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Jurisdictions : Canada Glossary of Terms

Disclaimer: This glossary does not constitute legal advice.

Act – a law or treaty

Anarchy – The chaos that comes from lack of government and structured society. Anarchy brings chaos, violence and crime as there are no laws or enforcement.

Assembly – A deliberative body, a place where legislators meet to debate law.

Bigotry – Intolerance or hatred of a group of people, generally based on ethnicity, nationality or gender.

British Monarchy – The royal family of Great Britain, currently led by King Charles III, formerly led by Queen Elizabeth II. The head of the British Monarchy (a King or Queen) is the official Head of State of Canada.

British North America Act (1867) – The act of the British Parliament that led to the creation of Canada as an independent nation within the British Commonwealth.

Bureaucracy – The organizational structure of government – the offices and workers that track rules, forms and statistics to ensure the accuracy and consistency in applying the law and maintain government operation.

Bylaw – a Municipal government’s laws applying to its local area,

Cabinet – The group of people responsible for the executive function of government, in Canada they are composed of Ministers.

Capital City – A city where the government rules from, the site of the Parliament (or other national deliberative body) nationally, or in a Province the site of the Legislative Assembly.

Caste System – A system where society is divided into groups of people who have different social rankings or rights, as opposed to equality.

Charter of Rights and Freedoms – Part of the constitution of Canada that became law in 1982 that provides for the most important protections for citizens from government overreach or oppression.

City – An urban municipality of significant size. Standards for what counts as a city vary by time and place, in general the minimum size has been considered to be between 15,000 and 25,000 inhabitants. Smaller urban municipalities can be called villages or towns.

Class – A division of society into tiers, generally of economic power. Lower, Middle and Upper Class are common terms used. They are unofficial, but depending on society may drastically affect people’s interactions and access in society. Canada often uses Class as a reference to the economic standing of populations, but does not have a strong role or recognition of Class in individual life unlike more rigid and traditional societies.

Commonwealth of Nations, The – The Commonwealth is an organization of nations that were part of the British Empire. It works as an international body to share ideas, culture and the spirit of brotherhood among the member nations. There are generally more cultural and governmental ties between members, and trade and migration between Commonwealth members has generally fewer barriers.

Communist – A form of government based on state, rather than private, ownership of most things. It also generally includes a state-run, or planned, economy. This includes the provision of necessities by government and often state influence or dictation of jobs, education, and habitation.

Constituency – An electoral division in a province. Each province is divided into many constituencies, each gets to elect a Member of the Legislative Assembly to represent them.

Constitution – The foundational document of a nation that states the fundamental values of the nation and dictate the form and nature of its government and the rights of citizens.

The Constitution Act (1982) – The current constitution of Canada. It was a major event in Canadian history because it finally “repatriated” or gave to Canada the right to amend (or change) its constitution, which had been a power held by the British government. It includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which establishes at the constitutional level the most important protections for citizens.

Constitutional Monarchy – A form of government that combines monarchy (rule by a King or Queen) and democracy. Canada’s government is a constitutional monarchy, we function as a democracy, but still have some of the ceremonies and structure of a monarchy.

Constitutional Law – The laws of the nation that are set by the Constitution. The constitution of Canada requires not only Parliament, but also the Provinces to sign on and agree to changes, making them much more unlikely to change than normal Federal or Provincial laws. Constitutional law generally focuses on the powers of government or the rights of individuals.

Corruption – Is when government officials – politicians, police or bureaucrats abuse, lie, cheat and steal using the powers of government. This includes being bribed, falsifying records, embezzling (diverting money to themselves), nepotism (giving jobs to friends and family instead of the best person for the job) and more. It is a very dangerous and corrosive force because it undermines the operation and trust of government and an orderly functioning society.

Council – The legislative and deliberative body of a Municipality. They may officially be called Councils, Town Councils, or City Councils.

Councillor – A person who serves on a council, generally through winning an election, though sometimes they are temporarily appointed.

Courts – A court is a system for determining whether a law was broken and what the punishment or correction should be. It is the center of work for the Judiciary. A court is overseen by a Judge, and has a prosecutor representing enforcement and that a person, people, or organization (possibly a government) is guilty of breaking a law, as well as the Defendant and their Council, who are the person, people or organization accused of breaking the law. Both prosecutor and defendant provide evidence, call witnesses and provide testimony to argue their case. The judge must decide after hearing all evidence and arguments what the outcome of a  trial might be. Different types of courts exist to handle different kinds (family, criminal, corporate, etc) and levels (federal, provincial or municipal) of laws.

Criminal – A person who breaks the law, or an action that would break the law.

Deliberative Body – A group of legislators – the people who think about, discuss, draft, revise and pass laws. To deliberate is to carefully consider and talk about to find the best solution or choice.

Democracy – A form of government based on the right to vote or give voice. It can mean having people directly vote on issues, or voting to elect representatives who vote on issues.

Democratic Rights – The rights granted to citizens that ensure the democratic values of a nation. These can include the right to vote, the right to a secret ballot, and the guarantee that governments have to hold elections. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes democratic rights.

Department – A section of government dedicated to working in a particular field of government responsibility and service – the Department of Agriculture for example.

Dictatorship – A form of government based on a Dictator, a supreme leader whose word is law. Dictatorships have historically been terrible governments based on fear and oppression. In a dictatorship no one is safe because the supreme leader can overturn any existing law on a whim. Instead of having established laws and enshrined rights, dictatorships rely on oppressive police and military who can enforce the ever changing laws through fear, intimidation and violence.

Discrimination – To preferentially avoid, denigrate, or otherwise unfairly treat someone, generally over a protected ground such as age, ancestry, belief or gender. When a belief of bigotry is acted out.

Enforcement – Enforcement is a part of the executive function of government. It is handled by Justice departments and police, who work to prevent, stop, uncover, and punish law breaking.

Equality – The principle that all people should be treated equally without discrimination on any protected grounds, such as their age, ancestry, origin, beliefs, or gender. This is the opposite of a class or caste system where people’s rights are different based on some label. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines Equality as a right of citizens.

Executive – The leaders and their departments that actively make decisions in the day-to-day operation of government. In Canada this would be the Prime Minister and their Federal Cabinet at the national level working through the national Ministries, Premiers and their Provincial Cabinet at the provincial level working through their Ministries or Departments and the Mayor or Reeve at the Municipal level working through the city or municipal offices or departments.

Federal/National – Adjectives meaning something that applies to the whole nation or the government of the nation, as opposed to a provincial or municipal government or region.

Freedom of Conscience and Religion – Is the right to one’s own system of values and moral judgment and to be able to act in accordance with it when and where possible as well as the right to believe, or not believe, in any established system of religion. It includes the restriction that government cannot act to promote or enforce any given religion.

Freedom of Thought, Belief, Opinion and Expression – Is the right to think and believe whatever you want, and the right to speak, write and share those beliefs. This covers topics and beliefs outside of the scope of freedom of religion, most notably political values and opinions. The Canadian rights are different from the American “Free Speech” concept in that the language of the Charter does not use absolutes. All Canadian rights are provided with the consideration of reasonable accommodation and reasonable limits, so expression cannot include hate speech, treason or incitement to violence or other flagrant acts to destabilize a peaceful and orderly society or cause unnecessary harm to individuals.

Freedom of the Press – This right protects the operation of free and fair media and reporting in Canada, by protecting individuals’ rights to share their information and opinion including criticism of the government.

Freedom to Peacefully Assemble – Canadians enjoy the right to gather together. This prevents the government from eliminating protests and marches, as well as enshrines protections to gather together to show solidarity, voice concerns, and exchange ideas.

Freedom of Association – The freedom to associate protects Canadian citizens from guilt by association, to be blamed or found guilty merely from knowing, speaking to, or being with another person. It also allows Canadians to gather together in groups or associations to join together for causes or defense, such as joining labour or tenant unions to demand and defend better work or living conditions.

Fundamental Freedoms – These are some of the rights granted to Canadians by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They include the Freedom of Conscience and Religion, Freedom of Thought, Belief, Opinion and Expression, Freedom of the Press, Freedom to Peacefully Assemble and Freedom of Association.

Government Agency – These are components of government; the agencies, departments, ministries, offices or commissions that are tasked with fulfilling the government’s duties. Examples would include the Department of Defence, Ministry of Social Services, or even overseas embassies.

Governor General – Canada’s official Head of State is the King or Queen of England. However, since they’re all the way over in England, Canada needs someone closer to home to actually fulfill the job. The Governor General is a person who is appointed to represent the King or Queen in Canada. It’s a largely ceremonial role, they are a figure head that acts to make things official. They aren’t actually involved in making the decisions for the nation, which is what makes us a democratic Constitutional Monarchy, rather than a traditional monarchy.

Habeus Corpus – A principle of justice. The name comes from Latin “To have the body”, it means to call a person to justice. This works two ways, one that the government can summon a person to face justice, and two, that anyone can require the government state the purpose of anyone being arrested or detained and demand they have a trial to determine the validity of their detainment.

Head of State – A Head of State is someone who acts as a representative of a nation. They are seen as representing the nation in speeches and diplomatic affairs. They have a lot of responsibility in fulfilling this duty, and are also afforded certain protections while serving and possibly after. People often think the Prime Minister is the Head of State in Canada because they serve the role in many ways, but officially the Head of State is the King or Queen of England. The United States’ Head of State is the President.

House of Commons – The House of Commons is one of two deliberative bodies that comprise the Parliament of Canada. It is an assembly for the Members of Parliament (MP) that are elected in a Federal Election to represent their Ridings. The Government of Canada is generally formed by the party that has the most seats, or MPs elected, with that party’s leader serving as Prime Minister.

Judge – A person who oversees legal trials in court to determine who is guilty or what should be done in cases of legal disagreements. They are the backbone of the Judiciary or Judicial System, which is the system of oversight on the enforcement of laws in a jurisdiction.

Judiciary – The Judiciary, or Judicial system, is the part of government responsible for the oversight on the enforcement of laws in a jurisdiction. When police arrest someone, they must go before a judge who provides an impartial review of whether the arrest is valid and necessary. Guilt in Canada is determined by trial, anyone accused of a crime can argue they are innocent. Judges oversee the arguments of the prosecution, pushing to find someone guilty, and the defence, who seek to find someone innocent. The judge must decide what evidence and testimony is valid and how justice is best served with a verdict of guilt or innocence, and if necessary, what punishment is reasonable and effective, such as fines, seizures, restrictions or jail time.

Jurisdiction – From the Latin word “juris” meaning justice and “diction” meaning define, jurisdiction is how we define justice or the law. It can be used in different ways. It can mean the area in which a law applies – the law is defined to that place – as in the jurisdiction of Nova Scotia. It can mean who has the right to define a law over a place or topic the level or body that a law derives from – as in highways are a provincial jurisdiction.

Justice – Justice is the principle that wrongs should be punished and prevented and good rewarded and encouraged to make a world that is fair and good. In Canada we believe that justice is a balance between order and enforcement to ensure rules are followed, and compassion and restoration which allow forgiveness and growth so that those who have wronged can change and grow better.

Language Rights – The Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares Canada to be a bilingual nation with English and French its official languages. This allows anyone to request service in either language so they can best understand the government and most comfortably work with it as needed. The charter also demands the government publish its business, including any law it passes in both languages so that all citizens can know what laws are in effect and understand them.

Law – A written statement that defines what is allowed or not allowed regarding some particular topic or action, that is reviewed and agreed upon by a deliberative body with jurisdiction over the area and topic. Laws exist at the national, provincial, and municipal level, as well as international laws between nations governing how nations act rather than individuals and corporations.

Legislative Assembly – A Legislative Assembly is the deliberative body for a province. It is where Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) meet to represent their constituencies and write, review and pass provincial laws.

Legislator – These are the people that write, review, revise, debate and pass laws at any level of government.

Legislature – The building where the Legislative Assembly meets. Also used as shorthand for Legislative Assembly, or decisions of government, as it is also where the Premier and Cabinet generally work from.

Legitimacy – This is the reason, or reasons a government or people see a government as having the right and responsibility to rule over an area and people. A democracy’s legitimacy is based on the fact that the ruled people get to vote on who rules them for a period of time, choosing who they best believe serves their interests and will make the policy decisions they like. A monarchy bases its legitimacy on the inherited rights of a royal family to the ruled territory and its people. A theocracy bases its legitimacy on the divine right or that provided it the path to rule, believing that its ascent to power was the will of god or gods. A dictatorship bases its legitimacy on power, that it rules because it seizes that right by force, and it can rule as long as it has the power to force people to obey.

Lieutenant Governor – Like the Governor General, Lieutenant Governors are representatives of the King or Queen as Head of State. A Lieutenant Governor acts as the representative of the Head of State within a province. They fulfill a role to enact legislation, order elections and attend important ceremonies. Each province has a Lieutenant Governor. In the territories “Commissioners” play similar roles but represent the Federal government, not the Head of State.

Mayor – The head of government for an urban municipality like a village, town, or city.

Member of The Legislative Assembly (MLA) – An elected legislator for a province. They represent a constituency and attend the Legislative Assembly. An MLA can also be selected to serve as a Minister in the Provincial Cabinet.

Member of Parliament (MP) – An elected legislator for the nation. They represent a riding and attend the House of Commons. A Member of Parliament can also be selected to serve as a Minister in the Federal Cabinet.

Minister – An MLA or MP that is a part of Cabinet. They not only act as a legislator, but are also part of the executive function of government, leading a Government Agency like a Ministry or Department. Some Ministers may have multiple responsibilities, a single Minister might be Minister for the Status of Women as well as Culture, Sports and Recreation.

Ministry – The office that a Minister holds. A government agency or department that deals with a specific aspect of the government’s responsibilities. Some common ministries include Finance, Social Services, Agriculture, or Education. Ministries can be organized differently depending on the government.

Mobility Rights – The Mobility rights of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensure that any citizen has the right to enter, remain or leave the country, as well as travel between provinces and live in any province or territory.

Monarchy – A system of government where the country is ruled by a King/Queen, Emperor/Empress or sometimes a Prince/Princess, Duke or Duchess. Instead of elections they rule for life, and the rulership is hereditary, or passed on to their descendants. Laws are decided by them at their sole discretion. Other people of royal title, such as Duke/Duchess, or Count/Countess rule over regions within the nation instead of Premiers or Mayors.

Municipal/Municipality – This is the smallest form of representative government, covering just a small area like a village, town, city or local rural area. Municipalities are led by Mayors or Reeves who have a Council of representatives each representing a Ward that they deliberate with to create local bylaws. The powers of a municipality may vary, as they are set by the Province. Often the powers depend on the population of the municipality.

Nation – Nations are also known as countries or nation states. They are a high level of government, covering a whole country, which will comprise many provinces or states under it. Nations are sovereign from other nations, there are no assumed or inherited relations or powers between Nations, unlike provinces or states which still have a shared Federal government over them. Nations have different kinds of government (such as Democracy, Constitutional Monarchy or Dictatorship) and are led by Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings/Queens, Supreme Leaders, or other titles.

National/Federal – This adjective means it deals with the entire nation, or the nation’s top level of government.

Official Language – An official language is a language that is enshrined in a nation’s policies, not necessarily constitution, as a language it conducts its business in. In general official language status means the government will provide service in that language and make its publications available in that language. In Canada the official languages are English and French, but that applies only at the Federal level of government, individual provinces may or may not provide language service other than English for any given service.

Parliament – The Canadian Parliament is the two-part system of the House of Commons and the Senate that deliberate over Canada’s national laws. The House of Commons is composed of Members of Parliament that are elected to represent ridings during Federal Elections. The Senate is composed of Senators who are appointed by the Governor General on advice from the Prime Minister who represent large geographic regions and serve until they turn 75 or choose to retire. Laws must be agreed upon by both chambers (the House of Commons and the Senate) to become law in Canada.

Premier – A premier is the leader of a provincial government. They are generally the leader of the party that won the most seats in the Legislative Assembly in the last provincial election. They are also generally a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and represent a constituency. Some nations use the term Premier for a role in the national government, the way we use the term Prime Minister.

President – A president is the title for the head of state and or government leader in most democracies and republics. The United States and France have Presidents that serve as their top leaders. The term is also used to denote a top leader in uses outside of government, such as a club or company president.

Prime Minister – A government consists of a cabinet of many ministers, the person in charge of the ministers is the Prime, meaning first or most important, Minister. In Canada our government is headed by the Prime Minister. This is generally the leader of the party that took the most seats in the last Federal election and is also a Member of Parliament representing a riding. Some countries have Prime Ministers to lead in Parliament, but also have a President that serves as Head of State – like France. In Canada our Head of State is officially the King of England, or their representative in Canada, the Governor General, though the Prime Minister serves this role for all practical purposes.

Province/Provincial – Having to do with a region of a country, a level of government between national and local or municipal. Canada has 10 provinces that comprise the nation along with the three territories. Each province has its own provincial government, cabinet, supreme court, and legislature. Other countries have similar regional divisions but may call them states, cantons, districts, regions or other names instead of provinces.

Public Amenity – These include any number of services or facilities that help people enjoy life that the government builds and operates. They include public pools, skating rinks, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, golf courses, parks, water parks, beaches, walking or hiking trails and more. They are an investment by government to provide for the needs and wants of the public, who after all they represent and who pay for the facility or service through taxes. They make our cities, provinces and nation a nicer place to live, provide a benefit to everyone and are paid for by everyone.

Ratified – A law is a written set of rules decided by a deliberative body to be imposed and upheld by government. Laws are first drafted, or first written, as Bills, things for a deliberative body to discuss and consider. They are then debated or discussed. In the discussion they may be amended, or changed, so that they better serve their intended purpose. When legislators agree on their wording they can be voted on and if the majority agree to making the bill a law it goes through a process of official adoption and once officially law it is considered Ratified.

Reeve – A Reeve is equivalent to a mayor, but for a rural municipality. They are the head of the municipal government, and deliberate with Councillors in a Council.

Representation – Representation is the basis of a republic, and most democracies. They are based on the idea of a group of people choosing, or electing, one of them to represent them as a collective for larger scale decision making. Voting is how Canadians choose representatives. Canadians get to vote and get representation at the Municipal, Provincial and Federal levels.

Representative Government – Is any form of government based on representation.

Republic – A form of government based on representation. Republics are generally led by Presidents that are directly elected in national elections, while the legislative side of government is run by a separate house of representatives. They may or may not have a separate senate. There are a lot of variations on republics, some more democratic than others, some republics in name actually operate more as dictatorships.

Riding – A region that elects a single Member of Parliament in federal elections in Canada. In the 2021 Federal election there were 338 ridings to represent all of Canada.

Right to Life, Liberty and Security of the Person – This is the first right granted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It states the principle that the government should seek to protect freedom of the individual while not endangering them. It is a broad and vague statement, but it provides the foundational values of the Charter.

Right to be Secure Against Unreasonable Search or Seizure – This protects citizens from police abuse and tyranny of having one’s personhood and right to privacy protected. It ensures that police must have reasonable grounds for any arrest, search, or confiscation or seizure of property.

Right Not to be Arbitrarily Detained or Imprisoned – Another protection against police abuse and tyranny the Charter grants is to restrict police and other government agents from detaining or imprisoning people. They must provide a reasonable ground based on an immediate threat, or have a warrant to arrest approved by a judge.

Rights on Arrest or Detention – The charter provides for a wide range of protections for people when arrested or detained by government agents. People must be informed of the reason, they can retain and instruct counsel (or legal representation), they can have the detention challenged by habeus corpus (a judge must confirm the detention is legal otherwise release them), the legal proceedings must not be unreasonably delayed, be presumed innocent, and other technical legal protections.

Right Not to be Subjected to any Cruel and Unusual Treatment or Punishment – Thanks to the Charter, people cannot be subject to strange or undo harm by government agents, including as punishment for being found guilty of a crime. This helps to prevent torture and other oppressive physical acts of tyranny.

Right Not to Self-Incriminate – If called by the courts to give witness, whatever is given as testimony cannot be used to prosecute the witness, except in cases of perjury. This may seem unusual to have courts ignore testimony, but it’s an important protection, it ensures that witnesses can and should give the full truth when asked, and need not fear government action for having done so.

Right to the Assistance of an Interpreter – Even with two official languages there are still millions of Canadians who may not speak English or French well enough, or at all, and therefore can’t understand charges made against them. Everyone has the right to defend themselves in court, and being able to understand and communicate is at the heart of this right. The Charter ensures anyone charged can acquire assistance if needed to understand and engage in the proceedings.

Right to the Equal Protection and Equal Benefit of the Law – The Charter ensures all Canadians are equal. This includes both not being discriminated against due to protected categories such as gender, age, ancestry or origin, as well as having access and benefit of the law. Not only can people not be punished unequally, they also cannot be denied the use of the law or courts in getting justice if they have been wronged. Reasonable restrictions around this right include restrictions on the rights of minors (those under the age of 18 years). Kids are protected, but cannot yet do everything an adult is legally allowed or required to. The restrictions they face are faced by everyone, so they aren’t unequally treated.

Secret Ballot – A secret ballot is a vote that is unidentifiable. It ensures that people can vote in secrecy so that no one can say one way or the other how any one person voted (with the exception of unanimous results). This is a fundamental protection for democracy, because if votes can be identified people could be rewarded or punished based on their voting, which would mean they couldn’t vote freely according to their conscience. A Secret Ballot is fundamental to free and fair elections.

Senate – A Senate is a deliberative body that helps to debate and pass laws. They are generally a component of a national government, but lower levels of government can have them. A senate is composed of Senators.

Senator – Senators are the legislators that comprise a Senate. Senators in Canada are appointed to their positions by the Governor General on recommendation of the Prime Minister. They are supposed to represent a multi-province region of the country. They may or may not align themselves with a political party. In Canada Senators serve until the age of 75 or they choose to retire. Being appointed rather than elected means Senators do not have to worry about election campaigns and the popularity chasing that it entails. Their broad and unspecific representation and their long serving time also makes them very different from Members of Parliament. They are ideally a counterpoint to Mps. They are less swayed by the trends of the day and whims of the public. Ideally appointed because of their exceptional duty to the nation, knowledge and care, they provide a different way of interpreting the law and hopefully give more long term, less political consideration to what laws get enacted. The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. McDonald, called the Senate the “sober second thought” of the Canadian legislative process. That’s because of the traits that allow them to distance themselves from the politics of the day and think long term.

Sovereign – Sovereignty is the ability to act independently and under one’s own rules. Countries are considered sovereign. Other bodies may desire sovereignty, but if they act within a nation, they are bound by its laws.

Supreme Court – A supreme court is a court that can overrule a lower court’s decisions, that its decisions are more important. Nations have Supreme Courts to rule on constitutional matters, but provinces also do, though they can have different names. The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court in Canada, making rulings about the constitutionality of cases, or whether they are in line, or violate the constitution. Anything found in violation of the Constitution has to change, and may call for punishment or reparations to correct for the mistake. The term is used capitalized when referring to a specific court, or lowercase when referring to the concept or hierarchy of courts.

Theocracy – A government based on religion. Here the government’s decisions are influenced or controlled by a religious figure or religious establishment. The government of Iran is an example of a Theocracy because the Ayatollah, a Muslim religious leader, is the Head of State and commander of the military and rule for life, common traits in oppressive governments like dictatorships.

Tyranny – The act or state of oppressive government. The word derives from the Greek word for terror. Tyranny is the opposite of freedom. It is when people live in fear of their own government – abusive police or military, corrupt politicians, oppressive laws are all sources of tyranny.

Ward – A portion of a municipality that votes together to elect a representative, a Councillor.

Learn More

Read the Student’s Introduction to Jurisdictions: Canada here

Play the Jurisdictions: Canada game here