Canada is a constitutional monarchy, and a federation of ten provinces and three territories. The administration is generally divided between three levels of government: federal, provincial, and municipal, each with specific authority.
A parliamentary democracy that derives many traditions from Britain, Canada still retains the British monarch as head of state. Royal powers have been narrowed, by law, and by precedent, to certain defined areas today. They are exercised by the Governor General in Ottawa, and by Lieutenant Governors in the provinces, who are appointed by the federal and provincial governments respectively.
Canadians elect representatives to Parliament, each representing a small geographical area of the country. Generally (but not always) these are members of political parties. Currently, four major parties are seated in parliament. To form a government, a party must have the “confidence of parliament”. This usually means that a political party has won a majority of seats, but there are exceptions. For example, coalitions of smaller parties may, if like-minded enough, can form a government. Similarly, a government may be required (by custom) to resign if it loses the confidence of the house by, for example, being defeated on an important piece of legislation. In the British parliamentary system, precedent and custom are very important, and play a role in the operation of government, along with the codified law.
If asked to form a government, a political party will then form a cabinet, with a prime minister in charge, and with ministers responsible for various areas of administration. New legislation is proposed by the governing party, and individual members of this party are usually required to vote along party lines, but not in all cases.
There is also an unelected Senate, consisting of prominent Canadians appointed by the government of the day. This body is required to give a “sober second thought” to legislation coming from parliament. It can vote against bills, but by custom usually does not, except in extreme circumstances.
Provincial governments mirror the federal government, but without a Senate. Powers are divided between the federal government and the provinces. Some important areas of provincial control include: education, medical care, the management of land, control of natural resources, and labor legislation. In some cases, the federal government sets national standards for all, such as in the Medicare system.
With the growth in urban areas, there has been a recent tendency to consolidate local government. This is seen most prominently in British Columbia, which is divided into regional districts, creating a fourth level of government. Other provinces have combined certain services within geographical areas, such as regional police forces. Some small municipal governments have resisted this trend, seeing it as an infringement on local autonomy.
Generally, municipal governments consist of a mayor and council. Members may or may not identify themselves with a political party. Councilors are generally removed from the day-to-day operation of communities, delegating those duties to professional managers. Licensing and land use zoning are two important tools used in local governance. In many larger cities, a ward system mandates that a single councilor be responsible for an individual neighborhood. Municipalities rely on property taxes to a large degree, making them somewhat dependent on grants from their respective provincial overseers, who have extensive authority over local government.
City of Toronto
Government of British Columbia
Government of Canada
Federation of Canadian Municipalities
Simon Fraser University
Canadian Citizenship Practice Test