The Canadian Political System

There are three levels of government in Canada: federal, provincial, and municipal, with each level of government having jurisdiction over different matters.

Federal Government

The federal government (Government of Canada) is responsible for issues that affect the whole country, such as citizenship and immigration, national defense, international relations, and trade with other countries. The federal government is divided as follows:

  • Officially, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, is Canada’s formal head of state. The Governor General represents the Queen in Canada and carries out the duties of head of state.
  • The House of Commons makes Canada’s laws. Canadians elect representatives to the House of Commons. These representatives are called Members of Parliament (MPs) and usually belong to a political party. The political party that has the largest number of MPs forms the government, and its leader becomes prime minister.
  • The Prime Minister is the head of government in Canada. The Prime Minister chooses MPs to serve as ministers in the cabinet. There are ministers for citizenship and immigration, justice and other subjects. The cabinet makes important decisions about government policy.
  • The Senate reviews laws that are proposed by the House of Commons. Senators come from across Canada. Senators are not elected – they are chosen by the Prime Minister.

For more information, you can read the Government of Canada’s Official Guide.

Provincial and Territorial Government

Each province (or territory) has its own provincial government. Provincial governments are responsible for things such as education, health care, social services, administration of justice, and highways. They are divided as follows:

  • Lieutenant Governor represents the Queen.
  • An elected Legislative Assembly makes law. In Ontario, elected representatives are called Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs).
  • The political party that has the largest number of MPPs forms the government, and its leader becomes the premier. The premier leads the government and chooses MPPs to serve as ministers in the cabinet. The cabinet sets government policy and introduces laws for the Legislative Assembly to consider

Municipal Government

Municipal (or local) governments are responsible for local matters such as firefighting, city streets, libraries, parks, community water systems, and other local matters. If there is no local government, the province provides these services. At the municipal level:

  • The provincial government defines the structure, finances, and management of the local governments of cities, towns and villages.
  • Residents of a municipality elect the mayor and council members to lead the local government. Committees of councilors discuss budget, service and administrative issues that are then passed on to the council for debate. Citizens, business owners and community groups can present their concerns to councilors at committee meetings.
  • Municipalities may also be part of a larger county or regional government.

Elections and Voting

There is no set schedule for elections. Usually, elections happen every few years, depending on the level of government:
  • Federal – every 4-5 years (unless an election is called earlier)
  • Provincial – every 4 years
  • Municipal (local) – every 4 years
To be eligible to vote in federal, provincial, and municipal elections, you must be:
  • A Canadian citizen;
  • 18 years old or older; and
  • Registered as a voter in an electoral riding (district).
Permanent residents and temporary residents (foreign students, foreign workers) are not eligible to vote.

Secret Ballot

Canadian law secures the right to a secret ballot. This means that no one can watch you vote and no one should look at how you voted. You may choose to discuss how you voted with others, but no one, including family members, your employer or union representative, has the right to insist that you tell them how you voted. Immediately after the polling stations close, election officers count the ballots and the results are announced on radio and television, and in the newspapers.

For more information on voting in Canada, please visit the Official Elections Canada Voting Guide.