Canada's "Fathers of Confederation" adopted a federal form of government in 1867. A federal state is one that brings together a number of different political communities under a common government for common purposes and separate regional governments for the particular needs of each region.
In Canada, the responsibilities of the federal Parliament include:
The courts have also awarded to the federal Parliament such powers as aeronautics, shipping, railways, telecommunications, and atomic energy.
The provincial legislatures are responsible for such matters as education, property and civil rights, the administration of justice, the hospital system, natural resources within their borders, social security, health and municipal institutions. Some responsibilities are shared by the federal Parliament and the provincial legislatures.
The roots of Canada's parliamentary system lie in Britain. In keeping with traditions handed down by the British Parliament, the Canadian Parliament is composed of the Queen (who is represented in Canada by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons.
The Senate, also called the Upper House, is patterned after the British House of Lords. Its 104 members are appointed, not elected, and are divided essentially among Canada's four main regions of Ontario, Quebec, the West and the Atlantic Provinces. The Senate has the same powers as the House of Commons, with a few exceptions.
The House of Commons is the major law-making body. It currently has 301 members, one from each of the 301 constituencies or electoral districts. The Canadian Constitution requires the election of a new House of Commons at least every five years. As in the United Kingdom and the United States, in Canada voters elect a single member for their electoral constituency, in one round of balloting.
In each constituency, the candidate who gets the largest number of votes is elected, even if his or her vote is less than half the total. Candidates usually represent a recognized political party -- although some run as independents -- and the party that wins the largest number of seats ordinarily forms the government. Its leader is asked by the Governor General to become Prime Minister.
The real executive authority is in the hands of the Cabinet, under the direction of the Prime Minister. In general, the Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, and is vested with extensive powers. In general, it is the Prime Minister who chooses the ministers from among the members of Parliament in the governing party.
Strictly speaking, the Prime Minister and Cabinet are the advisers of the monarch. De facto power, however, lies with the Cabinet, and the head of state (the Governor General) acts on its advice. Cabinet develops government policy and is responsible to the House of Commons. The Government of Canada, headed by its Cabinet of some 25 ministers, performs its duties through the intermediary of the federal departments and agencies, special boards, commissions and state-owned corporations.
From the days of French colonization and British rule to today's self-government, Canadians have lived under a monarchy. Although Canada had been a self-governing "Dominion" in the British Empire since 1867, full independence for Canada, was only established in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster.
Elizabeth II, Queen of England, is also Canada's Queen, and sovereign of a number of other realms. In her capacity as Queen of Canada, she delegates her powers to a Canadian Governor General. Canada is thus a constitutional monarchy: the Queen reigns but does not govern. Her role is just symbolic.
Canada, which had been a self-governing colony in 1867, rose to the status of an independent state after its participation in the First World War and achieved legal independence with the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The Constitution of 1867 had one serious flaw: it contained no general formula for constitutional amendment. It was necessary to address the British Parliament in London each time the founding statute needed change.
An amending formula should have been included in the Constitution at the time of the coming into force of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, but it was not until November 1981, after numerous attempts, that the federal government and the provinces (except Quebec) agreed to the amending formula that is now part of the Constitution Act, 1982. Since that time, the Constitution can be amended only in Canada.
The Fathers of Confederation chose a system of government that allows each province and territory to develop in accordance with its own characteristics and priorities while enjoying the benefits of being part of Canada.
The Constitution is the foundation of the Canadian federation. The federal system is based on flexible mechanisms that make it possible to make changes and adjustments without the need to amend this fundamental law.
For example, since 1971, the Canadian and Quebec governments have negotiated four administrative agreements on immigration that enable Quebec to select and integrate its immigrants. Similar agreements were subsequently concluded with regard to economic development, international agreements, and labour market training. It was possible to achieve these agreements without amending the Constitution.
Other examples of administrative arrangements and agreements with provincial governments include:
Today, Canada is a flexible and dynamic federation capable of adjusting and evolving to meet the changing needs of all its members. The parliamentary system is still the form of government that is the choice of Canadians. The federal structure, with the sharing of powers it entails, is the one formula that can take into account Canada's geographical realities, the diversity of its cultural communities and its dual legal and linguistic heritage.