Canada’s Democratic Deficit

Canada is a unique country in many regards. It runs under a parliamentary democracy, but its system of democracy operates also through checks and balances between federal and provincial authorities. The provinces own most of the natural resources, control education, provide services to the population, and collect an equal or larger share of taxes than does the federal government. Not all provincial prerogatives are strictly defined; federal-provincial conflicts arise frequently. These can be resolved only through negotiations or in the courts. The provinces’ consent to any important national decision the federal government makes is vital. Prime Minister Trudeau strove for a unified Canada under a centralist system of government. However, provinces frequently expressed the opinion that this is incongruent with Canadian tradition. Although Canada’s political system was modeled on the British pattern of parliamentary democracy, it resembles. This paper will identify the main features of the complex and tangled system of the Federal Republic. It will demonstrate how they combine to form a system of dispersed leadership. Under the heading ‘Leadership in the federal executive’, the paper will focus on the role of the Governor-General. The paper will then turn to the wider context of political leadership and examine the structure of resources between the executive branch of the central government and the other branches and levels of government that influences democracy deficit. Also, the paper will analyze the elections process and the main causes of low voter turnout.

Discussion Section

Electoral reforms and fixed dates create a unique system of voting in Canada. Still, many critics admit that the current system of elect6ion leads to democracy deficit and low voting rates. This conventional power of the federal Parliament-which has nothing to do with the law as embodied in the Act of Confederation– is not restricted by any provision of law or any convention requiring the consent of all or a number of the provinces. In strict constitutional terms, therefore, the governments or the legislatures of the provinces have no role in the process of constitutional amendment today. Interpretation cannot alter the law; and a deficient constitutional position can hardly, by argument, become adequate and proper (Allan 12). The whole point is only to determine the true constitutional position according to law and constitutional conventions in force. In this respect, provincial “sovereignty” alone, as flowing from the terms of the Confederation Act and court decisions, has not been made to imply that the powers of the provincial legislatures cannot be altered without the latter’s consent. It was pointed out that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is now precluded by a definite constitutional convention to interfere with the affairs of the Canadian “community.” Then, it was asked, given the representative government institutions existing in Canada, how that Parliament interferes with the powers, rights, or privileges of the “supreme” legislatures of the provinces without interfering with the “communities” living under them (Young and Archer 17).

The case put forward against provincial consultation and consent as a pre-requisite to the constitutional amendment is not generally taken to mean that the provinces can be completely ignored in the amending process. It is only logical that the opponents of any rigid theory concerning the requirement of provincial consent should claim that the role of the British Parliament upon an address from both Houses of the Canadian Parliament is purely automatic. The equality of status between Canada and Great Britain, as defined in the Balfour Declaration, would seem to preclude the British Government and Parliament from looking at the merit or demerit of any amendment requested by Canada through constitutional means. If the only definite requirement in this respect is an address from the federal Houses of Parliament, action at Westminster should therefore be automatic upon receipt of such an address in Canada (Young and DeWiel 82).

Today, in national elections every man and woman has the franchise, or the right to vote, if he is eighteen or over, is a Canadian citizen or a British subject who was qualified to vote in the 1968 election and has resided in Canada for twelve months before the election. Since 1970 British subjects, like all other immigrants, must become Canadian citizens before they can vote. Such widespread suffrage is known as universal suffrage. Members of the armed forces may vote regardless of age, on the principle that a man old enough to fight for his country is old enough to vote. Disqualified are judges, those civil servants who supervise the elections, criminals, lunatics, and people found guilty of dishonest practices in previous elections. The same qualifications and restrictions generally exist in the provinces, though there are minor variations in the franchise regulations. In Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island eighteen-year-olds are allowed to vote in municipal and provincial elections. In Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland nineteen-year-olds have the same right (Young and DeWiel 54).

In a comparatively homogeneous nation like Britain, this concept of democracy–majority rule plus individual civil rights–satisfies most citizens. Canada, however, is a pluralistic country composed of people of many different racial and cultural backgrounds. In addition to the Indians and Eskimos and the English and French founding races, there are such ethnic groups as Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Italians, and many others, who collectively make up about 25 % of the population. In the United States, such groups have been closely woven into the fabric of American society. In Canada ethnic groups have been more inclined to remain in geographic and cultural isolation, retaining to a far greater extent the ways of their homelands. Some spokesmen for ethnic groups argue that individual civil rights do not provide sufficient safeguards to maintain the group culture. At present, nominations of candidates are usually presented formally in petitions signed by twenty-five citizens in the constituency. The person nominated must deposit two hundred dollars as proof of his serious intention to run for Parliament (Robertson 32).

In these ways, it is apparent that along with the ambitions and styles of political leaders the needs of the society had an impact on the decision-making process. The democratic process cannot be divorced from the historical and social context in which it takes place. Again, though, the six-country studies also indicated that how the needs of the society affected the leadership process was often partly determined by the other aspect of the leadership environment, namely, institutional structures. For example, in Germany, Italy, and Japan, historical factors were significant, because of how they fed into the institutional environment. They resulted in institutional opportunities, or constraints, which political leaders could mobilize, or which they had to overcome. Similarly, the partisan affiliation of the electorate was important not just in itself, but also by how it was mediated through the system of election to the national legislature. In Britain, the plurality electoral system favored the two large parties, rendering the likelihood of single-party majority governments and alternations in power much greater (Olsen 82). By contrast, in Italy, the proportional electoral system favored the smaller parties, increasing the likelihood of coalition governments and decreasing the potential for any alternation in power. As a result, it may be concluded that, as one aspect of the leadership environment, the needs of the society did have an impact upon the nature of the leadership process. However, it may also be concluded that the key aspect of the leadership environment was to be found under the heading of institutional structures (Olsen 66).

In all, the country studies demonstrated that institutional structures had the greatest impact on the democratic process. The set of elements under this heading helped to determine the ambitions and styles of political leaders and to mediate the impact of the needs of the society. Before the paper goes on to explain why this set of elements should have had such an impact on the democratic process in Canada, it is important to illustrate some of how it was significant. In terms of the structure of resources within the executive branch of the central government, how leaders assumed and left office had significant consequences for the exercise of democracy. For example, in France and the USA, the direct election of the President created an unambiguous focus for leadership, personalizing the leadership process and providing a mandate for government. Presidents in these countries also enjoyed the security of tenure, allowing them to concentrate on both the policy process and securing re-election. In Germany and Britain, the conduct of parliamentary elections created a similar focus for leadership, although the intermediary role of political parties reduced the extent to which the leadership process was personalized (Dobbin 72). Moreover, although German Chancellors enjoyed a considerable degree of job security, British Prime Ministers were vulnerable to party challenges and one of their continuing tasks was to secure their position within the party. By contrast, in Japan and Italy, heads of government were pure party creations, enjoying little direct popular support, possessing only a limited capacity for personal action, and facing the constant threat of dismissal. In such a context, personal leadership was difficult to achieve (Young and Archer 232).

Low voter rates in Canada are explained by the structure of elections. In addition to the structure of resources within the executive branch of the central government, the leadership process was also affected by the structure of resources between this branch of government and the other branches and levels of government. About the prerogatives of central and sub-central units of government, the country studies suggested that political leaders at the central level of government enjoyed the greatest degree of autonomy. more the early U. S. system of politics. Canada, to a great extent, is still a federation of quasi-autonomous states under a weak central authority. It and the free-trade agreement with the United States were central issues in the November 1988 election (Dobbin 34). Throughout history, Canadians have worked to develop a nation culturally and socially distinct from the United States. To an extent, they have succeeded. Canadian lifestyles are somewhat different from the USA. ones; this must be so, if for no other reason than the presence of the French element in Canada (Higgins 72).

In all these ways, the six-country studies confirmed that the leadership process was a product of the interaction between the ambitions and styles of political leaders, the needs of the society, and institutional structures. However, they also confirmed that institutional structures had the most significant impact on the interaction process (Nocil and Whalley 88). The set of elements under this heading was at least partly responsible for determining the ambitions and styles of political leaders, for mediating the impact of the needs of the society upon the decision-making process, and for creating the particular patterns of political leadership that were identified in the six-country studies. These observations imply neither that leaders were unimportant, nor that the needs of the society were irrelevant, nor again that the patterns of political leadership were a function of institutional structures alone. Instead, they simply suggest that institutional structures had the greatest impact upon the leadership process in a country (Lucardie 91).

The institutional approach to politics is derived from the appreciation that institutions, such as the ones identified above, play a fundamental part in structuring the nature of political competition. It is derived from the appreciation that institutional variables explain political outcomes. In the context of political leadership, this approach indicates that institutions help to determine the nature of the leadership process. It indicates that they are primarily responsible for structuring the interaction between leaders and the leadership environment. At the outset, though, it must be stressed that the institutional approach does not indicate that institutions themselves exercise leadership. Individuals exercise leadership and it is for this reason that it is necessary to study the ambitions and styles of individual political leaders. Moreover, institutions operate within the context of complex social forces and historical traditions, and, likewise, it is for this reason that it is equally necessary to study the needs of the society. Instead, to say that institutions help to determine the nature of the leadership process is simply to say that this process is structurally suggested. In short, the institutional approach indicates that how and the extent to which Presidents and Prime Ministers can influence the outcome of the decision-making process is in part determined by the role of institutions in the political system. In the first place, institutions are significant because they affect the degree of pressure that political actors can apply to the leadership process. Institutions define the rules of the political game. They mark out certain boundaries within which the decision-making process operates. They do so because they provide political leaders with potential leadership resources and constraints. Such resources and constraints include the presence of constitutional and procedural prerogatives, or their absence; the strength of formal and informal compliance mechanisms, or their weakness; and the abstract authority of a particular position, or its contestability. In sum, these resources and constraints may provide office-holders with the opportunities to achieve power, but they also place obstacles in the way of achieving such power (Olsen 65). As a general rule, the greater the set of resources that are concentrated upon a particular office, the more likely it is that the incumbent of that office will be able to exercise personal and strategic leadership. The greater the set of constraints, the less likely it is that such leadership will be forthcoming (Nocil and Whalley 55).

The corollary of this point is that, by mapping the institutional structure of a particular country, it is possible to indicate the fundamental pattern of that country’s decision-making process. In any particular country at any one time, many institutions are operational. This means that the leadership process is shaped not by a single institution (such as the prime ministership), nor by a single set of institutions (such as the executive). Instead, the leadership process is shaped by a combination of interlocking institutions and sets of institutions (Cross 72). The relationship between these institutions is complex and their effects are almost always countervailing. And yet, the sum of these relationships and their effects produces a distinctive pattern of political leadership. Such patterns were identified in each of the six-country studies. The configuration of the country’s many different institutional structures meant that leadership resources were concentrated upon the prime ministership. They simply suggest that institutional structures were responsible for providing particular distributions of leadership resources and constraints and for creating patterns of political leadership (Nocil and Whalley 27).

The deficit of democracy in Canada is explained by complicated decision-making processes and low governmental accountability. From a historical perspective, the decision-making process was often remarked that the Constitution of Canada resembled much more closely that of the United States than that of the United Kingdom. The truth is that the document of 1867 largely reflects the American federal system so far as its express terms are concerned; but it also establishes — or rather maintains — simply by way of reference, the main political institutions of Britain, namely those contained in the conventions of the constitution. Nevertheless, we are not concerned here with the place — very important, indeed! — of conventions in the whole body of Canadian constitutional law. Our concern is restricted to their part in the process of molding the written fundamental law to changing needs. It is an unquestioned rule of law that usage, however well established, can never supersede the provisions of an act of Parliament (Cross 23). Law and practice, Constitution and government, are quite different matters. What is prohibited in law and cannot be recognized by the courts may well become an established practice which will never be or is not even susceptible of being submitted to the courts. This situation may happen in the internal working of government or the relations of the government with the government whenever private rights are not directly involved. A situation then arises where a political stand according to the law but in violation of such practice would be faced by disapproval at the general elections, or by universal disobedience, or even by revolution. The force of things prevails over the force of law (Cross 43).

Up to now, no amendment has been made or sought concerning minority rights. As regards parliamentary representation, on the other hand, several changes were secured and the practice here is not in accord with the above line of thought. The first case arose in 1871 when the federal Parliament was expressly empowered to create new provinces and to give them representation both in the Senate and in the House of Commons. The amendment was requested by Ottawa without any consultation with the provinces and any claim to such consultation being expressed by the provincial governments. The House of Commons declined to endorse David Mills’s resolution that any alteration of the principle of representation as determined by sections 51 and 52 of the Confederation Act without the permission of the provinces would be a violation of a main principle of the Constitution (Young and Archer 66). The federal attitude and the provincial indifference are largely explained by the fact that the enactment of 1871 was generally not regarded, at that time, as extending new powers to Ottawa, but simply as removing doubts in respect to powers said to be already implied in the Constitution. Indeed, no one could have expected new territories to become part of Canada, as expressly provided for by the act of 1867, without being entitled to representation in Parliament (Cross 65).

It cannot be doubted that both these instances of amendment weigh heavily against the necessity of federal consultations with the provincial governments before any change in the constitutional provisions relating to parliamentary representation. On the other hand, they can hardly serve as precedents to refuse any constitutional competence to the provinces to express their opinions or even to oppose a proposed amendment, since the provincial governments may be said to have then acquiesced in the amendments. Moreover, these amendments did not alter, in absolute terms, the representation of the original provinces, but simply added to it to give representation on more or less the same basis to the new provinces and territories (Higgins 65).

The departures from certain provisions of the Confederation Act, however, are points of substance that raise the issue of the assumed exclusive competence of the federal power. The departure respecting provincial jurisdiction over education in Newfoundland did not affect any of the powers, rights, or privileges of the other provincial communities of Canada either as self-governing political entities or as distinct geographical and social units within the federal State. Such a departure from the terms of the Confederation Act would not have afforded any ground to support a provincial claim for consultation before action by the federal Houses of Parliament (Higgins 44). The situation as it stands today concerning constitutional provisions relative to parliamentary representation, minority rights, and other rights or privileges of provincial communities as distinct geographical and social units may now be summarized in a few lines. The federal exclusive power to request amendments from Westminster — a power resulting entirely from convention, and in no way from law proper — is not restricted either in law or by a positive constitutional convention. Moreover, a practice of action by the federal Houses without the active co-operation of the provincial governments, and even in disregard of any opposition from that source, has been built up upon a fair variety of cases within the subject matter of representation (Robertson 32).

Government accountability should not be regarded as lessening the need for the establishment of a definite practice of legislative action — either by an act or by a resolution. Under responsible government, the powers of a “supreme” legislature and, more generally, the fundamental law of a province, are not matters to be altered without the consent of such legislature — or the people, should there be any machinery for a direct reference to it. The power of the constitutional amendment is not administrative and is not properly to be exercised by an executive unless expressly delegated to it. Moreover, action by the legislatures is the procedure expressly set down in the Confederation Act to amend the constitutions of the provinces. It seems only proper that the same procedure be followed whenever a province is called upon to concur with any other legislative body, in Canada, in a proposed alteration of the fundamental law as embodied in the federal Constitution. Whenever Canadians have desired to amend their Constitution since Confederation, they have had to choose between requiring the consent of the governments of all the provinces or leaving the federal Parliament to proceed as it saw fit in its judgment without the concurrence of any other body in Canada. There was no middle course. No rule had ever been laid down requiring the consent of only a certain number of the provinces. This dilemma explains why many students of the Constitution who found the requirement of unanimous provincial concurrence an exceedingly difficult obstacle to constitutional changes have so tenaciously supported a theory under which the requirement of provincial consultation and consent is purely a matter of political expediency for the federal government and Parliament to decide in each case (Nocil and Whalley 102).

The democratic process was also affected by the distribution of constitutional and procedural powers within the executive. All the same, British and German heads of government were faced with countervailing pressures from both collective and departmental interests. Moreover, the lack of collegiality within the US executive meant that Cabinet members had little incentive to be loyal to the President’s program. Finally, the dualism of the French executive meant that there was both a certain tension within the system and the potential for presidential government to be replaced by prime ministerial government. Consequently, although certain leaders enjoyed not inconsiderable powers, in no country did the principal political leader enjoy an absolute set of powers with which to exercise leadership over the executive. Finally, the international position of the country was shown to affect the leadership process. In this respect, it was significant whether or not the country in question possessed nuclear weapons. This situation increased the leader’s authority within the executive and encouraged (Nocil and Whalley 133).

Government accountability within decision-making processes affects the direction of the pressure that political actors can apply because they help to shape political behavior. As noted above, institutions are collections of rules, procedures, and standard operating practices. As such, they produce certain duties and obligations by which office-holders have to abide. This means that leaders cannot simply assume office and behave in any way they may wish. Instead, they have to play out certain roles which the institution creates for them. Leaders are obliged to behave in ways that are appropriate to these institutional roles (Nocil and Whalley 143). Institutionalism helps to explain the nature of the leadership process. Political leadership consists of a process of interaction between leaders and the leadership environment in which they operate. At the same time, this interaction process takes place within the context of institutional structures, which help to determine where power lies and what roles political leaders have to play. And yet, this is not to say that institutions predetermine political outcomes, nor that they fix leadership behavior in advance. Institutionalism is neither deterministic nor reductionist. It is simply to say that they construct a strategic context within which political leaders make their choices. In Canada, political leaders express their ambitions and exhibit their styles, but their behavior is not an independent variable. Instead, it is shaped by the particular institution in which the leader is operating and by the general institutional configuration of the polity. The free will of political leaders is channeled through such institutional mechanisms. In this way, the institutional approach to politics avoids the problems associated with both methodological individualism and structural determinism. In short, it is perfectly compatible with the interactionist approach to the study of political leadership. The second main advantage of the institutional approach is that it accounts for variations in the decision-making processes of individual countries. This is because institutions vary from one country to the next. It is also because the configuration of institutions varies from one country to the next (Young and Archer 232).


The deficit of democracy in Canada is explained by ineffective and complicated election procedures and poor government accountability. By stressing the individuality of institutions and sets of institutional structures, the institutional approach sometimes encourages too great a degree of specificity when comparing countries. It produces a misleading tendency in which each country is considered to be exceptional. This tendency results from the observations that institutions and sets of institutions do not operate in the same way in any two countries. Rather, each country’s institutions are different. Each country’s leadership process is unique. However, this is a misleading tendency, because, in its most extreme form, it means that comparisons between countries become futile. If each country is different, then comparisons are trivial. All that can be said is that French institutions are different from Japanese institutions, British institutions are different from US institutions and German institutions are different from Italian institutions. Once again, though, the analysis demonstrated that comparisons were possible. In terms of political leadership, Britain was shown to be similar to France, Germany was similar to the United States and Japan was similar to Italy. In this way, the study of political leadership once again provides an insight into our appreciation of the institutional approach to politics. It does so because it indicates that it is possible to adopt such an approach without falling into the trap of exceptionalism. It indicates that it is possible to make comparisons across countries. More fundamentally again, though, the study of political leadership also indicates the various respects in which the institutions and institutional structures of countries are similar. Although equivalent institutions are not the same in any two countries, there are sufficient similarities in certain cases for comparisons to be made. For example, the country studies demonstrated that the role of the German head of state is sufficiently close to that of the Italian head of state for them to be treated as playing a similar role in the decision-making process. Furthermore, although the configuration of institutions is not precisely the same in any two countries, once again, there are sufficient similarities in certain cases for comparisons to be made. For example, the identification of three sets of countries in which the individual patterns of leadership closely resembled each other demonstrated that essentially unique decision-making processes could be considered together. In this way, by indicating that decision-making processes were marked by elements of both difference and similarity and by identifying where such elements may lie, the study of political leadership provides further insight into the institutional approach to politics.

Works Cited

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Cross, W. Political Parties, Representation, and Electoral Democracy in Canada. Oxford University Press, USA; 1st Paper edition, 2001.

Dobbin, M. The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen: Canada and Democracy in the Age of Globalization. Lorimer; 2 edition, 2003.

Higgins, D. J. Local and urban politics in Canada. Gage Educational Pub. Co, 2003.

Lucardie, P. Pristine Purity: New Political Parties in Canada. American Review of Canadian Studies, 37 (2007), 91.

Nocil, E., Whalley, P. Canadian Politics Unplugged. Dundurn Press, 2003.

Olsen, G. The Politics of the Welfare State: Canada, Sweden, and the United States. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Robertson, Heather-Jane IN CANADA: Txt the Vote. Phi Delta Kappan, 86 (2004), 32.

Young John and Boris DeWiel. Faith in Democracy? Religion and Politics in Canada. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Young Lisa and Keith Archer. Regionalism and Party Politics in Canada. Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.

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