Home / Canadian Politics: Canadians Don’t Know How Their Government Works

Canadian Politics: Canadians Don’t Know How Their Government Works

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I had wondered how Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, expected to get away with calling normal parliamentary procedures like a vote of non-confidence and a coalition government "treason" and "coup d'etat". How could any member of parliament be so cynical as to expect not to get caught in such an outright lie? In fact he himself became Prime Minister after "overthrowing" a government in 2005 through the same non-confidence procedure and winning the subsequent election. True he didn't have the opportunity to form a coalition government, but that's mainly because nobody wanted to join forces with him, and the government he defeated had been sitting for two years, not 27 days.

Well, now I know the answer. According to a survey conducted between December 9 and December 12, after the whole circus died down in Ottawa, a majority of Canadians don't know that we don't directly elect our Prime Minister, who the head of state is, or how to best describe our system of government. On the plus side, 90 percent knew that a Governor-General could refuse to let a sitting government call an election upon losing a vote of confidence in the House Of Parliament.

The survey was commissioned by a group known as The Dominion Institute who claim their goal is to build active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story. Well, judging by the results of their survey they have a hell of a long way to go if they want to even come close to achieving this goal. If 51 percent of Canadians believe that the Prime Minister of Canada is elected by direct vote like the American President, is it any wonder that the Conservative Party was able to convince people that the proposed coalition government of a couple weeks ago was "undemocratic"?

Aside from not understanding how the parliamentary system of government works, which has been in place since 1867 when the country was formed, only a bare majority knew that we are a constitutional monarchy. Now I know to people who live outside of Canada that the concept of a constitutional monarchy sounds more than a little obscure, and why shouldn't it? They haven't grown up with the system or studied it in school. Finding out that Canadians are equally ignorant about such basic precepts when it comes to the government they live under is not only embarrassing, but more than a little scary.

Maybe it doesn't seem like such a big deal to some of you that most Canadians think either the Prime Minister or the Governor-General are head of state, or that they can't name the style of government we live under. However, ask yourself this: how much difficulty would an American have in telling you that the President is head of state or that they live in a republic? Why should it be so difficult for Canadians to do the same thing?

However that is trivial when compared with the fact that 51 percent of the people polled in this survey believed that the Prime Minister was elected directly. That shows not only a complete lack of knowledge as to how our system of government works at its most basic, but just how few people actually vote in federal elections. If you've ever stepped into a polling booth on election day in Canada to cast a vote, you'd have noticed that nowhere on the ballot is there a place to vote for Prime Minister. Even if the margin of error, 3.1%, for this survey is factored in, it means that forty-eight per cent of Canadians of eligible voting age have never stepped inside a voting booth, or don't understand what it is they are doing when they cast a ballot.

I'm beginning to feel silly explaining this in every article I write about Canadian politics, but obviously it's needed. Canada works under a system of parliamentary democracy where the country is divided up into electoral districts called ridings based on population density. Each riding represents one seat in the House of Commons, and political parties select candidates to run as their representative in each riding. The political party that elects the most candidates forms the government with the leader of that party becoming Prime Minister.

If no party wins an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons the one with the most seats tries to rule with either the support of another party or on its own. A minority government can lose votes in the house without having to resign except for one on financial matters or if the other parties pass a motion of non-confidence. When that happens the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General, the Queen's (the head of state) representative in Canada, to dissolve parliament so a new election can be called. The Governor-General has the option of asking the opposition if they feel like they can form a government, or the opposition can ask the Governor-General for the chance to form a government if they can offer proof of their ability to govern. That would usually require a coalition of parties with sufficient votes in the House to defeat a motion of non-confidence, and a guarantee that the coalition would last for a particular length of time.

In order for a democracy to work a country's population has to at least understand how their system of government works. If they don't they can be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who would take advantage of their ignorance to prevent the checks and balances built into the system from working. When a government under a parliamentary system does not receive a majority of the seats in the House of Parliament, it is understood that they do not have sufficient support to be a representative voice of the country. It is the opposition's responsibility to ensure that the governing party is responsible to the whole country, not just those who voted for them, and ensure that legislation represents the majority as much as possible.

Since Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada were first elected to a minority governing position in 2006 they have acted like they have a majority government. Until this past November they were given a free ride by an opposition in disarray for various reasons. Now, when the opposition acts like they are supposed to, calling the government on legislation they did not think represented the best interests of the entire country, Stephen Harper accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and usurping the democratic process. He was able to get away with that because too many Canadians don't understand how their own system of government works.

Marc Chalifoux, president of The Dominion Institute, summed up the situation succinctly when commenting on the survey: "Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) but lacked, in many cases, the basic knowledge to form informed opinions." When the people a system of government is supposed to represent don't understand how it works they surrender what voice they might have had in its process. If the people of a country have no voice in their government can it really be called a democracy?

Until Canadians can get it together to understand even the most basic principles of their own system of government they will remain at the mercy of who ever wields power in Ottawa. Until that time we are a democracy in name only.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Jordan Richardson

    I think, for right or wrong, it’s that Canadians don’t care to know how their government works. Most Canucks aren’t inherently “political” people and we aren’t steeped in the “majesty of the process” like Americans are.

    Hell, some Americans actually have “favourite presidents!”

    As to whether our general indifference to politics will one day get us into a lot of trouble, that’s a possibility that is worth examining.

  • What most Canadians don’t understand is the opposition isn’t usurping democracy by offering to form a coalition government: it’s perfectly legal and built right into the process. So I wish the Prime Minister would stop acting like the country’s coming to an end. Let’s have the pols play all these options out – either come up with useful legislation or let someone else try.

  • You mean you Canadians are just as stupid as Americans? Wow, I never would have believed it!

    It must be all that American TV dumbing you down….

  • Jet

    He just keeps tossing rocks at the hornet’s nest, doesn’t he?

  • Jordan Richardson

    It must be all that American TV dumbing you down….

    Actually, it’s the Canadian Tire commercials during Christmas.

  • He just keeps tossing rocks at the hornet’s nest, doesn’t he?

    Poor Jet – wrapping himself in the Stars and Strips.

    Wait’ll the Israeli politicians have Obama’s shit all over their lips – it won’t be rocks, dude – it’ll be boulders to knock over the hornets’s nest and kill the hornets.

    You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Jet

  • And now we return you to your regular broadcasts of CCTV…..

  • Ruvy – What’s CCTV – Jordan – I think in general you’re right about the difference between the Candian and American attitude towards politics, but that’s no excuse for ignorance as to how the system works. It means there has been a failure in our educational system of a horrible magnitude where we’re not even teaching people the basics of how we as a country work. If I were truly as parinoid as I think I am I would suggest that governments do that delibrately so as to have as uninformed public as possible – but that would be giving our politicians credit for foresight that they’ve never shown before.

    Oh and again Jordan is right – we don’t need any help from America for bad television – we’ve learned how to produce it ourselves now – and anyway half the people writing for American TV are Canadian anyway (It’s part of our secret plot to disrupt their society through a slow process of killing them from the neck up – don’t tell Al)

  • If I remember right, Richard, CCTV was a comedy show supposedly about at TV station and its witless owner. It was produced in Canada (I think) and was good satire. I may have the name wrong, but what can you expect out of an aging boomer, anyway?

  • SCTV

  • SCTV

    Thanks! My bad!

  • STM

    Richard, with these polls, the true story is always: that’s 51 per cent of people polled say that blah blah blah …

    Possibly it was done on a Saturday in the Windsor area, with half of those polled probably Americans who’ve snuck in for the day looking for some dollar bargains at the markets against the mercurial, shrinking Loon.

    I mean, fair dinkum … even primary school kids in Australia know the Queen is ceremonial head of state and the PM the head of government and that we’re a representative parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy.

    I simply can’t believe it’s any different up your way, particularly knowing the Canadians I do who are vehement, vocal and very well informed about their system of government and their desire to keep it.

    Good series of articles though. Love a good constitutional crisis.

  • I’m shocked that you’ve heard of Windsor Ontario STM. Unfortunately the people you know are the exception to the rule – the majority of Canadians are like Windsor on a Saturday. If anything skewed the results it was the fact when it was broken down by province – the negatives in Quebec were much higher than elsewhere, but they were consistant across the country.

    Thanks for trying to make me feel better though – I appreciate it.

  • Jordan Richardson

    It means there has been a failure in our educational system of a horrible magnitude where we’re not even teaching people the basics of how we as a country work.

    Agreed. In school, I remember learning more about how America worked than how our own country worked. That was a long time ago, sure, and maybe shit’s changed since then. But I doubt it.

  • Jordan Richardson

    And, admittedly, most of the people I know know more than a fair bit about how Parliament works and what the Coalition is actually about, etc. It could be that I surround myself with people that are smarter and better looking than myself, but that’s impossible.

  • STM

    I suppose you could think that the leader of the party you’re voting for is actually the one you are directly electing by your indirect vote.

    You kind of are voting directly, really … so maybe the question was a bit skewed.

    I mean, when I voted last year, I was voting for a party but I was also voting for the parliamentary leader of that party over the leader of the other party, who was a disgrace to this country as Prime Minister.

    It was him (John Howard) everyone couldn’t stand, and who was the face of that government.

    When I went to the polling station, I set off with this thought in mind: “I’m voting out that bloody John Howard today”. Or words to that effect …

    So I knew that my vote was for a new PM.

    Perhaps that Dominion mob need to be more specific with their questions 🙂

    I also hope they asked the question of more than 10 people wandering aimlessly around Windsor on a Saturday afternoon.

  • Part of the issue is just the overall Americanization of the media. You get US channels on cable, US-centric references in film, books, even the Inter-tubes is chock full of Yanks.

    I suspect that a great deal of the problem lies with the fact that a significant number of Canadians get “acclimatized” to the concepts around the US system and forget the fundamental differences in the two political systems. They simply equate it back to the nice and simple “I voted for that guy” mantra.

    Added to the mix is Harper taking a page from the Republican playbook of using simplisitic vilification and jingostic appeal as a message. It is unsurprising that he is able to successfuly appeal to a number of Canadians who don’t follow politics regularly and get their ideas right off the airwaves and then regurgitate them wholesale.

    It is more political ignorance and laziness then major problem with the educational system.

  • STM

    Well Jordan, down this neck of the woods, we learned all about our ourselves and our kith and kin … all the important places, with great emphasis on the spread and extent of the British empire – geographically, socially, politically and militarily (remember all the pink bits on the map of the world? They seemed to take up three quarters of it).

    We learned about Oz, NZ, Canada, Britain, Ireland, India, etc. There was of course some limited study of the United States, with particular note given to how they got into bed with the French during the American revolution and otherwise would have been soundly thrashed, and of course their limited role in WWI (limited to the last few months).

    Those who went on to learn modern history discovered too that the War of 1812 was America’s first, failed war of aggression and expansion, that the Spanish-American war was a war of imperial expansion by the US and driven by the myth of American exceptionalism, that the colonisation of the Philippines (close to home) by the US was just that, and that far from being an insurrection, the Philippine Insurrection was actually a full scale war between the US occupiers and Filipino freedom fighters. (See: white man’s burden)

    We also learned that America entered World War II very late after lots of dying had already been done, but that their big-business approach and the selfless sacrifice of that generation of Americans nevertheless did indeed contribute majorly to the winning of that conflict, and that we actually remain grateful and admire them for it. On a personal level, know I would look and sound awfully stupid speaking Japanese.

    Then we got to the bit I’ve never understood: how you can have a presidential election race that seemed to have begun before you were actually born, and an endless series of quasi “elections” that never actually produced a real result – until the final election, which wasn’t actally by majority vote anyway because there was a thing called the electoral college.

    Some of us who went in more radical directions in our 20s also came to believe that we simply swapped the British for the US and that they are now our new colonial masters and we are their fawning “deputy sheriff” in the south pacific. (Think: East Timor)

    You think Canadians are worried about being the 51st state? Try down this way. This is little America … but for all that, I’d much rather it be that than, say, little Japan.

    So never fear Jordan, we do know a fair about Canada too, and its parliamentary democracy and its place in the empire … and we learned all about our own nasty history at school as well and we could fill up a string of comments about that 🙂

  • Jet

    Ruvy:Poor Jet – wrapping himself in the Stars and Strips. Wrapping myself in stars and stripping?

  • Richard: “If I were truly as parinoid as I think I am…”

    Well, I had a word with the people who are watching you, and they told me that yes, you are paranoid.


  • Jet

    Doc I thought he was parinoid, not paranoid, there is a difference you know.

  • No, Jet, no difference. It’s just the voices telling you that.

  • Doc,

    Re #22: Is that a statement of fact or merely of opinion? There is a very important* difference, and clarity is essential. Please do be candid :>).


    *If you click on the link and then wait a moment or two or three, it will take you directly to the comment making this critical point.

  • STM

    Even paranoids have real enemies

  • Dan – how did you do that??? If the man in the black suit hadn’t assured me it wasn’t true as he waved this little metal flashlight thing in my face, I’d be seriously wondering if They hadn’t told you to link thus.

    I would be Candide, except that I prefer Racine to Voltaire.

  • Doc,

    It’s a secret, imparted only to me by the men in the black suits — or were they white suits? I don’t remember; probably the meds. However, if you will promise, cross your heart, not to tell anyone, here’s the trick:

    Go here. That takes you to en.wasalive.com. Then, in the little search box at the top, type in the name of the commenter (Christopher Rose, for example) and a word from the comment (Fact, for example). That brings up comments posted during the last thirty days which fit the search criteria, and provides a few important words from the comment. Then, click on the little box close to the comment, and it takes you first to the article, and then right to the comment. I did that, and then copied the URL for the comment.

    It’s pretty useful, particularly since I often forget the article but remember the commenter and a word or two from the comment.


  • Sick tool! Word, dude!

    (Or, since I gather you are not of that generation: An excellent and useful website. May I, kind sir, express my great appreciation?)

  • Da nada, senor.

    Now please be so kind as to answer my very serious question in #23, if you can. I challenge you.


  • Dan,

    The Man told me to tell you that it was a statement of fact. But I’m not sure how earnest he is about that, as in order to ask him I had to interrupt him while he was busy doctoring footage of one of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, so as to remove all trace of missile fairings from the fuselage. He sounded rather impatient and may have just been trying to get rid of me.

  • STM

    A black helicopter full of UN troops just flew over my house … in Australia.

    Must’ve been American UN troops, as the rotor blades were silent.

    They probably thought they’d got away with it again, but I saw them out of the corner of my eye.

    The old padded rotor blades trick again, eh?

    I know the US/UN south-pacific union is taking this place over, but I’m not going down without a fight.

    I’ve stocked up on boomerangs, a whole shed full of ’em. Bring it on!

    We won’t be the 51st state.