In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Canadian Government and Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Textbooks
  • Nationalism in Quebec
  • Indigenous Politics
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Federalism
  • Political Institutions
  • Constitutionalism, the Judiciary, and the Charter
  • Parties, Elections, and Voting
  • Gender
  • Provincial and Territorial Politics

Political Science Canadian Government and Politics
by
André Lecours
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0367

Introduction

Canada is a federation established in 1867. Originally designed to have a very powerful federal government, Canada is now one of the most decentralized federations in the world. Provinces have significant constitutionally assigned exclusive legislative and administrative powers in key policy sectors like health care and education, and they have significant capacity to raise their own revenues. A central piece to Canadian federalism is the equalization program, whose principles are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution and which allows provincial governments to offer public services of comparable quality at a comparable level of taxation by providing payments to provinces whose fiscal capacity falls below a national average. A constitutional monarchy, Canada functions with a Westminster parliamentary system. At the federal level, the legislative branch is bicameral, comprising the House of Commons and the Senate. Senators are appointed by the prime minister and, as a result, the Senate suffers from a democratic deficit that effectively prevents it from exercising its full constitutional powers. The Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) has dominated federal politics, forming most governments, with the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), along with its predecessor, the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada, being the only other parties that have governed the country. Thanks in large part to the uninominal majoritarian electoral system used both federally and in the ten provinces, governments in Canada usually involve one party commanding a parliamentary majority, although minority governments at the federal level have been a more frequent occurrence in the twenty-first century. Party discipline in Canada is among the strongest in the world, which facilitates the formation of stable governments but represents a significant obstacle for members of Parliament seeking to represent their constituents. Canada’s foundational cleavage is between English and French speakers, which is reflected in official bilingualism, legislated in 1969. This cleavage is still, in its modern form, at the center of Canadian politics, as Quebec, the only province with a majority of French speakers, has a powerful nationalist movement and has long sought changes to the Canadian Constitution in a way that would recognize its distinctiveness. Canada is a settler society, and Indigenous peoples, who have endured a long history of colonialism, put forth claims related to territorial rights and self-determination. Beginning with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which stipulated that all land was Indigenous until ceded through treaties, the legitimate instrument for managing the territorial relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state has been treaties (first, the so-called numbered treaties, and since 1975, the “modern treaties”). Canada is widely known for its multiculturalism policy, formulated in 1971, which encourages Canadians from different backgrounds to retain their cultural identities. Central to Canadian politics is a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which serves as a legal basis for Canadians to put forth rights claims. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms has helped, to varying degrees, different minorities (gender, sexual orientation, racial, Indigenous peoples) struggle for equality and against discrimination.

General Overview and Textbooks

The study of Canadian government and politics is rooted in traditions of institutionalism (Smith 2005) and political economy (Whiteside 2020). The focus on institutions reflects an almost existential concern with federalism, whose nature and structure have always been heavily debated in Canadian politics The popularity of political economy approaches stems in large part from Canada’s resource-driven economy and its close relationship with the United States, which has had many intellectuals and politicians worry about the country’s ability to define truly autonomous courses of action throughout the years. In the last couple of decades, there has been a “comparative turn” in the field of Canadian politics that has involved more research placing Canada in comparative perspective (White, et al. 2008; Turgeon, et al. 2014), although some scholars have sought to reassert the value of producing deep knowledge on Canadian politics (see, e.g., Noël 2014). The literature in the field is primarily in English, but there is also a French-language corpus, primarily on Quebec nationalism and politics as well as on Canadian federalism. As Rocher 2007 shows, French-speaking political scientists, let alone the literature in French, tend to be much less cited than their English-speaking counterparts. A great resource for understanding the field of Canadian government and politics is the presidential address at the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA), which is published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science (CJPS), the main refereed journal outlet for research on Canadian government and politics. The yearly presidential address, such as Abu-Laban 2017, often speaks to the state of research on Canadian politics. General works on Canadian government and politics are typically textbooks, of which there are several of high quality (e.g., Cochrane, et al. 2016; Brooks and Ménard 2017; Bickerton and Gagnon 2020). These works tend to cover central themes in the study of Canadian government and politics, which include those found in the study of most liberal democracies: voting and elections; party politics; political institutions; social movements and interest groups, public policy; and societal cleavages such as class, gender, and sexual orientation. Central themes in the study of Canadian government and politics also include questions more peculiar to Canada, such as federalism, constitutionalism, multiculturalism, nationalism, rights regimes, and, increasingly popular in recent years, Indigenous politics.

  • Abu-Laban, Yasmeen. “Narrating Canadian Political Science: History Revisited.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 50.4 (2017): 895–919.

    DOI: 10.1017/S000842391700138X

    This Canadian Political Science Association presidential address argues that Canadian political science has always been a national venture, and that, therefore, it is intimately connected to the country’s political development. Accordingly, political science in Canada followed an evolutionary rather than revolutionary pattern of development. Originally grounded in a fairly exclusive British settler society, it has gradually but tentatively opened up to voices from minority groups and populations.

  • Bickerton, James, and Alain-G. Gagnon, eds. Canadian Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

    A classic textbook edited by two senior Canadian government and politics specialists offering comprehensive coverage across more than twenty chapters, each written by topic specialists, including on salient contemporary issues such as climate policy, Indigenous politics, and immigration. Now in its seventh edition.

  • Brooks, Stephen, and Marc Ménard. Canadian Democracy. A Concise Introduction. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    A reader-friendly coauthored introductory text on Canadian government and politics covering all the basics, plus interesting chapters on political culture and on the media. It features many pictures, cartoons, tables, and other learning aids, making it one of the most accessible textbooks on the market.

  • Cochrane, Christopher, Kelly Blidook, and Rand Dyck. Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches. Toronto: Nelson, 2016.

    Recent version of a classic textbook first authored by Rand Dyck three decades ago, now with coauthors. This textbook is extremely detailed, comprising more than seven hundred pages. It usefully integrates theoretical approaches such as historical institutionalism and rational choice within the empirical material on Canadian government and politics.

  • Noël, Alain. “Studying Your Own Country: Social Scientific Knowledge for Our Time and Place.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 47.4 (2014): 647–666.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0008423914001085

    This Canadian Political Science Association presidential address constitutes somewhat of a response to the “comparative turn” movement in the field of Canadian government and politics. Although it does not deny the usefulness of the comparison, the article highlights the importance of producing specialized knowledge on Canadian government and politics for the purpose of mobilizing and using such knowledge in order to improve the Canadian polity.

  • Rocher, François. “The End of the Two ‘Solitudes’: The Presence (or Absence) of the Work of French-Speaking Scholars in Canadian Politics.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 40.4 (2007): 833–857.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0008423907071132

    Canada has often been sociologically described as “two solitudes,” or two communities, English- and French-speaking, that do not often communicate. This study looks at the extent to which, in the field of Canadian government and politics, English-speaking researchers cite their French-speaking counterparts, whether they write in English or in French. It finds that French-speaking researchers are virtually absent from the work of English speakers, suggesting that some form of the “two solitudes” prevails.

  • Smith, Miriam. “Institutionalism in the Study of Canadian Politics: The English-Canadian Tradition.” In New Institutionalism: Theory and Analysis. Edited by André Lecours, 101–127. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    This chapter examines how neo-institutionalism compares to institutionalist traditions in the study of Canadian politics by examining the theoretical underpinnings of key Canadian politics scholarship. The author concludes that the state was always present as a theoretical focus in the literature on Canadian politics. and that, as such, it did not have to be “brought back in” because it was never evacuated in the first place.

  • Turgeon, Luc, Martin Papillon, Jennifer Wallner, and Steven White, eds. Comparing Canada. Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014.

    This book follows up The Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science with an examination of how political scientists use the Canadian case to further knowledge on political institutions, processes, mobilization, and public policy. Specific themes explored include race, Indigenous peoples, nationalism, elections and voting, legislative behavior, climate change, and the autism movement.

  • White, Linda, Richard Simeon, Robert Vipond, and Jennifer Wallner, eds. The Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

    This groundbreaking book suggested that the study of Canadian government and politics took a “comparative turn” in the previous decade or so, making the field less insular and closer to comparative politics. The book examines how comparative politics approaches and theories have shaped the field of Canadian politics, and how the case of Canada contributes to comparative politics.

  • Whiteside, Heather, ed. Canadian Political Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

    This collective book delves into political economy scholarship in the field of Canadian government and politics. Its fifteen chapters consider different approaches to the relationship between state and market, agents of the Canadian political economy, and selected outcomes. The book covers both traditional themes of political economy (poverty, inequality, social classes, and trade) as well as some different or emerging ones (ecology, Indigenous women, the nonprofit sector, and innovation policy).

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