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Canada is a federation governed under a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Governmental powers in Canada are divided between the central or federal government and the provincial and territorial governments. Territories have less autonomy from the federal government than provinces have. Canada is governed under the constitution of 1982, which gathered the previous constitutional acts into a single framework and added a charter of rights and freedoms. It also provided for what Canadians call “patriation”—giving the Canadian government total authority over its own constitution. Previously, the British North America Act of 1867 and subsequent laws had given the British government some authority over Canada’s constitution.

With the exception of electoral officers, all Canadian citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. All eligible voters except those currently serving time in correctional facilities are eligible to run in elections. Voters must be resident in the riding (electoral district) where they cast their ballot. Voter turnout for national elections is generally high, with 70 percent or more of eligible voters participating.

Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch of Britain, is recognized as the queen of Canada. The queen is represented in Canada by the governor-general, whose powers are largely ceremonial. The chief executive is the prime minister, who is answerable to a legislature. The Canadian Parliament is answerable to the citizens at elections that are held, at most, five years apart. Judges are appointed by the federal and provincial governments.

Traditionally there were two dominant Canadian national political parties, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party. They stood for the liberal and conservative sides, respectively, of political thought, although their positions varied widely. Each had a counterpart in the provincial governments, but these were loosely connected and differed with the national party on major issues. The two parties were of comparable strength, with one forming the government and the other the official opposition in Parliament, until 1993. In that year the Progressive Conservatives were defeated so resoundingly that their future was in doubt. A sectional party, the Bloc Quebecois of Quebec, won the second highest number of seats in Parliament and became the official opposition. In 1997 they were replaced in that role by another sectional party, the conservative Reform Party (later folded into a new party called the Canadian Alliance), based mainly in the western provinces. In 2003 the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance merged to form the Conservative Party.

Since World War II the federal government has greatly increased the social services—such as subsidized medical care, pensions, and family allowances—that it provides its citizens. The provincial governments have generally cooperated, but not without fear that the traditional powers exercised by the provinces are being eroded. That fear is especially great in Quebec, where it is compounded by fear of domination by the English-speaking majority of the country.

In foreign policy, Canada was allied with the non-Communist powers during the period of world tension called the Cold War and contributed troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance formed to counter the threat of Communist aggression. However, Canada has not aspired to be a major military power. A strong supporter of the United Nations, it devotes its military largely to providing peacekeeping forces for that body in hot spots around the world.


The legal system in Canada is derived from English common law, except in Quebec, which has a civil-law system based on the French civil law, which has been the basis of French law since 1804. The federal judiciary is headed by the Supreme Court of Canada, made up of a chief justice and eight associate judges, three of whom must come from Quebec. It sits in Ottawa and is the final Canadian court of appeal for all civil, criminal, and constitutional cases. The next highest tribunal, the Federal Court of Canada, is divided into a Trial Division and an Appeal Division. It hears a variety of cases, including those involving claims against the federal government. Provincial courts are established by the provincial legislatures and, although the names of the courts are not uniform, each province has a similar three-part court system. Judges of the Supreme Court and the Federal Court and almost all judges of the higher provincial courts are appointed by the federal government.

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