Canada’s Geopolitical Situation

Canadian Federation and its Provinces

A Federal State

Canada is a federal state (called "Canadian Confederation") with ten provinces and three federal territories.

Federal Entities Size Status Capital Entry into Confederation
Alberta 661,188 km² Province Edmonton Sept. 1, 1905
British Columbia 947,800 km² Province Victoria July 20, 1871
Prince Edward Island 5,657 km² Province Charlottetown July 1, 1873
Manitoba 650,000 km² Province Winnipeg July 15, 1870
New Brunswick 73,437km² Province Fredericton July 1, 1867
Nova Scotia 54,565 km² Province Halifax July 1, 1867
Ontario 1,068,630 km² Province Toronto July 1, 1867
Québec 1,667,926 km² Province Québec July 1, 1867
Saskatchewan 651,903 km² Province Regina Sept. 1, 1905
Newfounland and Labrador 402,346 km² Province Saint John's April 1, 1949
Nunavut 1,994,000 km² Territory Iqaluit April 1, 1999
Northwest Territories 1,171,918 km² Territory Yellowknife July 15, 1870
Yukon 530,000 km² Territory Whitehorse June 13, 1898
A Relatively Complex Federal System

For inhabitants of countries with only one government—such as France, Sweden, Israel, or Algeria—it may be hard to understand the complexity of a federal structure, especially since examples (e.g., Germany, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland, South Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, etc.) generally differ widely, and Canada is no exception. Many citizens of unitary countries can have great difficulty understanding how a country like Canada can function, with its 14 governments and as many parliaments, legal systems, public services, etc., each with its own interests and areas of jurisdiction.

Canada also has a federal prime minister and 10 provincial premiers, as well as members that sit in the House of Commons (Chambre des communes in French) in Ottawa and others in 13 different provincial and territorial legislatures. Those elected to a provincial (or territorial) legislative assembly are called members of the legislative (or national) assembly (MLA and MNA, respectively), members of the provincial parliament (MPPs), or members of the House of Assembly (MHAs), depending on the province or territory.

A Constitutional Monarchy

For reasons linked to the country's history, Canada is a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is the British sovereign, currently Queen Elizabeth II, whose official title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada and her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

Canadian System of Governance

The Queen's representative in Canada is the Governor General, who signs laws and performs other official duties. The Queen and her representative play somewhat protocolar roles. The little power they do have is generally reserved for times of "national crisis," which are rather rare. The Governor General is selected by the Prime Minister, who is the party leader with the most number of seats in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

Legislative power lies with Canada's parliament, made up of two chambers: the Senate (or Upper Chamber), which numbers 104 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, and the House of Commons (or Lower Chamber), which numbers 308 members. Senators are appointed for life, while members of the House of Commons are elected for five years by universal suffrage. Laws must be approved by both chambers and signed by the Governor General. The Senate officially has powers similar to those of the House of Commons, but in practice, the real centre of power is the House of Commons.

The Canadian judicial system is derived from the common law of England, except in Québec, where provincial civil law is based on the Napoleonic code. Federally, final legal authority lies with the Supreme Court of Canada, made up of a Chief Justice and nine judges, three of whom must be from Québec. This court sits in Ottawa and is the final court of appeal for all civil, criminal, and constitutional matters.

In each of Canada's provinces, the British sovereign is represented by a Lieutenant-Governor appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The head of each provincial government is the Premier, who is accountable before the provincial Parliament, generally unicameral. The generic term first ministers is used in English to refer to both the Prime Minister and all the premiers. This distinction is not made in French, which instead uses premiers ministres fédéral et provinciaux.

The Yukon and Northwest Territories are governed by Commissioners appointed by the federal government. In the Northwest Territories, the Commissioner is assisted by a legislative assembly; in the Yukon, by a council and elected parliament. Nunavut, created in April 1999, is governed by a legislative assembly and premier elected by universal suffrage.

Shared Areas of Jurisdiction

In principle, all of Canada's federated entities are autonomous. They each have their own cabinet, parliament, laws, public service, and institutions. The provinces and territories operate almost as sovereign nations, but without political independence. Under the Constitution of 1867, certain areas of jurisdiction belong exclusively to the federal government, others to the provincial governments, and others are shared by the two levels of government, which can obviously lead to certain conflicts.

Although the territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) can in certain respects be likened to provinces, they do not officially have this status and in principle enjoy less “sovereignty” from a legislative standpoint because they are institutions that report to the Canadian Parliament. Federal acts of incorporation on the Yukon and Northwest Territories use the term "ordinances" to refer to the "laws" the territories are authorized to adopt. Despite this, the territorial governments tend to use the term “law,” which suggests to them a status similar to that of the provinces. Ordinances must be passed by the Territorial Parliament and forwarded to the federal government, then to the two Canadian Chambers of Parliament (the House of Commons and the Senate). These ordinances can even theoretically be annulled by the federal government within one year. However, this has never happened in practice.

When Canada was created in 1867 (through the British North America Act, now called the Constitutional Act of 1867), the system was meant to be a federal one, with power shared between the centre (federal power) and the provinces (provincial powers with a government in each province). Sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution of 1867 specify the various areas of responsibility:

Federal jurisdiction Provincial jurisdiction Shared jurisdiction
  • Public lands and forests
  • Healtcare
  • Municipal institutions
  • Marriage
  • Property and civil laws
  • Education
  • Business licences
  • Provincial constitution
  • Trade
  • Taxes
  • Postal service
  • Militia and defence
  • Currency and banks
  • Indian policies
  • Criminal law
  • Residual powers (not defined in the BNA Act)
  • Right of disallowance over the provinces
  • Agriculture
  • Companies and economic development
  • Prisons and justice
  • Fisheries
  • Public works
  • Transportations and communications
  • Immigration

Source: "British North America Act" in Gérald-A. Beaudoin,
The Constitution of Canada, Montréal, Wilson and Lafleur, 1990, p. 849–902

Although in principle the federal authority holds responsibility over matters of general and national interest and the provincial governments over regional matters, the jurisdictions of the two bodies were not completely settled in 1867. It is not always easy to determine what constitutes "general matters" (appertaining to the federal government) and "local matters" (appertaining to provincial governments) because the two levels of government are both independent and complementary. This is why conflicts of jurisdiction have erupted regularly over the course of Canada's political history, notably in the area of language. Despite these difficulties, Canadians have generally been able to find an amicable way of making the federation work.

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