Canada’s Laboratory of Democracy
What Can We Learn from Our Neighbor to the North?
Welcome to another essay from Civic Way’s series on global democracies. The author, Bruce Anderson, is an advisor to Civic Way. Bruce has an MBA and over 45 years of management experience with private entities like Price Waterhouse and public sector entities like the Cleveland Public Schools. He has managed projects for numerous other agencies, including colleges, schools, cities and counties. Bruce also served in the Peace Corps.
Civic Way’s Comparative Democracy Series
The world’s democracies come in many forms. Some have strong central governments, some federated structures. Some an independent president and some a parliamentary form. Some retain a ceremonial monarchy. Some elements have cultural or historical origins, but most are framed by a constitution.
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Democracies face similar challenges. To meet these inherent challenges, many nations refine their constitutions, laws and cultural norms. Learning about these changes, and the risks they were meant to mitigate, can produce promising ideas for preserving and improving our own democracy.
An Introduction to Canada
Canada—our neighbor to the north—is not nearly as valued as it should be. Long overshadowed by the US, Canada and its 37 million people, is a mystery to many, including most Americans. We have much to learn about Canada starting with its well-earned global reputation for a strong democracy, stronger than most other nations, including the US.
Canada and the US have much in common. The world’s longest, binational unguarded boarder. Three oceans. Abundant natural resources. Colonial origins. Manifest destiny and a disturbing history with indigenous populations. Notable immigration and diversity. Extensive global engagement. And, of course, a long-standing commitment to democracy.
Canada also has several distinctive characteristics. It is the second-largest country in the world (after Russia). It has the world's largest expanse of freshwater lakes. It has the world’s 8th largest economy ($2.2 trillion in 2022) and the 11th largest on a per capita basis, primarily due to its rich natural resources and vibrant global trade.
Canada’s status as an independent nation has come gradually. In 1867, the British North America Act recognized the Canadian Confederation, with four provinces. The confederation absorbed other provinces and territories over several years. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster bolstered Canada’s independence. The 1982 Canada Act cut the last legal ties to the United Kingdom’s Parliament.
As set forth in its 1867 Constitution, Canada is a representative parliamentary democracy (and a constitutional monarchy) with three branches of government:
Executive branch – The Prime Minister is the head of government, directing a 15-member cabinet, 29 ministries and over 200 departments and other entities, initiating most legislation and selecting for appointment the Governor General, senators, federal judges and federal agency heads.
Legislative branch – The Parliament comprises the House of Commons and Senate. The 338-seat House of Commons, the principal legislative body, is elected. The 105-seat Senate, an advisory body, is appointed. The House of Commons members are called Members of Parliament (MPs).
Judicial branch – The judicial system has four parts, the Supreme Court—the final court of appeal—federal appeals court, superior courts and provincial courts. The Supreme Court, upon request, may provide “advisory opinions” on pending legislation (an infrequently used tool).
Canada’s governmental structure reflects its British origins. Canada was a British colony for nearly a century after our Declaration of Independence. While it has been independent for 155 years, Canada’s government retains echoes of its colonial past. It is both independent and a Commonwealth realm.
The Monarch of Canada (King Charles III) serves as the symbolic head of state. The Governor General,[i] appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, carries out the Monarch’s ceremonial and procedural duties. Through the Governor General, the Monarch is involved with all three branches.
Canada has a federalist structure, with ten provinces and three territories. The provincial/territorial governments, led by executives chosen by unicameral legislatures, provide health, social and post-secondary education services[ii]. Under the leadership of elected councils and mayors, local governments fulfill duties delegated by provincial governments, such as public safety, water, sanitation and parks.
In 2022, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit gave Canada a Democracy Index score of 8.88, good enough for a global ranking of 12th and designation as a full democracy. Canada’s score improved marginally over 2021 but is down from its 2020 peak of 9.24. This decline may reflect concerns about federal emergency powers usage, protest responses and indigenous peoples treatment.
The Freedom House awards Canada an impressive score of 98 (of 100). It commends Canada for its “strong history of respect for political rights and civil liberties,” its “reputation for clean government” and its “record of vigorous prosecution of corruption cases.”
Other noteworthy aspects of Canada’s democracy include the following:
Voting – All citizens aged 18 and older, including those residing in other nations, may register to vote but voting is not mandatory.
Elections – Since 2009, all elections have been scheduled on the same day (the third Monday in October). Parliamentary elections are held every four years (sooner for snap elections)[iii]. Federal election campaigns are limited to 36 to 50 days. Federal referenda are allowed.
Campaign financing – Under the 2014 Fair Elections Act, there are strict campaign spending limits (adjusted for campaigns longer than 36 days). Corporate and union donations are banned. The federal government reimburses some party election costs and provides tax credits for individual donations (the provinces and territories have implemented a similar system).
Executive branch – The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the party winning the most MP seats in the most recent election (the Prime Minister’s party need not have a majority of seats and the Prime Minister need not to be elected to a MP seat[iv]).
Legislative branch (House of Commons) – The 338 MPs are elected to represent a single electoral district (a riding). The MPs select the House of Commons Speaker by majority vote. MPs must be at least 18 years of age and, except for independent candidates, approved by party leadership.
Legislative branch (Senate) – The Governor General appoints senators (on the advice of the Prime Minister). Senators must be at least 30 years old, and own property worth at least $4,000.
Legislative representation – Senate seats are allocated to provinces and territories based on population. Provincial commissions determine MP district boundaries based on census data.
Judicial branch – The judicial branch is independent. The Governor General appoints the nine Supreme Court justices on the advice of the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice. Three justices must be from Quebec.
Term limits – MPs have no term limits and therefore can run again following the Parliament’s dissolution. Senators and Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75.
Removal process – Upon a majority vote of the Parliament, the House of Commons may be dissolved, and a federal election scheduled.
Canada has 21 political parties, but two parties dominate federal politics. The two largest, the center-left leaning Liberal Party, with 160 MP seats, and the center-right leaning Conservative Party, with 119 MP seats, together hold 82 percent of the MP seats. The Bloc Quebecois Party holds 32 seats and the New Democratic Party 25 seats[v]. Four parties are represented in the Senate, but 14 senators are unaffiliated. Canada also has provincial parties with varied affiliations.
Electoral laws are enforced by an independent entity. Under the Canada Elections Act, an independent federal agency— Elections Canada—administers and enforces election rules. Provincial elections are overseen by independent election commissions. The 2014 Fair Elections Act imposed tougher voter identification requirements, but the government eased some of these restrictions in 2018.
One unique—and controversial—issue involves what is known as the Notwithstanding Clause (Section 33). While the federal government has not used this clause, some provincial legislatures have used it to override constitution and charter rights during emergencies. For example, governments may invoke the clause to suspend some citizen basic rights (e.g., freedom of expression and assembly), ban languages and authorize warrantless searches.
Canada’s Recent Political Landscape
Recent events like the truck convoy have triggered fears that Canada’s politics are getting as bitterly polarized as America’s. Fortunately, Canada’s politics remain far more civil and tempered. The major parties have not yet embraced extremist far-right or far-left politics. Self-identified centrists remain Canada’s biggest voting bloc (nearly 1/3 of all voters), a considerably more influential force than America’s centrist voters represent.
The two major parties are highly competitive. The Conservative Party controlled the government from 2005 to 2015. In 2015, the Liberal Party defeated the Conservative Party and formed a majority government. In 2019, the Liberal Party lost its majority but formed a coalition government with the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). In 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau called for a snap election, but it changed little. Again, the Liberal Party formed a coalition government with the NDP, and narrowly retained control of the government.
Possible Lessons for the US
Canada’s democracy has some procedural quirks—like the Governor General’s role—but it offers several features worth exploring further, such as the following:
Voting – While voter turnout fell to 62 percent for federal elections in 2021, it has averaged over 70 percent turnout for decades.
Referenda – The national referendum offers voters an alternative mechanism for amending the Constitution and expressing their views on important public policy issues.
Elections – The Consensus Government model, with nonpartisan elections, used by two territories could be a promising model for sparsely populated areas of the US. Strict campaign duration limits help suppress campaign costs and voter fatigue.
Campaign financing – Canada’s strict campaign spending limits and public financing system help reduce the impact of private donations on politics.
Executive branch – The parliamentary system can force party leaders to form coalition governments. This, in turn, can encourage more collaboration among competing interests.
Legislative branch – The appointed Senate, with its advisory role, offers an alternative way to depoliticize the legislative environment.
Judicial branch – The Supreme Court’s advisory review power for pending legislation could minimize the prospects of passing unconstitutional legislation.
Term limits – The age limits for Senators and Supreme Court justices enhance turnover prospects.
Removal process – The Parliament’s ability to force the resignation of the Prime Minister and Ministers with a majority no confidence vote, may which, in theory, promotes accountability.
Canada has an admirable reputation for clean, accountable government. It routinely prosecutes corruption cases. Its Access to Information Act makes public information relatively accessible. While its democracy is not perfect, Canadians have demonstrated a willingness to make it better.
[i] To formally enact bills into laws, the constitution requires the “royal assent” of the Monarch (or the king’s representative, the Governor General). The Governor General formally opens and ends parliamentary sessions and may dissolve Parliament to call a general election. The Governor General (or Monarch) also delivers the official opening “Throne Speech.” The Monarch has no decision-making authority and is traditionally barred from the House of Commons (any royal parliamentary ceremonies take place in the Senate chamber).
[ii] Provinces derive their power from the 1867 Constitution Act. In contrast, territorial government powers are delegated by Parliament.
[iii] The 1982 Constitution Act requires elections to occur at least every five years, but the Canada Elections Act shortened this to four years.
[iv] In such situations, it is customary for a junior member of the Prime Minister’s party to vacate a safe seat to allow the Prime Minister to win the seat in a special bi-election process.
[v] The Green Party holds two seats and the People’s Party one seat.
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