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The Electoral System of Canada

The Political System

What is the foundation of Canada's political system?

The Basics

Canada's political system is based on that of the United Kingdom. It is a constitutional monarchy, composed of the King 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 338 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 King 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 a general election, by convention, the leader of the party with the largest number of elected representatives will normally form the Government. The Governor General will ask the leader of that party to be the Prime Minister. He or she must be able at all times to maintain the confidence of the House in order to remain in power. The party with the second-largest number of elected representatives is usually the official Opposition. The leader of this party is the Leader of the Opposition.

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. Though not common, the Prime Minister can also appoint senators and others from outside of Parliament to Cabinet.Footnote 1

For details on elections and prime ministers since 1867, see Appendix 2.

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 338 electoral districts, each with a corresponding seat in the House of Commons.

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.

For details on representation, see Appendix 2.

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.

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. Historically, only a small percentage of candidates in a general election have run 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.

The number of registered political parties fluctuates and is usually much larger than the number of parties represented in the House of Commons.

Footnote 1 For more information, see the Parliament of Canada's House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, 2009.