This page provides information about how Canada's democracy works at the federal level.
Democracy in Canada
Canada is a representative democracy. That means that citizens elect representatives to the House of Commons, who, along with the Senate, then make laws and decisions for the country and its people. Some aspects of our system are based on unwritten traditions, while other procedures are written in our Constitution.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the following democratic rights:
- Every Canadian citizen has the right to vote in an election.
- Every Canadian citizen has the right to run for office in an election.
- An election must take place at least once every five years.
- Elected representatives must meet at least once a year.
DID YOU KNOW?
Parliament and Government are not the same.
- Parliament is made up of the monarch (represented by the governor general), appointed senators and all elected members of the House of Commons.
- Government is responsible for managing the business of the country. It is usually formed by the political party that has the most elected representatives, and it is led by the prime minister.
- What rights and freedoms do we Canadians have that contribute to our democracy?
- What is the difference between a right and a responsibility?
Educational resources on Parliament and Canada's system of government:
- Democracy: Made by You This elementary lesson plan explores Canadian democracy by encouraging students to look at the rights and responsibilities they have in their own communities and to consider how they can shape their lives through voting.
- Democracy: Around the World This secondary lesson plan compares Canada's system of democratic representation with that of other countries.
- For more information:
Voting in Canada
Canada is a representative democracy. During a federal election, all eligible citizens can vote for a candidate in their electoral district (riding) who will represent their interests in Parliament. Under our current federal electoral system, there are 338 ridings. The candidate who receives the most votes in a riding is declared the winner. This system is called first-past-the post.
Canada's federal electoral process
The federal electoral process in Canada is set out in the Canada Elections Act, and Elections Canada must always be ready to deliver a general election, by-election or referendum. While candidates and political parties are the most visible players during elections, others are also involved. Here are the main steps in an election:
- The governor general ends Parliament on the request of the prime minister and directs that the writs of election be issued.
- The Chief Electoral Officer issues the writs. These direct Elections Canada officials, called returning officers, to hold an election in each riding.
- Elections Canada sends preliminary lists of voters to the returning officers.
- As soon as election writs are issued, each party must decide who will be its candidate for each riding. This candidate's name will be listed on the ballot for that riding.
- A candidate can also run for election without a party affiliation, as either "independent" or "no affiliation." This choice will be marked beside their name on the ballot.
- During the campaign period, candidates try to convince voters that they are the best choice to represent the people of their riding in Parliament.
- Polling stations are the most common voting option.
- Each voter gets a ballot from the Elections Canada officials and marks an X beside the name of their chosen candidate.
- The voter's ballot is placed in a ballot box.
- The ballots are counted in each polling division and riding.
- Voters elect a riding representative – they do not vote directly for a prime minister.
- Once the polling stations close, Elections Canada officials open the ballot boxes and count the ballots.
- The candidate who receives the most votes in the riding becomes its member of Parliament (MP) and represents it in the House of Commons.
- The political party that has the most MPs usually forms the government.
- The leader of the political party with the most MPs normally becomes the prime minister.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The candidate with the most votes is declared the winner even if the difference is just one vote.
- Under the Canadian parliamentary system, voters elect only their local representative, not the prime minister.
- The number of ridings is reviewed every 10 years to keep up with population shifts and growth.
- You have to be 18 to vote, but only 16 to work for Elections Canada.
- The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and the Assistant Chief Electoral Officer are not allowed to vote in a Canadian federal election.
- If you are too young to vote in an election, what can you do to be an active citizen in your community?
- Think of a situation where you were given a chance to express your opinion on a decision that affected other people (for example, choosing the name of a team). What factors did you consider?
- The next fixed election date is October 21, 2019. Will you be old enough to vote? If you will be old enough, how will you prepare?
- Why do you think some people don't vote? What effect does that have?
- Elections Canada civic education products and resources.
- For more information:
Electoral reform is in the news in Canada! Some people think our democracy would be stronger if we change the way we elect our representatives for Parliament. Others think we should retain our current system. What's important is that our electoral system allows Canadians to exercise their democratic rights. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform is studying a variety of electoral systems and is expected to report back by December 1, 2016.
The various voting systems involve different ways of deciding how many seats each party wins. These are the main variables:
- seat allocation
- ballot structure
- ballot marking
- the size of the electoral district (riding)
A choice of electoral system is based on criteria such as accountability, fairness, equality and representativeness. Here are some electoral systems currently used in representative democracies:
Each voter is allowed one vote, for one candidate in their riding. The winner is the candidate who receives the most votes.
This system allocates the number of seats in proportion to the number of votes. For example, if 40% of all voters support a particular political party, then that party will get roughly 40% of the seats.
- single transferable vote
- party list
These systems combine elements of a plurality/majoritarian system with elements of proportional representation. Citizens in a riding cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a political party to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.
- mixed member proportional
- alternative vote plus
- What is important to you in an election system?
- How is media coverage shaping the way you understand electoral reform?
- What are elections like in other countries?
For more information:
- The Library of Parliament has published a research paper that provides background on the Canadian electoral system and alternatives.
- The Government of Canada provides information to help people Learn about Canadian Federal Electoral Reform.