Canadian Politics 101 (A Historic Election)

Derek Ouellette —  May 3, 2011

The other night Canadians were reminded, in what is already said to be a historic election, that (sometimes) democracy actually works. In order for you to understand what made that night historic, you need to have a basic understanding of Canadian politics.

Canadian politics can be confusing, especially for my American friends just over the border from me. Our government is essentially a “British Government” style. In fact our Head of State is the Queen of England (still today, albeit mostly for symbolic purposes). We don’t vote for a person (like a President), we vote for a party and the leader of that party becomes our Prime Minister (PM). Actually it gets confusing because we vote for the person running in our “district” who represents a particular party. This is frustrating because you may not like the individual who is in your district, but if you want to see your favorite party become the government, you must vote for that individual anyways.

The geography of Canada is divided up into 308 (presently) different districts. When someone in a particular district wins a vote of those in their district they become their representative in the “House of Common”. The elected individual becomes an MP (Member of Parliament), and the party that receives the most amount of elected members becomes “the government”.

Canada has two types of government. A “Majority Government” which means that a particular party has filled a majority of the seats in parliament. Simply put, a majority government works well because when something has to be voted on, all the members of the party have to do is vote consistently, and the vote will go through. The other parties, even combined, do not have much power.

In a “Minority Government” things are quite different. A Minority Government is when the largest party has less than half the seats in parliament. They still form the government because they have the most seats, but they do not have the same power or ability to keep to their platform. If the other parties in government (traditionally there has been at least three other party represented in parliament) join voices, they can block the government from doing what it wishes and even vote something in and make something happen against the wishes of the government. The other parties form a “coalition” against the government. This is extremely rare, but possible. In a Minority Government nothing typically gets done. Parliament looks more like a kindergarten class out of control (complete with shouting matches, name calling, et cetera).

What eventually may happen is the “official opposition” (the party with the second most seats) will lead the charge with the other parties for a “vote of no-confidence”. When that happens the “Governor General” (the Queen of England’s representative) will disperse Parliament prematurely. The elections begin.

This happened several weeks ago when the Conservative Minority Government received a vote of no-confident by the other parties. The Liberal Party fast-tracked the election period (the campaign was only 6 weeks long) hoping that Canadian’s would vote Liberal amidst all the confusion so that they might become the next government.

Historically the map has always been RED and BLUE. Canadians have always voted Liberal (red) or Conservative (blue). The NDP (New Democrat Party – orange) has traditionally been the third largest party, but never a real contender. The “Bloc Quebecois” has traditionally been a minor presence on the map, they are a separatist party whose main (perhaps we might say, only) platform is to see the French province of Quebec become its own sovereign country.

With this background, here’s what made Monday’s elections historic:

  • The Conservative Party received a vote of no-confidence by the opposition MP’s, but Canadians voted the Conservatives back into government and gave them a Majority Government (167 seats)!
  • The Liberal Party received its worse defeat in history. This is the first time in history that the Liberals are neither the government (position 1) nor the opposition (position 2). They received only a measly 34 seats in parliament.
  • The NDP rose in their place having received a staggering 102 seats in parliament. For the first time in history the Canadian map is Blue and Orange.
  • The separatist Bloc Quebecois party was crushed in Quebec by the NDP – it’s leader resigned.
  • A new party arrived in parliament, the “Green Party of Canada”, filling one seat.

Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged and think, how can my one voice make a difference? Does democracy really work? Monday’s elections proved that when enough people feel strongly about something, if given a chance, they will unite to make a change. The message from the election is that Canadians want to see a government that will get things done (kindergarten is out, time to grow up). The only way for that to happen is for their to be a Majority Government. But Canadians also emphatically decided that they wanted no more of what the Liberal’s have to offer (for whatever number of reasons including the scandals last time they were in office and mixed feelings about the current – now resigned – leader). Thus the Conservative party made the best sense for a strong Canadian government. And naturally those who were usually inclined to vote Liberal would cast one for the NDP.

This just goes to show that sometimes Democracy does work.

Winston Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dave Leigh

    Thanks Derek! How do the labels liberal and conservative compare to what they represent in the U.S.?

    • Derek Ouellette

      That is a debatable question and I’m not sure I know enough to answer it accurately. But I’d suggest that the Conservatives are relatively akin to your Republicans, the Liberals are relatively akin to your Democrats and the NDP are relatively akin to your more extreme Democrats. But that’s not at all a perfect comparison. If someone has a better answer, please chime in.

  • fidgetwidget

    While I won’t disagree that it was historic, I don’t think it went to show that Democracy works… in fact, if you look at the numbers, it shows quite the opposite.

    With only 40% of the popular vote, the Conservatives won Majority (this might be why the rest of the world thinks Canadians aren’t very good at math)
    40% equated to 164 seats, and 60% with the remaining 141 seats.
    If you also take into account the fact that only 55% of eligible voters were at the polls, that means it took only 22% of the eligible vote to bring that party into majority… democracy and math do not seem to be working in Canadian politics (for more reasons than these, but that I will leave alone).

  • markrbaye

    fidgetwidget took the words right out of my mouth. very important to understand those statistics.

    we can play the Majority card but the numbers game is not something any Conservatives should honestly want to play. they have a Majority government with a quatrter of the country voting for them.

    sure, people should have voted. but that number says 78% of Canadians did not want the Conservatives governing. is that truly democracy?

    this simply could have been right place and the right time for the Conservatives. there were several elements at play.

    sadly sometimes democracy is merely a popularity contest.

    “He didn’t come back for you.” BOO!!!

    Parliament Idol.

  • FrGregACCA


    With Canadian neocon Harper now firmly in control, I suppose we can expect a Koch Brothers-endorsed, Scott Walker-inspired, Wisconsin-style union-busting, privatizing, take-no-prisoners agenda?

    There was a time when Canadian conservatism was not a clone of that found in the United States: something called “Red Toryism”. Guess those days are passed.

    • Derek Ouellette


      “Koch Brothers-endorsed, Scott Walker-inspired, Wisconsin-style union-busting, privatizing, take-no-prisoners agenda?”

      I have no idea what that means.

  • Ryan Collins

    According to fidgetwidget, Canadian politics seems just as confusing and (appears to be) full of wackjobs like our Government. How come humanity loves to make difficult the things that should be easiest?

    • Ryan Collins

      Forgot to add: I know some Messianic Rabbi’s in Canada that were voting Conservative for the first time in their lives simply because of Harper’s Israel stance. I’m not sure if Messianic Judaism or Judaism has much power in Canada (I’m at the other border in AZ), but I know that it at least influenced some Rabbi’s and their congregations to vote Conservative.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Ryan, I’m not aware of any special interest of Israel in Canadian politics. But could be wrong.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Fidgetwidget (name please?) is correct, but those numbers are not unique to this election and he missed the point of what I meant by “historic”. (For a recap, just read the bullet’s, those are historic happenings).

    When I said that sometimes Democracy works, I emphatically did not mean we have a perfect system in which there was 100% voter turn out and that the numbers perfectly reflected the electorates (in fact I would have thought that the closing quote by Churchill should have made that clear). I meant that Canadians wanted change which is typically slow coming in Democratic systems, but was quite abrupt and emphatic. (I’m going to die the death of 1000 qualifications, but…) by “Canadians” I mean of those who actually voted. We cannot speak with confidence about those who did not.

    Mark, that’s why I don’t agree with you conclusion that “78% of Canadians did not want to the Conservatives governing”. We can only speak for sure of those we know of. Thus as best we can say 60%.

    Please note everyone, these numbers are not unique to this election and would be relatively reflective of past elections. We only like to point them out when our party loses.

    In any case, the significant changes on Monday night reflect a historic evening and a reminder that, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried” (Churchill), but that “sometimes it does work” more or less (me). :)

    • Ryan Collins

      “Please note everyone, these numbers are not unique to this election and would be relatively reflective of past elections. We only like to point them out when our party loses.”

      Sounds a lot like the Popular Vote/Electoral Vote debates when it comes to electing the President (Gore in 2000 against Bush, for example). I know nothing about Canadian politics, nor anything about this election outside of the fact that the Messianics were strongly in favor of Harper because of his Pro-Israel stance.

    • fidgetwidget

      I never argued that it was historic, only that it showed Democracy working… your point that people voted for the conservatives to get a majority just isn’t accurate… 60% of the people said they didn’t want the conservatives, and yet they still won a majority.

      I pointed this out not because “my party” lost… the MAJOR reason I voted for the NDP this time around was because they were the only party that said they wanted to change the past the post system the numbers showed to be very broken. I have nothing against the conservatives as a party (I have voted for them in the past), and am not an NDPer (they did some major harm the BC’s economy, where I live), so the idea that we only complain when it doesn’t work for us is glib and assuming an immature and self focused vision for/of the world.

      For me to say that your statement of democracy works is simply because your part won would be just as immature and petty on my part… so instead I have hope that you can see that the numbers point to the fact that the people’s voice wasn’t heard. We don’t have proportional representation, and because of that, large numbers of people don’t vote at all (I was one of them only 7 years ago).

      Maybe you know someone who would have (but didn’t), but everyone I know that didn’t vote… wouldn’t have voted conservative. Also, there are a good number of people who can’t vote even though they are ‘eligible’ because they don’t have an address (homeless)… and I would hope you can see that they wouldn’t have voted conservative… so while we only have numbers for the 60% that said no to the party that got the majority, it isn’t a stretch to say that is is closer to 70% of the people that don’t like him/them.

      Again, even if I voted conservative (as I have in the past) I would be disappointed in the system that CLEARLY doesn’t work.
      As for your quote, the context points to a democracy that was working (just not for him, as he had just lost power, after winning a war). So sure, we can say “democracy doesn’t work” when its not working for us… and “democracy is great” when it is working for us… but as a Christ follower, we have to see a bigger picture than ourselves, and recognize that 60% is a bigger majority than 40% even when we are in that 40%.

    • Derek Ouellette


      “60% of the people said they didn’t want the conservatives.”

      Agreed as I said, “Thus as best we can say 60%”.

      “For me to say that your statement of democracy works is simply because your part won would be just as immature and petty on my part.”

      Point was that we can always squabble about the inadequacies of any political system, but we tend to do it less (draw less attention to that fact) if the party we favor is the winning party. If that’s not you, don’t take it personal (sorry if it came across that way).

      “Maybe you know someone who would have (but didn’t), but everyone I know that didn’t vote… wouldn’t have voted conservative. Also, there are a good number of people who can’t vote even though they are ‘eligible’ because they don’t have an address (homeless)and I would hope you can see that they wouldn’t have voted conservative.”

      The claim that they wouldn’t have voted conservative is presumptuous. It seems to be based on that fact that the people you know who didn’t vote “wouldn’t have voted conservative.” Most of the people I talk to who weren’t able or didn’t (for whatever reason) vote would have voted conservative. Of course had everyone voted, they would not have all voted conservative, but I wouldn’t make the absolute claim to know that all homeless people “wouldn’t have voted conservative”.

      Also, I never made the claim (at least I don’t think I did) that “democracy works” (sigh, the death of a thousand qualifications). If I did, I readily retract it.

      But as a Christ follower, we have to see a bigger picture than ourselves, and recognize that 60% is a bigger majority than 40% even when we are in that 40%

      I employed the term “Majority” in the official way throughout the post. I consistently referred to Majority as majority of seats in the house. That is true (I affirm that even as a Christ follower :) ). To recognize that 60% is a bigger majority than 40% (not in the official “Majority Government” sense), as I already said, “Thus as best we can say 60%” <-- recognition, yes? So either way I seem to qualify "as a Christ follower" in this discussion. Now I'm tempted to suggest that as a Christ follower we should read the post in it's context and acknowledge that the term "Majority Government" is used throughout in the specialized political sense meaning majority seats in the house of common, rather than hammer away at a fact that we all agree on, that 60% of the votes did not vote conservative.

  • Brian

    Canada better hope their conservatives aren’t like the Scott Walker, union-busting thugs down here. Canadians as far as I know (especially in Windsor) won’t put up with that crap for too long. :) If they do, they aren’t the Windsorites that I thought I knew.

  • markbraye

    a lot of great points being made.

    i am uncomfortable with the elements of Republicanism that Harper seems to idolize. scary stuff!

    that’s fair Derek; your comment about the percentages. my point is simply not to get too caught up in the numbers. the fact is, less than half the people who voted wanted the Conservatives to govern. and with voting numbers where they were, well under half the country wanted the Conservatives to govern. let’s assume the folks who did not vote wanted neither of the options available. it’s not solely a shot against the Conservatives on my part.

  • FrGregACCA

    Derek, I am surprised that you are not aware of what has been happening in Wisconsin, traditionally one of the most progressive states in the U.S., since the beginning of the year.

    See the following, for example:

    For more, Google “Koch Brothers” and Wisconsin

  • Derek Ouellette

    Afterwards For Clarification Purposes: I should note that Canada has a Parliamentary Democracy. Democratic elections are understood in terms of electoral votes rather than popular votes. While the Conservatives formed a Majority Government, they did so on only 40% of the popular votes. That is because they received a majority of the electoral votes (167 of 308). This is because the population by district varies from district to district. When I said that sometimes democracy works, what I meant was that when enough people want change they will make it happen. The fact that this was a historic election proves that democracy worked in this election, not just because the Conservatives formed the Majority Government, but also because the Liberals sunk to a historic low, because the Bloc was voted nearly off the map and because the NDP became the official opposition for the first time in history. Thus sometimes democracy works.

    • FrGregACCA

      I agree that the NDP becoming the official opposition for the first time is indeed historic. Next time, maybe it will be able to form the government!

      I am concerned about low voter turnout in the United States but didn’t realize that it was also an issue in Canada. Given the differences between the Canadian Westminster system and the Presidential system in the United States, there are differences in electoral dynamics (although both systems are first-past-the-post), but it remains the case that in the last general election in the U.S., in 2010, approximately 25% of the electorate gave the Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives in that only 40% of folks voted. In 2008, the overall turn-out was something like 60%, and, sadly, this is considered to be a very high turnout.

  • Brian

    FrGreg, those things that are happening in Wisconsin are also going on in Indiana. These crazy nut jobs are following in the footsteps of Hitler who destroyed unions. That coupled with their intense hatred for all people Mexican, leans on the side of slightly scary. Hopefully they get reigned in and they don’t get very scary.

  • Darryl

    One minor correction:

    “The Liberal Party fast-tracked the election period…”

    The Liberal Party has no power to do this. It would have to be the Governor General, probably at the recommendation of the outgoing Prime Minister.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for the correction Darryl. It is actually the Prime Minister who usually sets the campaign length. So perhaps we might say that the Conservatives fast-tracked the election period…

      Very astute. Much appreciated.

  • Randy Mitchell

    These blogs have been a very interesting and refreshing read. It is heartening to observe the politeness and informed conversations taking place here and fondly reminds me of the 20 odd years I spent in British Columbia. I miss the respectful discourse of a people who not unlike the average American are only looking for what is right and good for themselves and their country. The opposition here as is true anywhere, seems to be made up of only those who wish power and control over the individual.
    I believe that the radical factions will always be present either here, there or otherwise and require only the will and engagement of the (majority)of the people to be held in check. I do not pretend to fully understand radical ideology of any kind but I do understand the value of common sense.
    Thank you for your involvement. Let’s hope that in the upcoming 2012 U.S. elections common sense will also prevail here.