Welcome to Canada

In Stephen Harper’s own words:

“The highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister, one gets one’s mandate from the Canadian people and not from Quebec separatists.

“This deal that the Leader of the Liberal Party has made with the separatists is a betrayal of the voters of this country, a betrayal of the best interests of our economy, a betrayal of the best interests of our country and we will fight it with every means that we have.”

I have found it endlessly amusing discussing this issue with friends in the last couple of days. Why? Because everyone here seems to believe that Canadians live in a “true democracy” as per the United States. It demonstrates just how lax our education system is about politics these days.

In the so-called “civics” class, no situation like the one we’re facing was discussed. The only thing that approaches it is our history lesson that shows us that once upon a time, a man named Byng fought a man named King and did something a little controversial. The semantics of this decision have clearly evaded the majority of my peers, however, which is unsurprising since our political education was confined to a semester’s worth of mediocre lessons on how the government forms.

Here’s a fact for you: Canadians live in a constitutional monarchy, not a Republic.

Most Canadians scoff at this part. Yeah, yeah, they say. But the Queen has no real power. Perhaps that’s true … she doesn’t do a whole lot in England, let alone here! … but when it comes to an issue like Confidence of the House, her role is still important in understanding the motives of the founders of our system.

The fact is, we didn’t vote for Stephen Harper. Despite the fact that politics have been run in Canada as if we were voting for the party leader, not the MP, our system is in fact built on the premise of electing a local representative. Period. We have no say in who forms government.

Now, traditionally speaking the rule is that the party with the most MPs gets to choose its leader and the leader chooses his government. That’s fair. But the point of that process is that the Prime Minister is working for the Queen, not the people!!!

Yes. The government that is chosen is an executive, which is made to implement those things which balance the will of the people with the will of the Queen. It is an incredibly risky position. One can easily lose favour with the actual power, the Queen, which way back when in British history could have cost a Prime Minister his political career and then some. But the flip side is that we have elected a parliament, whose job it is to keep the government in check.

If the government is working too closely with the Queen, and the parliament feels that the Prime Minister and his posse aren’t representing the people’s will any longer, they are allowed to vote against him in a confidence vote, at which point the government must step down. This way, the will of the people is heard at the governmental level.

Now, most of the time, the leader stepping down results in an election. But in the case that there is a reason not to — such as 3 elections in 7 years! — then the Queen/Governor General has the power to choose new executive powers, who then have to attempt to retain the Confidence of the House.

That’s where the coalition comes in. The Liberals and NDP have the potential to form a government. But they need the support of the Bloc to pass bills, or else they could drop the country into an election a month after forming their own government. Does this give the Bloc more power than they’ve ever had? Yes! But is it un-Canadian or un-Democratic?

No to the first. This is the system we have, so this is very Canadian. As for Democratic? Well, that’s up for you to decide.

Welcome to Canada, Stephen Harper. The only votes you received were the ones from your riding!


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 11:38:34

    All true but one point, you say “The Prime Minister is working for the Queen, not the people!!!”

    The Queen in a constitutional monarchy the form of constitutional government we have derives her power from the people via the constitution approved by the people through the government, she must follow the content of the constitution. What makes the constitution more democratic than any other government act is that it is always subject to a vote of confidence. Thus the reason Liberals insisted on repatriating the BNA (our constitution) something the conservatives spent years trying to avoid.

    In the US the president works directly for the people with the constitution as his authority but because he is elected he has the authority to propose changes to the constitution, which the Queen does not.

    So the Governor general who is the Queen’s designated representative or Authority, is now in the position of examining the constitution to see if what is proposed by the Government, the opposition and other parties is constitutional. In other words if the people have allowed it. If there is a problem with the constitution then the government should fix it, but in a cooperative fashion as it will be part of a confidence vote.

    To prorogue parliament however is allowed, but successfully silences the democratic process, and should only be used to benefit the people of Canada not the party in power. Harper will have to prove that point and the GG will have to compare his proof against the Constitution.

    So Harper and the Cons derive their authority from two places the Election and the Constitution, and the Queen or her GG is the final arbitrator of what is constitutional. In doing what they are doing now they are going against the constitution but are claiming that the Coalition is going against the constitution.

    The decission on the coalition should fall to the constitution and the decision of the GG as it its constitutionality, but Harper would rather prorogue parliament to prevent it from getting that far. Why? because he knows that the Coalition is Constitutional.


  2. Bill
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 11:47:14

    In essence I agree with your article but I think we should stop discussing what is Democratic and start talking about what is Constitutional. From a social point of view however I am not happy with the fact that Canadians don’t hold their Constitution in the same regard as their neighbours to the south.


  3. Juggling mother
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 13:17:12

    The same applies here – we vote, in theory, for a local representative (in practise we mostly vote for a party). The Queen “chooses” a PM, who in turn choses their cabinet. In practise the queen tends to “chooses” the leader of the largest party, but in fact she can pick absolutely anyone! Which is why, when Blair stepped down, we did not have an election. Brown just moved house & picked up the reigns without any kind of vote whatsoever – he wasn’t even voted in as leader of the party, as no-one stood against him.

    Much has been said in the press that we have a PM who was never elected by any kind of national vote, but no-one has suggetsed electoral reform!

    Still, I’m not of the opinion that democracy is the perfect form of government, so………..


  4. Stephen
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 20:01:41

    I don’t agree with this statement from your post: “If the government is working too closely with the Queen … the parliament … are allowed to vote against him in a confidence vote.”

    It has nothing to do with whether the government is working too closely with the Queen. No one has put forward that argument as a rationale for bringing down the Conservative government.

    I have no problem with the way our system of government works. Yes, Canadians live in a democracy. We don’t experience government by monarchy on a daily basis, which is precisely why Canadians are a little shocked to discover that the Governor General possesses actual powers! She isn’t just a ceremonial figurehead — although that’s how we usually perceive her role.

    Canadians elect local Members of Parliament — 308 of them, currently. (The exact number changes from time to time.) Here’s how the Globe and Mail describes our system:

    Mr. Harper has understandably appealed to a genuine feeling among many Canadians that it is up to the voters to choose the party in power, not to partisan political manoeuvres. Strictly speaking, however, the voters elect members of Parliament, who include the MPs of the opposition parties.

    In other words, Canadians don’t vote for Prime Minister, but they do vote for a Parliament.

    “The Queen” chooses the Prime Minister, but she takes her cue from those 308 MPs. She chooses as Prime Minister the individual that she believes can command the “confidence” of the House of Commons. In other words, the individual who will have the support of more than 50% of the duly-elected MPs.

    Stephen Harper represents the party which won the most seats (i.e., elected the most MPs) in the last election. In fact, he came close to winning a majority mandate, so he was the person most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons.

    Instead, the Prime Minister conducted himself in such a way that he alienated all three of the opposition parties. Thus he has forfeited the confidence of the House of Commons.

    Stephane Dion and Jack Layton have agreed to form a coalition government and, with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, they will be able to command the confidence of more than 50% of MPs in the House of Commons.

    That’s the argument they have presented to the Governor-General (who represents the Queen at the national level). There’s nothing undemocratic about any of this. The government, including the Prime Minister, is accountable to the MPs whom the voters have elected in their local ridings.

    The Prime Minister wants to prorogue (suspend the activities of) Parliament. He wishes to do so precisely because he knows he no longer commands the confidence of the House. He is trying to evade accountability to the MPs who represent voters in Parliament.

    If the Prime Minister is permitted to get away with it, that would be a profoundly undemocratic development. But I am confident that the Governor-General will deny Prime Minister Harper’s request for prorogation.


  5. Bill
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 22:39:33

    “Canadians are a little shocked to discover that the Governor General possesses actual powers! She isn’t just a ceremonial figurehead.” This is to some degree true but her power is entirely dependent on the constitution. She is an instrument of the authority given to her. I would say she has a job to do not a power to wield. If she does anything more than interpret the constitution and follow its edicts she is exceeding the authority given to her. She as the queens representative plays the same role as the queen. The Magna Carta required King John to proclaim certain rights and accept that his will could be bound by the law, and in this day and age the monarch or representative is bound by Constitutional law, more so than the members of Parliament. In essence a figurehead with duties to the constitution.


  6. nebcanuck
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 22:59:25


    I don’t agree with this statement from your post: “If the government is working too closely with the Queen … the parliament … are allowed to vote against him in a confidence vote.”

    It has nothing to do with whether the government is working too closely with the Queen. No one has put forward that argument as a rationale for bringing down the Conservative government.

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that that’s the motivation this time around. But that’s the classic motivation. Because the Queen chooses the Prime Minister, the PM needs to be in check by the house. This is because the PM could represent the will of the Queen too strongly and overlook the people, since his career is in theory in the hands of the monarch.

    Now, it’s been a long time since the monarch actually practiced any sort of authority to choose someone other than the majority leader. But (correct me if I’m wrong) I believe it’s true that she has that power in theory. And thus, the reason for including confidence votes in a constitutional monarchy is to give the people the ultimate check on the Queen’s government.

    Now, that’s not the motivation here. Clearly Queen Elizabeth has nothing to do with Harper’s bullying tactics, the cutting of public funding, or the coalition’s attempt to form. But the point is, that check is there because of the Queen’s presence. Were we not in a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch needs his or her balance checked, we would get to vote for the Prime Minister directly and he would be called a President.


    When you say that the monarch is given power by the constitution, is that accurate? Or is their power limited. There’s a difference, I believe, although it would be one to play itself out in semantics, mostly.


  7. Farout
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 23:07:43

    Everyone should take a close look at the NWT system of government which is known as a consensus government. There are no political parties to run under. The representatives choose the premier amongst themselves after the elections. This has worked wonderfully since the first election in the 80’s. It ensures that no individual can bully his or her way to the top job. Instead, the smooth talker who can promise to work with others is chosen in a majority vote.

    The problem with the federal and provincial systems is with the Parties. Whether people like it or not, they either voted for Harper or against him. One only has to ask individual voters who they voted for and the automatic response will be “Conservative or Harper, Liberal or Dion, etc” Many people do not even bother trying to find out who the individual running in their riding is. They look at the party sign. Out here, in the west, it was impossible to get our Conservative representative to debate, discuss or show up for forums on advice from the Party. It was mentioned that the Conservatives could have had dogs running for them and they would have been elected. We need to get rid of the party system or have proportional representation.


  8. nebcanuck
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 23:15:42

    Farout: The problem with the federal and provincial systems is with the Parties. Whether people like it or not, they either voted for Harper or against him.

    They didn’t though. This has been brought about by an abuse of our system by the party leaders themselves.

    The real problem is not necessarily the party system. It’s not a problem to have people deign themselves a part of some broader ideological stance. The real issue is party discipline, which ensures that party members are basically silenced when it comes to voicing dissent.

    Increasingly, party leaders have enforced a strong whip and ensured that everyone but their cabinet members are quiet when talking to the media or even standing up in parliament! Instead of running as individuals with a general stance on issues, suddenly party leaders have literally made themselves the running point of the election.

    But regardless of how members have abused it, the election did not determine who would be the Prime Minister. The parties did, and, at least in theory, the Governor General did. The election determined who would keep that government in check, regardless of what leaders like Harper would have the public believe.


  9. Bill
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 00:10:15

    Just a slight correction I said Authority not power there is a difference. The Magna Carta which I keep going back to established that the law was supreme and all bodies of government were subservient to the supreme law, which is to say the common law, as embodied in the Great Charter. So If the law is supreme and the constitution is the basis of the law In many cases (not all) then and you may be right it may be semantics, but is not the power of the monarch flowing from the constitution?

    That said I would like to have a closer look at the last rendition of the Magna Carta as the original contained Clause 61 essentially neutering King John’s power as a monarch, making him King in name only. This was repealed and reinstated several times as I remember but I am not sure how it was retained in the final rendition.


  10. Bill
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 00:12:55

    Your last statement is the most true ” But regardless of how members have abused it, the election did not determine who would be the Prime Minister. The parties did, and, at least in theory, the Governor General did. The election determined who would keep that government in check, regardless of what leaders like Harper would have the public believe.”

    This is what the coalition will have to reeducate the Canadian public on, away from Harper’s Americanized version of Canadian Democracy.


  11. Juggling mother
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 05:31:52

    the only thing the magna carta actually did re restricting the king’s power was to let lords pledge allegiance to the state rather than the king. most of it was about the power of the nobility:)

    The king’s power was previously restricted by the state back in the 12th century when it was declared the monarch was not above the law.


  12. Stephen
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 08:06:41

    • Bill:
    You have to bear in mind:

    (a) that the British constitution is largely unwritten. And what is in writing (e.g. the Magna Carta) is piecemeal and partial. There is nothing comprehensive; nothing equivalent to our Constitution Act, 1867 and Constitution Act, 1982.

    (b) that the Constitution Act, 1867 incorporates British constitutional principles — “… with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”;

    (c) which is to say, the Canadian constitution incorporates a bunch of unwritten (and therefore somewhat vaguely defined) principles.

    Consider this: the Canadian Constitution makes no mention of a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s role is defined only by tradition. (Indeed, the office exists only by tradition.)

    More to the point, the Constitution does not give the Governor General any guidance on the issue dominating the news today: whether she should grant the Prime Minister’s request for a prorogation of Parliament in this specific fact situation.

    There is no law, no tradition, not even a one-time precedent, which corresponds to the fact situation she is faced with today. (See my post this morning.)

    So it’s fine to say that “the Queen” is constrained by the Constitution. But today the Governor General is going to establish a new constitutional precedent by whatever decision she makes. She and her advisors are on their own.

    • Benjamin:
    Thanks for the clarification — i.e., that you’re referring to a historical situation, rather than the contemporary situation. Today, we are governed in part by a democratic Constitution, and in part by democratic, Parliamentary traditions.

    I objected to your post insofar as it implied that Canada is not a true democracy, equal to that great exemplar of democracy, the USA. I don’t accept that criticism at all.

    • Farout:
    I like your argument about the NWT. It partially corresponds with my point, that MPs determine which individual they will support as Prime Minister. But it doesn’t correspond insofar as we have parties, who select a leader, and put forward that leader as the individual the House should consider for PM.

    I don’t suppose that our partisan system is going to disappear. But since we’re seeing one minority government after another, MPs must learn to all play together nicely in the sandbox.

    Presently, Stephen Harper is the most egregious example of a leader who doesn’t play well with others.


  13. Bill
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 11:28:38

    Stephen – As you say Britain does not have a one document constitution however the majority of
    the British constitution does exist in the written form of statutes, court judgments and Treaties.
    The constitution has other unwritten sources, including parliamentary constitutional conventions
    and the royal prerogatives. There is a similarity in Canada as the constitution is also connected to
    other Acts and statutes and convenrtions.

    As to the Canadian Constitution you’re correct that the constitution does not outline the duty of
    the Prime Minister but accepts that he has a role it referes to the position in section in section
    35.1 (Constitution Act, 1982) which referes to the prime ministers role in modifying the
    constitution stating “The government of Canada and the provincial governments are committed
    to the principle that, before any amendment is made to Class 24 of section 91 of the
    “Constitution Act, 1867”, to section 25 of this Act or to this Part, a constitutional conference that
    includes in its agenda an item relating to the proposed amendment, composed of the Prime
    Minister of Canada and the first ministers of the provinces, will be convened by the Prime
    Minister of Canada”

    In the case of Harper’s attempt to prorogue parliament constitutional experts don’t all agree on
    the whether The GG has the authority to allow Prorogement in this case .Wil Waluchow the William McMaster Chair in Constitutional Studies stated that “The prime minister serves at the pleasure of the Governor General, legally — by matter of constitutional law,” He points out in this case that “There’s a convention that the Governor General does whatever the prime minister requests, except — and it gets interesting here — in cases where the prime minister is acting without the confidence of Parliament. . . I think in this case, she is not only entitled to say no, she is bound by convention to say no and do something else,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that the only reason he wants to prorogue Parliament is to avoid the vote in the House on Monday which will defeat the government.” Yes it may be a “new constitutional precedent” but she may be “bound by convention” to say no to his request.

    Juggling mother, – the Magna Carta does however have significance beyond the “the power of
    the nobility.“ It states:

    (39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or
    outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force
    against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law
    of the land.


  14. Bill
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 11:47:32

    It seems that I was too optimistic and the GG allowed Prorogation 😦


  15. Juggling mother
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 12:34:12

    the Magna Carta does have many far reaching implications, but regarding restricting the powers of the monarch it is not a very important document. People seem to think it says an awful lot more than it does:)

    In fact, the real restrictions came in when we let the monarchy back after our little attempt at having republic…. and got a bunch of foriegners frittering the treasury away – and it wasn’t until even later that we draopped the whole divine right malarky


  16. Bill
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 12:52:48

    Juggling Mother – Your very likely right I’ve read it but am far from the expert on interpretation. People here tend to put more weight on our Charter of Rights and trace every personal liberty back to it even if it says nothing on their disputes.


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