Canadian Politics For Dummies

With the Canadian federal election fast approaching, there's a vast amount of information available to voters. We hear about campaign promises and propaganda from opposing parties, plus various political issues being misconstrued by our peers. Voting in a federal election may seem daunting for first-time voters who don’t quite understand how the Canadian political system works, so here’s a comprehensive guide to break it down for you. 

A Brief History of the Canadian Political System and the Political Parties

The British North America Act 1867 (BNA) gave Canada independent sovereignty from British rule at Canadian Confederation, meaning Canada could have one centralized government. The BNA unified the three major colonies of Canada - Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia - which gave the Canadian government power to exercise legislative, executive and judicial powers. It also finally gave legislative authority to Parliament to govern nationwide.

At Confederation, the two political parties that existed were the Liberal Party of Canada and the Liberal-Conservative Party (now known simply as the Conservative Party of Canada), with Sir John A. McDonald leading as Prime Minister on behalf of the Conservative Party. At the time of Confederation, the House of Commons held 181 seats, with 91 seats needed for a majority government. 

How the System Works

The federal government is broken into three branches: the executive branch that includes the House of Commons and the Members of Parliament (MPs), the legislative branch (the Senate), and the judicial branch (the court system). Judges and senators are appointed by the government, whereas MPs are elected by the general public during the federal election.

General federal elections occur once every four years, on the third Monday of October. During the federal election, Canadians cast their vote for the candidate they wish to elect as an MP to represent their riding in the House of Commons. The candidate that gets the most votes becomes the MP, and ultimately represents their constituents (voters from their riding) in the House of Commons. 

There's currently a total of 338 seats in the House of Commons, where each seat is held by an elected MP for a specific riding. Each riding is a region of Canada that's organized based on the population within that region; one riding typically represents 100,000 Canadians. Ridings can be created or consolidated in the event of population changes or geographic changes, and in response, seats can be added to and removed from the House of Commons.

In the event of a majority government, the leader of the party that wins the majority vote becomes Prime Minister. However, since there are multiple political parties in Canada, a majority government isn't always guaranteed. A minority government occurs when a government gets the most seats among all the parties but still doesn’t hold the majority of the vote. In most cases of minority government, the leader of the party with the most votes will also become Prime Minister, as long as they secure the support from at least one other party in Parliament. 

The primary purposes of the Canadian federal government are collecting taxes, administering social services, supervising international trade, and enforcing and monitoring national security. The federal government is also responsible for enacting laws. The key areas of jurisdiction where the federal government can enact laws include the regulation of trade and commerce, national defence, currency and coinage, the distribution of patents of invention and discovery, laws regarding Indigenous peoples and reserved lands, marriage and divorce, and finally, all criminal laws. These federal laws are ultimately enacted via a collaboration between the House of Commons and the Senate, with the House of Commons being required to vote on each issue, and each law only passing with the majority of the vote from the House. 

                                                                 Photo Credit: Canadian Encyclopedia (Link)

The Political Parties

There’s a multitude of political parties in Canada, however the six key parties that are running in Canada this election are: the Conservative Party of Canada, led by Andrew Scheer; the People’s Party of Canada, led by Maxime Bernier; the Liberal Party of Canada, led by the current Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau; the Bloc Quebecois, led by Yves-Francois Blanchet; the New Democratic Party of Canada, led by Jagmeet Singh; and the Green Party, led by Elizabeth May. The key differences between each party are economic differences, however, each party holds varying views on numerous social issues. For a comprehensive list of each party’s platform, look at the Maclean's magazine breakdown.

                                                             Photo Credit: Maclean's Magazine (Link)

How do I vote?

To vote on election day, simply register to vote through Elections Canada (click here to register) and show up to a polling station with two pieces of ID that can confirm your address, such as your driver’s license.