[Start of a new era?]
On Sunday, September 7, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper
went to Governor-General Michaelle Jean to request the calling of an
election on October 14, the Tuesday after the Canadian Thanksgiving
holiday. Formally-speaking, Canada is a constitutional monarchy, and
Queen Elizabeth II (represented in Canada by the Governor-General)
is the Head of State. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government – the
leader of the largest party in the House of Commons and a Member of
Parliament (MP). In the parliamentary system, executive and legislative
powers are conjoined in the House of Commons.
The Canadian system has no set dates for elections, although Harper
had made an earlier half-hearted attempt to legislate the date for
October 2009. Constitutionally, an election has to be called after
five years, or at any earlier time that the Prime Minister wishes.
Some have criticized the ability of the Prime Minister to call an election
at a presumably propitious moment as an unfair electoral advantage.
However, when the governing party does not hold over half of the seats
in the House of Commons, an election can occur anytime when an important
government bill such as the budget is defeated. When the House of Commons
is in session, the opposition parties can also propose a specific motion
of non-confidence, the passage of which requires the calling of an
The Canadian Upper House or Senate consists of senators appointed
for life (or more recently, with a mandatory retirement age of 75)
by the Prime Minister. This has usually meant a huge preponderance
of Liberals in the Senate, although the Senate’s powers are rather
minor. Proposals have been made to strengthen the role of the Senate
in the Canadian polity by direct election of the Senate, with increased
representation from Western Canada.
Since the federal election of January 23, 2006, the Conservatives
have held a minority government (now at 127 seats out of 308) – one
of the longest-serving minority governments in the history of the
federal parliament. Harper was certainly adroit in maneuvering to
maintain his government, enjoying intermittent support or merely
abstention from votes among the three opposition parties:
• Liberals (95 seats)
• New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s socialist “third
party”) (30 seats)
• Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatists (48 seats).
The Green Party, which received about 4 percent of the vote in the
2006 election, recently gained its first MP, a back-bench defector
from the Liberals. Although the Party discipline for MPs who wish to
remain within their Party is usually quite tight, the House of Commons
rules permit MPs to change their party allegiance or become independents.
They then vote as MPs of the party they joined or as independents;
in the next general election, they would have to run under the banner
of their newly chosen affiliation.
There were three independent MPs in the just-dissolved federal parliament,
as well as four vacant seats. Vacancies are usually created when a
sitting MP chooses to resign his seat. By-elections have to be scheduled
to fill a vacant seat when a general election appears to be more than
At the federal level, the country is subdivided geographically into
308 ridings from which MPs are elected. Thus, smaller parties whose
votes are widely scattered across the country tend to do poorly; however,
geographically concentrated parties such as the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec
can win comparatively large numbers of seats. The federal electoral
system has tended to produce majority governments, as 40 percent of
the popular vote can in most circumstances deliver a majority (155
seats or more) in the federal parliament.
Canada has 10 provinces and three northern territories. The provinces
each have their own premiers and legislatures and, in most cases, are
larger than typical American states. Ontario, for example, has about
one-third of the country’s population, and it is almost impossible
for a federal government to be formed without winning a substantial
portion of Ontario voters.
Federal Liberal Hegemony
Canadian federal politics since 1896 have basically been characterized
by the electoral hegemony of the Liberal Party, with a few Conservative
interludes. Until 1984, this hegemony was based on the virtually
monolithic support the Liberal Party received from Quebec voters,
combined with what was usually a minority of votes from English-speaking
In the 1990s, when the Bloc Quebecois emerged to capture most of
the Quebec vote, the Liberals enjoyed overwhelming support in Ontario.
In the 2004 and 2006 elections, the Conservatives were able to gain
substantial support in Ontario and won 10 seats in Quebec in 2006;
however, they remained shut out of Toronto.
Few remember today that, before the 1960s, Toronto had been nicknamed “Tory
Toronto.” The reduction of what was once this conservative bastion
was largely a consequence of a deliberate Liberal strategy of a multifaceted
cultural war against tradition. Even today, some like to sneer at the
Toronto of the 1950s, for example, by repeating the snide comment that
you could fire a cannon down the city’s main street on Sunday
and not hit anyone (because everyone was at church!). The Harper Tories
were also shut out of Montreal and Vancouver in 2006 — two other
large, very multicultural cities. Since the 1960s, the federal Liberals
have rather successfully and unabashedly practiced “activist,” “transformational” politics
to maintain themselves almost perpetually in power.
Given the current hostility of most of Toronto — the main media,
cultural, and commercial “node” and hub of Canada – as
well as of some other major urban centers — to the Conservatives,
Harper faces an extraordinarily difficult challenge in this election.
Ours is an age where urban centers are highly accentuated in the social
and cultural landscape, with the result that the values of a few trendy
and/or grungy neighborhoods in Toronto are projected onto Canada as
a whole. Despite the vast hinterlands of the country, 65 percent of
Canada’s population lives in its 30 largest metropolitan areas;
40 percent lives in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary;
and 25 percent lives in Toronto or Montreal.
Will it ever become possible for Harper to begin to temper some of
the long-term and now very deeply ingrained trends of Canadian politics?
Or will there be, in the end, little more than another Conservative
interlude, after which the Liberals will come roaring back to office,
stronger and more confident than ever?
View From The North archives
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Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical
researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as
in U.S. scholarly journals such as Humanitas,
Review of Metaphysics, and Telos, and in U.S. magazines such as Chronicles
and The World & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.
See author's bio and other articles.
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