 and the NDP won 2. The right-wing libertarian Wildrose Alliance won no seats, but currently holds four seats and places second in opinion polls. The current Premier is Ed Stelmach (PC), and the Conservatives have governed Alberta since 1971.

Saskatchewan held an election in November 2007. The right-wing Saskatchewan Party won 38 seats and the NDP won 20. The current Premier is Brad Wall (SaskParty)

Ontario held an election in October 2007. The Liberals won 71 seats, the PCs won 26 and the NDP won 10. The current Premier is Dalton McGuinty (Liberal)

Newfoundland and Labrador held an election in October 2007. The PCs won 44 seats, the Liberals won 3 and the NDP won 1. The current Premier is Danny Williams (PC). The very assertive Williams led a very successful Anything but Conservative (ABC) campaign in the province in the last federal election.

Prince Edward Island held an election in May 2007. The Liberals won 23 seats and the PCs won 4. The current Premier is Robert Ghiz (Liberal)

Manitoba held an election in May 2007. The NDP won 36 seats, the PCs won 19 seats and the Liberals won 2. The current Premier is Greg Selinger (NDP)

Yukon, the only territory with organized political parties, held an election in October 2006. The centre-right Yukon Party won 10 seats, the Liberals won 5 seats and the NDP won 3. The current Premier is Dennis Fentie (YK Party)

What does it look like?: (Ed: Canada is huge (the second largest country in the world and varied so Gael has sensibly concentrated on the politics. There’s a good summary of its geography here.)


What are the issues?: Major issues include provincial powers, Quebec and the French language and other issues such as the economy and immigration.

Provincial powers and federal-provincial relations have been a major issue since Confederation, with the role of both provincial and federal governments increasing. In addition to Quebec, the rise of Western alienation in the 1970s has led to increased western demands for Senate reform and further decentralization. Federal policies such as the National Energy Program were extremely unpopular in the western provinces, and led to western resentment of Ontario and especially Quebec.

The federal government has made equalization payments to poorer provinces since the 1960s. Traditionally, provinces such as Quebec and Newfoundland have been the main beneficiaries, but recently Ontario has needed equalization payments while Newfoundland no longer needs equalization payments. Equalization payments increased western resentment of Quebec, with westerners seeing the system as their tax dollars subsidizing Quebec and the Maritimes. Equalization payments have also created a distinction between “have” and “have not” provinces.

While the likelihood of Quebec independence is declining over time, the place of Quebec in Confederation and the role of the French language remain important issues. Quebec has very restrictive linguistic legislation aimed at protecting the French language. The federal government is officially bilingual since 1969, though only the province of New Brunswick is officially bilingual. Provinces such as Ontario, while officially monolingual, have passed legislation providing services in French in certain counties. The Harper government recognized Quebec as a “nation within a nation” in 2006.

A good source of impartial information is: Canada has a vibrant independent media. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is publicly owned and regulated by the CRTC which imposes a “Canadian perspective” on the CBC’s news reports.

Major newspapers in English include The Globe and Mail, The National Post and The Toronto Star. Major newspapers in French include the federalist La Presse and the pro-independence Le Devoir.

A good book is: (Ed: Gael didn’t recommend a book as he has a lot of first hand knowledge. Looking around I think I’d really like Game Theory and Canadian Politics but it might be too nerdy for some. Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics is an insiders view of running election campaigns from a former Liberal Party political fixer. It divides opinion, some people find the author annoying, but it is supposed to give a decent picture of how elections are actually run. Canadian Politics Unplugged is supposed to be a good introduction.)

When are the next elections?: Federal elections must be held by October 2012, though it is likely an election will be held in 2011 or early 2012. The provinces of Yukon, Manitoba, PEI, Ontario and Newfoundland will hold provincial elections in 2011.

Frequently Asked Questions about Canadian politics:Why don’t the Liberals and NDP form a governing coalition?

The Liberals and NDP did attempt to form a coalition in December 2008, but the proposed deal – which would have had outside support from the Bloc – was massively unpopular in English Canada and was plagued by internal divisions within the Liberal Party and Harper’s superior handling of the crisis. Besides, there is much bad blood between Liberals and Dippers, which precludes any serious talk of coalition or merger. The crisis revealed that Canadians believe that the party with the most seats has an inherent right to form government, while a coalition between two losing parties would be viewed as an usurpation of power.

Why are the Tories traditionally weak in Quebec?

The roots of Conservative weakness in Quebec are many. The original cause was conscription, imposed by the Tories in 1917 which was really unpopular with French Canadians. Since then, the Liberal Party has emerged as the party of the Quebec (federalist) elite and has traditionally been closer to the Catholic Church and French Canadians then the Tories; though Tories led by Quebecois leaders (Mulroney) have been able to do well in Quebec. Basically, parties with a Quebecois leader will do well in Quebec; and that plays a part in explaining the Bloc’s continued relevance in Quebec despite independence being a dying creed. Harper’s Conservatives have tried to break through in Quebec, and nearly did so in 2008 but ultimately failed because of a misplaced word by Harper about cutting federal funding for culture and artists.

Why would a Conservative like Danny Williams hate Stephen Harper?

Conservatives in the Maritimes have almost always been of a Red Tory brand, that is, a moderate line at odds with the more radical western “Alliance”-style Tories. Williams, who is an extremely assertive figure, fell out with Harper over the Atlantic Accord. Williams accused Harper of lying to him, and led an extremely successful anti-Tory campaign in the 2008 federal election. The Tories hold no seats in Newfoundland, while Williams still has 70-80% approval ratings.

Why has no party won a majority since 2004?

Prior to 2004, the right was divided and its division played an important role in allowing Liberals to win majorities. Prior to 1993, the Bloc did not exist to claw up the majority of Quebec MPs. Since then, none of the three federal parties have been able to (a) find an inspiring leader capable of winning a majority or (b) break through past the Bloc in Quebec. As long as none of the three parties have a top-notch leader, and the Bloc remains relevant as the competent defenders of Quebec in Ottawa, no party will win a majority. There is, to me, a 90% chance that the next election will result in a fourth successive minority.

If there are Francophones outside Quebec, why doesn’t the Bloc run outside Quebec?

Quebec has defined itself as being a distinct people from the rest of Canada, a “distinct society”. Quebec independence has never been a purely linguistic nationalist movement (unlike Basque nationalism, which claims land in two countries). Furthermore, there are two additional reasons. The first is that New Brunswick’s Francophones are Acadians and not Quebecois, while a lot of the west’s Francophones are of Metis descent. Second, Quebec has often looked down on Acadians and Franco-Ontarians as inferior to themselves and has made non-Quebec francophones wary of the Quebecois.

How are Nunavut and the NWT governed?

These two territories have non-partisan legislatures and a consensus government. Territories have fewer powers, and these powers are considered to be delegated by the federal government instead of directly from the BNA Act of 1867.


§ 10 Responses to Guest post: Canada

  • […] Update – In the end World Elections‘ Gael L’Hermine wrote me a superb article here […]

  • Just to confirm there is no truth in the rumour that the tops of Canadians heads don’t join up to their jaws or that there is only one road in Canada.

  • I asked Gael what caused the by-elections and got this answer:

    There are actually 5, soon 6. They are Dauphin–Swan River–Marquette, Vaughan, Winnipeg North which vote on Nov. 29; soon we’ll have Haute Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia and Prince George-Peace River and then Calgary Centre North. Of the Nov. 29 by-elections, two are being held because MPs resigned to run municipally and the other is some retiring MP. Vaughan is a Liberal-held Lib-Con tossup, Dauphin–Swan River–Marquette is safe Tory, Winnipeg North is safe NDP. Haute Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia is a Bloc-held Bloc-Lib tossup, Prince George-Peace River and Calgary Centre North are safe/likely Tory.

    I also asked what the biases of the national papers are:

    The Globe and Mail is Red Tory/centre (social liberal and fiscally right-wing, basically) and endorsed the CPC in 06/08; the National Post is a conservative paper founded by Conrad Black; the Toronto Star is liberal and was one of the few Liberal endorsers in 06/08. I didn’t mention them because I think they’re useless rags; but the Sun newspapers (Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton) are conservative tabloids owned by media giant Quebecor (owned by Pierre-Karl Pelladeau) and they’re all quite big.

  • Edis Bevan says:

    One feature of Canadian federal politics is the way careers can develop outside the Ottawa circuit. Because Provincial political alignments are not necessarily geared to Federal patterns in that province this can lead to apparent label switching as one or other of the ‘Big’ federal parties try to recruit major provincial figures. This recruitment is often openly geared to prospects of specific Cabinet posts

    As far as the leadership of the Federal parties goes, not infrequently one or other party elects as leader someone who at at that time is not a Member of Parliament. A convenient Federal by-election is then arranged, the custom being that the other major parties do not run a candidate against the incoming leader.

  • Edis says:

    Provinces have very considerable powers, including some of the most political sensitive matters relating to social security, education and healthcare. That removes whole raft of issues from Ottawa politics which may help to explain why minority governments cans steer a long-term course.

    The split in powers between Federal and Provincial s a longstanding political theme in Canada, epitomised by this joke:

    How would different countries react if the End Of The World came tomorrow?

    The French would rush of for a a last bit of lovemaking, the British would have a nice cup of tea and the Canadians would set up a commission to debate the question ‘End of the world: a Federal or Provincial responsibility?’

  • That’s a great joke. I may use it.

  • Edis Bevan says:

    Further thoughts on ‘Minority Government’ . Doing a swift overview of Provincial election results over the last 50 years or so suggests that minority governments in the Provinces are not very common. What does seem to occur over and over in many provinces is for one party or another to have a majority exaggerated by first-past-the-post, and hold this for some election cycles. If there are changes they are often big swings with numerous seats changing hands to produce a different exaggerated majority..

    So do Canadians treat the Provinces as the arena for really hot political differences while Ottawa can be safely left relatively neutered?

  • Very interesting. I’ll ask Gael

  • Here’s his response:

    I think he’s correct on the facts, but off the mark on the reasons for this trend. Here are a few comments I’d make in response –

    1. Minorities are also more or less uncommon at the federal level. Before 2004, furthermore, minorities didn’t need to deal with a party like the Bloc and they were never especially far from a majority.
    2. Voters hold Ottawa to account more than the provinces, and as long as a provincial government does a decent job and the Premier is decent; they’ll reelect the government. It’s rare to see one-term provincial governments, and those who are one-termers tend to be especially crappy (Ontario 1990 is the textbook example). It’s also rare to see three or four-term governments, because even if a government is fine after 7-10 years voters will want change (Saskatchewan 2007 is a perfect example). I suspect the reason for this is that voters a) hear far more about Ottawa and the feds, b) see the economy and their lifestyle as a federal business [which is not entirely true].
    3. A lot of provinces still have quasi-two party systems provincially (BC, Sask., MB, QC since 1976 except 2007, NB, PEI, NL) and that results in less minorities. Of course, Alberta is best described as a “dominant party/one-and-a-bunch-of-halves” party system 😉
    4. Of course, FPTP in legislatures with under 100 seats tend to be far more dis-proportional than in legislatures with 200-300 seats. So oftentimes when the minority party has a tiny caucus, they will struggle for a long time to find their voice again and find a decent leader (NB Libs, PEI PCs, Newfie Libs all have this problem now).
    5. An interesting thing is that voters, especially in Quebec, will split their votes and be fine with, say, electing separatists in Ottawa (to defend Quebec interests, perhaps) and reelecting federalists in Quebec. This was especially true in the 40s-60s, when provincially Quebec elected a semi-nationalistic ultra-conservative provincial government (the UN) and elected centralist/federalist centrist Liberals federally (who often feuded with the UN government). Quebec voters are weird species, and they swing wildly (wild swings seem to be distinctively Francophone, France also has huge electoral swings); and they often vote for the party which they believe will best defend provincial interests.

  • I also asked Gael why Canada was seemingly an exception to Duvergers Law that FPTP elections will produce a two party system over time. I got this reply:

    I think it has a lot to do with the fact that FPTP will give a major boost to parties with concentrated voter base. The fact that the Bloc is a big-tent for all 35-45% of pro-independence voters and that the other federalists voters are split 3/4 ways (Lib, Con, NDP and Green) means that not only does the Bloc has an advantage thanks to FPTP’s pro-regional party structure but it also can win in places with a mere plurality given the split of the federalist vote. STV or PR would reduce the Bloc’s share of the seats dramatically from 60-70% to 35-40% or so. The danger for the Bloc is that all federalists coalesce around one party (like in 2000) to the deficit of the other federalist parties.

    Outside of Quebec (and even in a lot of Quebec seats), the real contest in most “key seats” are two-way Lib/Con or something like that. Often times, when a riding becomes a 3-way it rarely stays that way very long. From my research, in 2008 only 5 seats out of 308 had a margin between 1st and 3rd of below 10% and only 15 races are classified by the Pundits Guide database as being “close 3-ways”.

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