Canada is a democracy, which means that the government can act only with the authority of the Canadian people. Canadians elect people to represent them in Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. Those representatives are responsible for making laws and governing the country.
However, the government is more than just elected representatives. The Canadian government includes political parties, a Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Governor General, and a bureaucracy of paid civil servants. Each provincial and territorial government has a Premier and either a Lieutenant-Governor or a Commissioner. When most Canadians think of their government, they think of all of these elements combined.
Canada is organized as a democracy because of the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of Canada and it describes how Canadian democracy works. The Constitution Act, 1867 says that Canada’s Constitution is “similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”. Those words are important because they confirm that Canada will follow the principle in the Constitution of the United Kingdom that it is a democracy. By following the Constitution of the United Kingdom, Canada is ensuring that its government is democratic.
Hundreds of years ago in England, before the 18th century, the King or Queen had supreme rule. However, the Parliament of England in 1689 passed the Bill of Rights which changed this by limiting the powers of the crown. After the Bill of Rights was passed, the Parliament of England, rather than the King or Queen, was supreme in making laws. In Canada, Parliament and provincial and territorial legislatures enjoy similar supremacy to make laws.
The exclusive powers of Parliament and provincial legislatures to make laws as they see fit is an important part of democracy. If the Prime Minister, Cabinet, the Governor General, or even the King or Queen could tax Canadians, make laws, or strike down laws made by legislators, then democracy would not be as important. However, because only elected representatives can do those things, and Canadians chose whom to elect, democracy puts final authority in the hands of Canadians.
At the time of Confederation, there was already a functioning Parliament and a Governor General representing the Queen. Each province had a legislature with a lieutenant-governor representing the Queen. Parliament is composed of a lower house (the House of Commons) and an upper house (the Senate). Canadians elect Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. Senators are appointed by the Governor General of Canada on the advice of the Prime Minister according to geographical divisions set out by the Constitution Act, 1867.
Although Parliament (and the provincial legislatures) make the laws, the Governor General, representing the Queen, governs through a cabinet, which is chosen and led by the Prime Minister. Cabinet members are responsible, answerable, and accountable to the House of Commons for government departments that they supervise. Cabinet members must also defend government policy and be prepared to answer questions that Members of Parliament have about government actions. Cabinet also acts as the official advisory body to the Governor General, who through convention usually will act on its advice.
Although democracy is important to Canada’s identity, one of the most important constitutional documents, the Constitution Act, 1867, is silent on many features of Canada’s government. The Constitution Act, 1867 establishes the composition of the House of Commons and how many elected representatives are assigned to each province and territory. However, the Constitution did not formally grant democratic rights to Canadian citizens until the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted in 1982.
Section 1 of the Charter refers to Canada as being “a free and democratic society”. Section 3, 4, and 5 of the Charter outline the democratic rights of Canadian citizens. Sections 4 and 5 establish the maximum duration of legislatures and how often there shall be sittings of legislatures. Section 3 guarantees Canadian citizens the right to vote in federal and provincial elections, and the right to run for public office. The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada has said that “the right of each citizen to participate in the political life of the country is one that is of fundamental importance in a free and democratic society”.
Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, reprinted in RSC 1985, App II, No 5.
Bill of Rights, 1688, 1 Will and Mar Sess 2, c 2.
Supra note 1, s 24.
Ibid, s 37.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11 [Charter].
Ibid, s 1.
Ibid, ss 3-5.
Figueroa v Canada (AG), 2003 SCC 37,  1 SCR 912, at para 26.