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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Canadian politics operate under a constitutional monarchy, with a federal system of parliamentary government, broadly similar to the Westminster Parliament of the United Kingdom. The head of state is Elizabeth II who has been Queen of Canada since 6 February 1952. The Queen’s representative in Canada is David Johnston who has been Governor-General since 1 October 2010.

The Executive consists of the Head of Government, or the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet. Stephen Harper became prime minister on 6 February 2006 after his Conservative Party won the federal election and formed a minority government. Cabinet comprises 30-40 ministers, currently 39, chosen by the prime minister to lead the various ministries. John A. McDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, once listed his occupation as a cabinet maker. These days, the prime minister and the governor-general are expected to be functional, preferably fluent, in English and French. Prime ministers for nearly the whole period 1968 to 2006 came from Quebec.

Legislative power rests with the Parliament. Canada has a bicameral parliamentary system consisting of the Senate or upper house and the House of Commons or lower house. The 105 members of the Senate are appointed by the Governor-General on a permanent basis until the age of 75. Neither regional equality nor population equality is fully observed in the numbers as there are various compromises and exceptions. The usual number of Senators can be exceeded and this has been done only once when prime minister Brian Mulroney petitioned the Queen for eight more seats so he could push through his Good and Services Tax legislation in 1990.

The House of Commons has 308 members representing single-member districts. A plurality voting system means the winner is the person with the most votes, or first past the post, rather than needing an absolute majority or having to worry about preference votes. Elections had to be held within five years, but in theory were held whenever the government called one. From 2007, the term is fixed at four years, although the prime minister can dissolve Parliament at any time. Seats are based roughly on same population size.

Canada has three main political parties and a large number of minor ones. The Conservative Party of Canada is on the right of the political spectrum and forms the current government, winning 166 seats at the 2011 election, a gain of 23 seats on 2008. The New Democratic Party is at centre-left and forms the Opposition with 103 seats, up 67. The Liberal Party of Canada is around center-left to centre and has 34 seats, down 43. Other parties include Bloc Quebecois which is spread across left and right and advocates the secession of Quebec, with four seats (down 43), and the Green Party of Canada with one seat.

The second level of government in Canada is the 10 provinces and three territories. Each province is sovereign and gets its powers from the Constitution Act 1867, whereas the territories get theirs from the federal government. The provinces have power over many important areas, such as health, education, welfare, and local transport. They fund these services through transfer payments from the federal government and also by raising their own taxes. Equalization payments are made to those provinces that are disadvantaged or poorer than others. All provinces and territories have a unicameral parliamentary system, no longer having an upper house.

Municipal government in Canada comes under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories. The country has around 3,700 municipal governments. The largest ones are called cities, while smaller ones are often known by different names in various provinces, such as towns, villages, hamlets, parishes, rural municipalities, and townships. Some provinces have an upper level of municipalities, grouping several of them together, and called a county or regional municipality.

One of the major issues in Canadian politics since the forced reunification of Upper Canada and Lower Canada in 1841 has been national unity. The fundamental conflict has been between French-speaking Quebec and the rest of the country. Several movements have sought secession for Quebec over the years. A provincial referendum in 1980 rejected sovereignty with a majority of 60 percent. In 1995, the majority was reduced to just 50.6 percent.

From time to time various movements have pushed for secession for the four western provinces due to alleged ‘Western alienation’ from the Canadian political system. A poll in 2005 found that 35.7 percent of residents in these provinces thought a separate country was an idea worth exploring. Secessionists have also been active in recent years in Newfoundland, British Columbia, and Yukon. Despite secession rumblings, Canada was ranked as the third most democratic country by ‘The Economist’ in 2006.

Canada has a history of minority governments, with 13 of its 41 parliaments having a minority government, including three of the last four. None has lasted a full term. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won 36.3 per cent of the vote in the 2006 elections, which was the smallest proportion since Confederation. With 124 seats, it was 30 short of a majority, the most ever. After the 2008 election, it had gained ground but was still 12 seats from a majority. In 2011, his party won a majority of seats, 166 out of 308. The next election is tentatively set for 19 October 2015.

Update: The 2015 election saw a huge turnaround in the fortunes of the major parties. The Liberal Party gained 148 seats to win a total of 184 seats and government with Justin Trudeau as prime minister. The Conservative Party lost 60 seats to take it to 99 seats in the new parliament and the New Democratic Party lost 51 seats for a total of 44 seats.