Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Canada

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: January 2014

Government and Politics

Canada is a federal constitutional monarchy and member of the Commonwealth. The head of state is Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, who is also Queen of Great Britain. She is represented in Canada by the governor-general, currently Ms Quentin Bryce, who grants royal assent to bills of behalf of the Queen. Since the 1982 Canada Act was passed in Britain, however, Canada has effectively been a completely self-governing. These days, the governor-general is appointed by the Canadian prime minister and has an almost completely advisory role. The last time the governor general was called upon to make an executive decision was adjudication on the formation of the government in 1985.

The most powerful person in Canada is the prime minister, currently Stephen Harper (Conservative.) The prime minister is the head of government and formulates policy as head of the executive branch, the Cabinet. He or she appoints cabinet ministers and assigns their portfolios, which specify the scope of their work. The prime minister also appoints judges, ambassadors and leaders of other constitutional bodies. The prime minister is also responsible for appointing the governor general. The leader of the party with the greatest number of seats in the House of Commons automatically becomes the prime minister.

The Canadian legislative, the parliament, is bicameral and based on the British Westminster model. The lower house is the House of Commons, which consists of 308 directly elected members. Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected for a maximum of four years by means of universal suffrage. Elections take place every four years in Canada.

The upper house, the Senate, consists of 105 senators, who are appointed. The main activities of the Senate involve acting as a check on the House of Commons, investigating and reviewing legislation that it has approved. Of the two houses, the House of Commons is the more powerful as it can promulgate any bills, whereas the Senate cannot be the source of any bills relating to taxation or expenditure. 

The three main national parties are the Conservative Party (centre-right), the New Democratic Party (centre-left) and the Liberals (centrist). The fourth largest party, the separatist Bloc Québécois, only fields candidates in Quebec.

Canada is a federal state made up of provinces and territories. Each of the provinces has its own government and a considerable degree of autonomy. The provincial legislatures have the right to set their own laws in healthcare, education, labour regulations and certain other areas. The territories of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are governed by the federal government, though they do have their own legislative assemblies. Nunavut has rather more autonomy than the other two territories.

Legal Systems

Law in Canada is divided into public and private law. Public law, which includes criminal law, is regulated by the national parliament and is based on English common law. This means that, in the absence of a specific law, precedent, that is, previous judgements made in Canadian courts, determines the result of a case.

Private law is the responsibility of each individual province. Among the provinces, there are two completely different legal systems in use in this area of law. In nine of the provinces and the three territories of Canada, common law is observed.

Meanwhile, private law in Quebec operates under a civil law system. This means that judges in Quebec follow a set legal code, only resorting to policy guidelines and precedent when it is necessary. The code used is the Quebec Civil Code. It is largely based on the Napoleonic Code of 1804, and contains ten books which set out the principles and ideals of law.



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If you are considering moving to Canada or are soon to depart, you can find helpful information and advice in the Expat Briefing dedicated Canadian section including; details of immigration and visas, Canadian forums, Canadian event listings and service providers in Canada.


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