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Certificate in Law: Intro to Basic Legal Concepts

This guide was designed for students in the Queen's Certificate in Law program.

Canada's System of Government

Canada is both a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy.

In a constitutional monarchy, a monarch (the King) is head of state and has executive authority subject to the limits of the Constitution. The King entrusts this power to an elected government, but the Crown remains present in acts of government through its representatives (the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors).

A parliamentary democracy is a system of government where citizens elect representatives to a parliament, which then has the power to make or change laws and policies.

Canada's system of government is laid out in the Canadian Constitution.

Division of Powers

Canada is also a federal union, which means that government power is distributed between a federal legislature and provincial/territorial legislatures. We call this distribution of responsibilities the division of powers.

In reality there are three levels of government (click to expand each):

The federal level of government is responsible for the governance of matters that affect the entire country, including trade and commerce, national defence, copyright, criminal law, the post office, and Indigenous lands and rights.

The provincial and territorial levels of government exist in each of the 10 provinces and 3 territories of Canada. Responsibilities include hospitals, education, property, prisons, and provincial taxation.

The municipal level of government is responsible for the governance of a municipality such as a town or city. Responsibilities often include garbage collection, libraries, parks, roads, and local police.

Municipalities are granted authority for specific responsibilities by their provincial government, while federal and provincial responsibilities are laid out in the Constitution (especially in section VI. Distribution of Legislative Powers). 

Note: Different levels of government can also have overlapping or similar responsibilities. Consider the different types of parks in Canada: national parks, provincial parks, and municipal parks. Each type is operated differently based on the level of government responsible for it.  


The Three Branches of Government

As a parliamentary democracy, Canada has three branches of government. These branches are similar at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels.


Click to expand for more information on each branch of government:

The main role of the legislative branch is to make laws by passing bills (see Statutory Law and the Legislative Process).

Canada’s federal legislature is Parliament, which includes the Crown (represented by the Governor General), the Senate (appointed representatives), and the House of Commons (elected representatives).

At the provincial/territorial level, most jurisdictions have a more simple legislative branch with only one chamber (since there is no equivalent of the Senate). For instance, Ontario's legislative branch consists of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario (elected representatives), and the Crown is represented by the Lieutenant Governor.

The main role of the executive branch is to lead and direct the governance of the country by developing policies and by introducing bills to make these policies law.

The federal executive branch consists of the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers, who are typically selected by the Prime Minister from the governing party’s elected members of Parliament.

In Ontario, the executive branch similarly includes the Premier and cabinet ministers.

The judicial branch refers to the judges of courts of law. Their role is to interpret the Constitution and laws, and to resolve disputes arising between individuals or between individuals and the State (see Case Law and the Court System).

Judicial independence ensures that the legislative and executive branches do not influence the decisions of the courts.

Further Reading