Canada’s government is a federal system. That is, we have more than one level of government, in fact, we have a national (or federal government) uniting the country and 13 provincial & territorial governments which are governed individually. We also have local governments in municipalities and towns, which deal with (you guessed it) local issues.
As such, each level has its own set of powers or areas of legislative jurisdiction for which it is responsible.
Particularly, the federal and provincial government have a bunch of do’s and don’ts (in legal jargon this is called being intra vires and ultra vires) in the form of division of powers. Most powers are assigned to the federal government in section 91 of the Constitution and section 92 sets out most areas of provincial responsibility. There are other sections that outline other responsibilities, but for the most part sections 91 and 92 are where most division of powers are located.
This diagram will give you some idea of how responsibilities are divided:
You will notice that the federal and provincial bubbles overlap. This is because there are some items (such as immigration, agriculture noted in the graphic, and others such as law and justice, and healthcare to some degree), where the provinces and the federal government share power.
Take healthcare for instance (a particularly complex area): the national government and provincial governments each have a minister of health; the feds fund healthcare by providing lump sums of money to the provinces and are responsible for ensuring compliance with the Canada Health Act. Healthcare is certainly a priority for Canadians nationwide.
However, the provinces are primarily concerned with healthcare overall and its related activities: they handle contracts of medical practitioners, choose where and how to spend money on healthcare, establish priorities and programs and fund the provincial healthcare plan (eg. OHIP, AHCIP etc).
Mostly though, there are distinct powers for each level of government.
The provinces are responsible for provincial transportation infrastructure, hospitals and health services and their providers, education and so forth. They are also officially responsible for developing and funding transit projects, police forces, and social welfare. However, they often “de-evolve”/ “download” or restructure responsibilities to the municipal or local level, particularly the responsibility of carrying out the service or program. Essentially, anything that is of a private or local nature is a provincial responsibility.
We will get into more specifics about municipal or local government in another tutorial but for our purpose now, let’s talk about municipal governments more broadly.
Municipalities are in a weird position constitutionally. That is, they do not exist as specifically organized entities recognized by the Constitution with specific responsibilities laid out. In fact, they exist only inso far as they are created by provincial statutes (legislation). However, in recent years, municipalities have taken on more and more responsibilities have been re-aligned or downloaded from the provinces and some municipalities have been given additional tools and resources to govern themselves without as much provincial involvement.
Local governments are often responsible for transit, property tax collection fire and emergency services, water treatment and so forth. These are the items which most Canadians frequently come into day to day contact with. It makes sense then that there are local civil servants and government officials who are responsible for these things. At the same time, quality, funding, volume and use of such services varies from city to city, town to town. Some local governments won’t have any transit infrastructure because there isn’t a need due to population size being small. Moreover, there may be two separate governments at the local level.
Sometimes services are divided between regional municipalities and the local cities. For instance, in Ontario there is the Regional Municipality of Peel with its own council with elected regional representatives from Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon which is responsible for things like garbage collection so that collection dates and facilities are determined by the regional council and each city (or town in the case of Caledon) has responsibilities for their specific priorities such as community centers and libraries.
The feds, on the other hand, are responsible for all things national: defence, currency, foreign affairs; they are also responsible for making criminal law (set our primarily in the Criminal Code of Canada), banking regulations and the Bank of Canada. They also have residual powers: any area not specifically given to the provinces by the Constitution, particularly in the areas known as Peace, Order and Good Governance, though the federal government’s ability to act in these areas as intended by the Fathers of Confederation have been severely limited by judicial review, mainly by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which was the country’s final court of appeal until 1949.