Branches of Government: The Executive Branch

This is the first in a series on the branches of government in Canada. The Executive Branch will be followed by a three-parter on the Legislative Branch. A tutorial on the Judicial Branch will come later.

Note: I have been experiencing issues with getting embedding Prezi presentation to play on the site. Please view the video at this link if the prezi will not play for you on the site



Bicameral: having two legislative or parliamentary chambers

By-election: A smaller election held in between general elections in order to elect a representative to an empty position or seat.

Caucus: Members of a politicial party who sit in parliament and who regularly meet to discuss strategy and activities of the party in parliament.

Coalition government: A government made of two or more political parties which form the cabinet and govern through cooperation. For some information of coalition governments see: CBC News. Precendents from around the world.

Collective Ministerial/Cabinet Responsibility (also known as cabinet solidarity): An example of a convention. This is the practice that a minister must vote for and/or publically defend all government decisions made by cabinet. They may disagree with the decision privately, but they must show solidarity in public. Moreover, if the government is defeated in a vote of no-confidence in the legislature, all ministers, including the prime minister, must resign.

Confederation: The federal union first of the colonies of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on July 1st, 1867. Soon followed by the addition of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories (1870), British Columbia (1871), PEI (1873), Yukon (1898) Saskatchewan and Alberta (1905), Newfoundland (1949), and Nunavut (1999).

Confidence/No-Confidence: A parliamentary convention. Governments must retain the confidence of the House of Commons in order to continue to govern. If a motion of no-confidence passes the House, then a government must resign to be replaced by a new government (formed from the Opposition if they believe they can win the confidence of the House) or a general election must be held.

Constitution: The supreme law of the land. In Canada, the constitution is both written (a piece of statute or law) and unwritten (made up of practices known as conventions).

Constitutional monarchy:A form of government in which the monarch is the head of state but whose power is limited by the constitution and other laws of the country. Most constitutional monarchies use a parliamentary system wherein their role is ceremonial except in certain instances when the monarch may exercise reserve or prerogative powers.

Conventions: A political custom or practice which makes up part of the unwritten constitution in Canada. Canadian scholar Peter Hogg says: “Conventions are rules of the constitution which are not enforced by the law courts…  What conventions do is to prescribe the way in which legal powers shall be exercised. ” For example, the constitution of Canada does not describe the role or function of the executive branch (the prime minister and cabinet). The roles, responsibilities and functions of these officers are set by practice or convention from Britain and from practices in Canadian history.

Dissolution: The dismissal of the legislature which results in an election being called.

Electoral District (aka: riding/constitutency): Geographical divisions across the country representing one seat in the House of Commons (or, at the provincial level, one seat in the provincial legislature). There are currently 308 electoral districts or ridings  across the country. Once an election has been held, and a winner is declared, each riding will be represented by an individual known at the federal level as a Member of Parliament, or MP. An electoral district at the municipal level is known as a ward and is represented by a city or regional councillor.

Entrench: literally to place within or surround with. This just means that the Charter was engrained in the Constitution Act, becoming a part of the constitution instead of acting as a stand-alone piece of legislation. This move gave the Charter much more power and force, particularly because unlike ordinary legislation, the constitution is much more difficult to amend.

Federalism: “A system of government which has created, by written agreement, a central and national government to which it has distributed specified legislative (law-making) powers, and called the federal government, and regional governments (or sometimes called provinces or states) governments to which is distributed other, specified legislative powers.” (Source: Federalism definition. Accessed: November 20, 2012 from )

Governor-General (aka, Vice-Regal): In Canada, is the official representative of the British Monarch in Canada. This individual is invested with all of the same powers as responsibilities of the monarch as the British monarch cannot be in Canada all of the time.

Habeas corpus: a legal action that requires a person accused of a crime and arrested in brought to appear before a judge as quickly as possible, that a person can be released from unlawful detention wherein there is a lack of evidence.

Head of government: In Canada, the chief officer (the first or prime minister or premier at the provincial level) of the executive branch which is made up of ministers.

Head of state: the person who holds the highest office or position in a sovereign state and has certain powers and is the chief representative of a country. In Canada, the head of state is the monarch of Britain who is represented by the Governor-General.

Ideology: Ideology is “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” ( Political ideology is  a doctrine or belief system that defines a political group.

Member of Parliament: A representative of voters of a particular riding in federal parliament. Usually, a member of a political party elected to a seat in the legislature. At the provincial level, elected political representatives are known as Members of  Provincial Parliament (MPPs) in Ontario, Members of National Assembly (MNAs) in Quebec, and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) elsewhere.

(Individual) Ministerial Responsibility: An example of a constitution convention. This refers to the fact that ministers alone are responsible for the goings-on in their individual departments or ministries, and must answer for the actions (or in some cases, in-action) of the ministry to the legislature. They are held accountable for the actions of their department and are expected to resign, if, typically, there is some egregious occurance.

Multiculturalism: Cultural diversity which is represented in communities, policies, programs and institutions. People from various nationalities are free to celebrate and live their culture.

Multi-party system: a system where multiple parties have the opportunity to form government either as individual parties or as members of a coalition government

Non-partisan: Literally, not a partisan; To be non-partisan means that there is no bias or affiliation.

Omnibus bill: A single bill (even a budgetary bill) that can cover a diverse, wide-range of proposals which do not necessarily have anything to do with others covered in the bill and takes only a single vote to pass.

Opposition:  The parliamentary system is an adversarial structure with the governing party (or parties) sitting on one side of the legislature and the opposition (made up of other elected represenatives of political parties) sitting on the other. The Opposition’s role is to critique the government, their actions or inactions, their spending habits, their policies and their programs. The Offical Opposition, is the party with the second greatest number of seats in the legislature and are known as the ‘government in waiting’.

Parliamentary System: a democratic system of government in which ministers of an executive branch govern the country while being required to keep the confidence of the legislative branch or parliament as a whole. Power is said to lie in the supremacy of parliament which is vested in the right of the people to vote for their representatives.

Party Whip: Each party assigns one of its members to the role of Whip. The Whip is charged with ensuring that their members of parliament each vote the way the caucus (really the leader of the party) wants them to on a given issue either in the House itself or in a House Committee thus ‘whipping’ their members into shape.

Patriate: To bring home. The Constitution Act, 1982 was an act of Parliament which “brought home” the constitution to Canada. Prior to 1982, the Constitution was a law passed by British Parliament. Canadians could not amend the Constitution at their will, but rather it could only be amended with approval from the British.

Political Party:An organization which tries to influence, direct or create policies based on their ideology or beliefs.Often, political parties vie for political support from citizens/voters, particularly through the electoral process,  in order to secure a mandate to govern.

Referendum (aka plebicite): A form of direct voting where the electorate (voters) make a decision on a given question.  The question is often about some proposal or measure and is asked of the people directly. Some notable examples in Canadian history are the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, which would have ammended the constitution; the referrendums of the secession (or withdrawal ) of Quebec from Confederation.

Responsible Government: “Responsible Government, loosely used to mean a government responsible to the people, as popular rule is naturally conceived to be. Properly, however, as used by those who gained it in Canada, it meant a government responsible to the representatives of the people, ie, an executive or Cabinet collectively dependent on the votes of a majority in the elected legislature. This key principle of responsibility, whereby a government needed the confidence of Parliament, originated in established British practice.” (Source: Canadian Encyclopedia. Responsible government. Accessed November 3, 2012 from

Royal Assent: Occurs when a piece of legislation (a bill) has passed both Houses of Parliament. It is granted by constitutional monarchs (or their represenatives) as the last step before a bill becomes law. It is the formal approval of the bill which grants it official status as a law.

Senator: An appointed member of the Upper Champer/House, known as the Senate. They are appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister and currently serve until the age of 75.  They act as represenatives of one of the regions in Canada (Ontario, Quebec, Maritimes, Western). To be a Senator, the individual must be at least 35 years old and a Canadian citizen and reside in the province they represent.

Session: A meeting of the legislature of parliament. There can be several sessions in one parliamentary cycle (that is between general elections). Each session begins with a Speech from the Throne) and ends with either dissolution (which also ends the parliament) or prorogation (which simply ends the session).

Speech from the Throne: An address to Parliament at the beginning of a new session and read by the crown (either the monarch or the governor-general) which outlines the government’s proposed agenda or program for that session and provides some detail on the country’s state of affairs. It officially opens the session of parliament. It takes place in the Senate. It should be noted that this speech while read by the crown is actually written by the government ministry. Once completed, the House of Commons and the Senate must be to respond to the address, known as ‘Address to Reply to the Speech from the Throne’. The Reply is the first test of the legislatures confidence in the government (a check on government authority) and must be passed in order for business of government to proceed.

Writ: A writ of election is a formal written order that formally dissolves parliament. A writ is drawn up the Chief Electoral Officer for every electoral district or riding in the country so that each district or riding is simultaneously elected.The writ outlines the date of the election. (Source: Elections Canada)