The Electoral System of Canada
Note: This document was last updated in 2011. It remains online for reference and research purposes. A revised version will be posted later in 2015.
The Political System
What is the foundation of Canada's political system?
Canada's political system is based on that of the United Kingdom. It is a constitutional monarchy, composed of the Queen of Canada, who is officially represented by the Governor General (or by a lieutenant-governor at the provincial level), the Senate and the House of Commons.
Overcoming Canada's Geography
Canada's electoral system has evolved in response to the country's geography. Our population, though not large in global terms, is spread over an immense land mass spanning six time zones. As a result, some electoral districts are huge and sparsely populated. Nunavut, for example, sprawls over 2,093,190 square kilometres and comprised 31,906 people in the 2011 Census. In sharp contrast, the smallest electoral district of Papineau, in Quebec, occupies only 9 square kilometres with a population of 100,396.
There are 105 seats in the Senate, whose members are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The House of Commons has 308 seats, held by members elected by citizens who vote in general elections or by-elections. The Government originates in the elected House of Commons. According to the principle of constitutional monarchy, therefore, the Queen rules but does not govern.
The Canadian Constitution is a mixture of unwritten conventions, written Acts and judicial decisions that together form the political system. It defines the jurisdiction and powers of the federal, provincial and territorial governments, each of which is responsible for the administration of its own elections.
The Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982 set the maximum time between federal general elections at five years, except in time of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection. As well, the Canada Elections Act specifies that a general election must be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election. However, it also allows for an election to be called earlier. This may take place if the Governor General accepts the Prime Minister's advice to dissolve Parliament. It may also occur if the Governor General accepts the resignation of the Prime Minister after the Government has been defeated on a motion of confidence in the House and the Governor General does not ask the leader of another party to become Prime Minister and form a government.
After an election, the party with the largest number of elected representatives will normally form the Government, and its leader is the Prime Minister. It must be able at all times to maintain the confidence of the House in order to remain in power. The leader of the party with the second-largest number of elected representatives is usually the leader of the official Opposition. If the party with the largest number of seats does not have a simple majority of seats (50 percent plus one), it may govern with the support of one or more other parties.
The Prime Minister chooses people (usually members of the House of Commons of his or her party) to serve as the Cabinet ministers heading various government departments. The Prime Minister can also appoint senators and others to Cabinet.
Appendix 3 provides details about Canadian parliaments and federal elections since Confederation.
Representation in the House of Commons
What role does geography play in democratic representation?
Representation in the House of Commons is based on geographical divisions called electoral districts, also known as ridings. At the federal level, the number of electoral districts is established through rules (the "representation formula") set out in the Constitution Act, 1867. There are currently 308 electoral districts, each with a corresponding seat in the House of Commons. That was the number of members elected in the 2011 general election.
Since 1964, independent commissions have been entrusted with adjusting electoral district boundaries based on population changes identified in every 10-year census. According to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, the commissions (one for each province) must also consider communities of interest or of identity, historical patterns and the geographic size of electoral districts. The process of readjusting the boundaries is commonly called redistribution.
The three-member electoral boundaries commissions are usually chaired by a judge, chosen by the chief justice of the province. The two other members are appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Commissions are not required for Yukon, the Northwest Territories or Nunavut since each territory is a single electoral district.
Elections Canada provides the commissions with technical, administrative and financial support to help them carry out their responsibilities. Each commission publishes its proposal, holds hearings where members of the public and parliamentarians can provide their input, then issues a report to the House of Commons. If members of the House of Commons file objections to the report, the commission may opt to make adjustments. All final decisions about the new electoral boundaries are made by the commissions and published in the Canada Gazette as a representation order.
The redistribution process can take about two years to complete. The new boundaries and names are used at the first general election called at least seven months after the representation order is proclaimed.
In 2011, Parliament adopted the Fair Representation Act. On top of shortening the time frame for the redistribution process, its primary effect was to change the representation formula. Provinces that had become under-represented relative to their share of the population would gain seats in the 2013 redistribution. As a result, Ontario gained 15 seats, British Columbia and Alberta each received six more, while Quebec grew by three seats. The total number of electoral districts and corresponding seats will be 338 for the general election expected in 2015.
Appendix 2 shows the changes in the number of seats in the House of Commons since 1867.
Political Parties Registered Under the Canada Elections Act in the 41st General Election
- Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada
- Bloc Québécois
- Canadian Action Party
- Christian Heritage Party of Canada
- Communist Party of Canada
- Conservative Party of Canada
- First Peoples National Party of Canada
- Green Party of Canada
- Liberal Party of Canada
- Libertarian Party of Canada
- Marijuana Party
- Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada
- New Democratic Party
- Pirate Party of Canada
- Progressive Canadian Party
- Rhinoceros Party
- United Party of Canada
- Western Block Party
Because the registration status of political parties can change, Elections Canada maintains an up-to-date list on its website at www.elections.ca.
First Past the Post
How are candidates elected to Parliament?
Canada's electoral system is referred to as a "single-member plurality" system (also commonly called a "first-past-the-post" system). In every electoral district, the candidate with the highest number of votes wins a seat in the House of Commons and represents that electoral district as its member of Parliament. An absolute majority (more than 50 percent of the votes in the electoral district) is not required for a candidate to be elected.
Any number of candidates can run for election in an electoral district, but a candidate can run in only one riding, either independently or under the banner of a registered political party. Similarly, each party can endorse only one candidate in an electoral district. In the 41st general election, held on May 2, 2011, the number of candidates per electoral district ranged from 3 to 9, with an average of 5.
Candidates who are endorsed by a registered political party can have the name of that party appear under their name on the ballot. Those who run for election without a party affiliation can choose to have either "Independent" or no affiliation appear under their name on the ballot. In the most recent election, less than four percent of candidates ran without a party affiliation.
The Canada Elections Act defines a political party as an organization that has as one of its fundamental purposes participating in public affairs by endorsing one or more of its members as candidates and supporting their election to the House of Commons. Political parties that meet this definition can register with the Chief Electoral Officer to gain official status and become eligible to obtain certain monetary and other benefits under the Act. The financial benefits of registration are outlined in the chapter on political financing. There are non-financial advantages as well – for example, political parties that successfully apply for registration at least 60 days before the issue of the election writs can have their name appear on the ballot under the names of the candidates they endorse.
In the 2011 general election, there were 18 registered political parties, one fewer than in the previous campaign in 2008. The graph below shows the evolving number of registered political parties since the 29th general election in 1972, the first held under the registration system for political parties.
Number of Registered Political Parties
in General Elections, 1972 to 2011