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Canada, Government

patriation, British North America Act, Canadian Alliance, Progressive Conservative Party, Reform Party

Canada is a federation, where governmental powers 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 and individuals convicted of a crime, all Canadian citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote and to run in elections. They must be resident in the riding (electoral district) where they cast their ballot. Voter turnout for national elections is generally high; in 1993 just under 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and in 1984 the turnout was 76 percent, compared to 54 percent in the United States.

The head of state is the monarch of Britain. The monarch is represented in Canada by the governor-general, who has no political power. 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 have been two dominant national political parties, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party. They stand for the liberal and conservative sides, respectively, of political thought, although their positions have varied widely. Each has a counterpart in provincial government, but these are loosely connected and may differ 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 Reform Party (later folded into a new party called the Canadian Alliance), based mainly in the western provinces.

Since World War II (1939-1945), 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.

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