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Canada is an independent parliamentary democracy. Once a colony of Great Britain, it became independent in 1867 through the British North America Act. Provisions of this act made it necessary for the British Privy Council to approve any amendment to the constitution. In 1982 the act was amended and renamed the Constitution Act. It gave the Canadian people the right to change their constitution without further consultation or approval of the mother country. The British monarch is sovereign of Canada and is represented as head of state by a governor-general, who since World War II has always been a Canadian. Jeanne Sauve, appointed in 1984, was the first woman to hold the office. (See also Sauve.)
Although the role of the governor-general is largely ceremonial, it plays an essential part in Canadian government. No sitting of the House of Commons or Senate, nor of any provincial legislature, may take place unless called by the governor-general or by the provincial lieutenant-governors. Elections are called by the governor-general or the lieutenant-governors though usually only on the advice of the prime minister or the provincial premiers. No act of any government becomes law until given royal assent by the governor-general or by the governor-general's deputy. Governors-general and lieutenant-governors are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister and the premiers for a term of approximately five years.
The Parliament of Canada is modeled on the British Parliament and has two chambers: the House of Commons, which is elected, and the Senate, whose members are appointed by the prime minister and who hold office until age 75. Representation in the Commons is based on population, with a minimum of four members from each province and a total of three from the territories. The 1988 elections were the first under the redistricting that increased House of Commons membership from 282 to 295. The 104 seats in the Senate are distributed by region. A set of 28 proposals for constitutional reform introduced by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1991 included the direct election of senators. Voters rejected this proposal in a 1992 referendum.
There is no basis in law for the office of prime minister to exist. But the leader of the party with the most members, or of the party able to gain the support of sufficient members of an opposition party to give it control in the Commons, is accepted as the leader of government--the prime minister--provided that he or she has a seat in the Commons. The term of office for the federal government is a maximum of five years, but the prime minister may request an election at any time it is felt advantageous to do so or if the government has been defeated or stalemated by the opposition on a money or a major policy bill. The provincial legislatures and the National Assembly in Quebec each have only one chamber and operate in the same fashion as the Commons.
Government policy is determined by the prime minister and the Cabinet, usually with the agreement of the party's members obtained in frequent meetings called the party caucus. It is a custom for every province to be represented in the Cabinet, but, when there is no member in the Commons of the party in power from a particular province, it is customary to appoint a senator to a Cabinet post. No senator may enter the Commons, however, so the prime minister or a delegate must represent such a senator in the House of Commons. Proceedings in the House of Commons are controlled by an elected speaker. The speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Cabinet. It is the custom in both houses to alternate French-speaking and English-speaking leaders.
The power to make laws is shared between the federal government and the provinces. Canada since its inception has been a centralized state. The Constitution Act provided for specific responsibilities for the provinces and reserved all others, specified or not, for the federal government. By custom some responsibilities are shared by both levels. The provinces have control over direct taxes for provincial purposes, natural resources, prisons (but not penitentiaries), hospitals, education, property, civil rights in the province, the creation of courts and administration of justice, and other purely local matters.
Court decisions since confederation in 1867 have substantially broadened provincial powers to include most responsibility for labor regulation. The federal government has the right to make laws for "peace, order, and good government" and has specific powers in direct and indirect taxation, regulation of trade and commerce, and such social programs as pensions, medical care, and higher education. The Post Office, the Bank of Canada, census and statistics, fisheries, shipping, air and rail transport, telegraph, broadcasting, immigration, criminal code, and many other areas of jurisdiction have been given explicitly to the federal government. The Supreme Court of Canada was established by the federal government in 1875.
Municipal and regional governments and school boards have been established under the authority of and regulation by provincial governments to care for strictly local matters. Mayors, reeves (local council presidents), and members of municipal or regional governments are elected to office. All members of other boards and commissions, police departments, and the judiciary are appointed by either federal, provincial, or local government bodies.
Canada is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and of the United Nations (UN). Because of its reputation for seeking impartial settlements to international disputes, Canada has been called upon to take part in a number of UN peacekeeping missions.
Membership in the Commonwealth, composed of Britain and many of her former colonies, has tended to give Canadians a broader and more moderate view of the world than it might have had otherwise.