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Student Introduction to Jurisdictions : Canada

What is a Government?

Governments are organizations that represent a people and area. They give leadership, Representation and provide Law & Order for that area. The people give a government its Legitimacy and power. They enable and authorize it by obeying its laws and directions and supporting it through political actions. The people and area that a government represents is different from the people that run the government and their political party, affiliations or beliefs. One can disagree with a government, the people that run it, the party elected to power, or other aspects without disagreeing with the principle of government, or the area or people it represents.

Governments are composed of different components, each providing a different function. Most people think of the Executive function of government – the people in charge that make the day-to-day decisions of what government is doing and that represent it in the media and in meetings like Prime Ministers, Presidents and their Cabinets. But the government also includes Legislators who make the laws and in democracies represent the people, making decisions on their behalf. Legislators work in Deliberative Bodies like Parliaments, Legislatures, or Assemblies where they create, debate and pass laws. The Bureaucracy of government is the general workers like clerks, analysts and others who do the work of making sure the departments and agencies of government function. The Judiciary is run by Judges; it is the part of government that decides on the interpretation and implementation of laws, if they are being followed, and if a Criminal act has been committed.

By creating a system of authority, control, rule-making and enforcement, government creates a stable society. With a commitment and rules to enshrine people’s freedom and rights we can have a peaceful and free society built on cooperation and mutual respect. Not all governments or societies have the same beliefs as Canada, and many different forms of government and society exist in the modern world and throughout history. Some types of government are Democracies and Republics like the United States, Constitutional Monarchies like Canada, Monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Theocracies like Iran, Communist or People’s Republics like China, or Dictatorships like North Korea.

Authority and power are necessary for government to function and protect us from lawlessness and chaos, called Anarchy. However, power and authority are easy to abuse, and Tyranny can occur when a government abuses its power and oppresses its people. Governments are formed by a Constitution, a statement, declaration or other agreement that states what it is, how it should act and what it does.

The Constitution Act

Canada’s government has its own constitution officially called The Constitution Act (1982). This written document is what defines what the government of Canada is, what its powers are, how it should act towards its people, and how we create laws and what they’ll apply to. The 1982 part of the name is the year it was Ratified, or agreed upon and put into action. Canada is older than this version of our constitution, this is only the most recent version. Before that we had the British North America Act, 1867 as our constitution, which formally created the nation of Canada out of British territorial possessions in North America.

The Constitution Act defines the powers of government, for both the nation as a whole and the individual provinces. Each province, the federal government and Queen Elizabeth II signed the Act as representatives of the regions of Canada, the collective of Canada, and the British Monarchy that had first formed the nation of Canada. The Constitution Act is the foundational document of our government and allowed us the power to amend our constitution, which up until then had been a responsibility of the British government.

There’s a lot of confusion in Canada about constitutions. Much of our media comes from the United States, they have their own constitution, which people confuse with Canada’s because they hear about it so much. It’s important not to confuse the two. Every nation has a constitution, but when people hear the word “constitution” they immediately think of the US “Constitution”. While we have many similarities between our nations and our constitutional rights and principles there are very important differences. This is one of the many reasons it’s important we learn about our constitution and our rights, you need to know what they really are, and not confuse them with the US.

The term Constitutional Law is the form of law that relates to a nation’s constitution. As the rules that define how the nation is formed, is supposed to act, and that defines the powers of government, it is the highest law. As the most important law, it can overrule other laws if there’s a conflict or question between different laws and regulations. It can also help us come to judgments about how the government is acting, how our governments should cooperate, or how someone has been treated in regards to their rights.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The first part of The Constitution Act (1982) is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This document gives an outline of the rights of citizens of Canada and defines how the government should treat people. While this provides our most treasured individual freedoms and protections, it’s not a long document, it can fit on a single page. This helps make it accessible to everyone, you (and every Canadian) should read it sometime! It’s important to remember the differences with other countries, to know our own rights and our own methods of enshrining freedom.

In the Charter it outlines a number of rights and freedoms that we can organize into categories:

The Fundamental Freedoms

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 define the Fundamental Freedoms. These provide Canadians with their personal freedom to think, say and believe what they want and to interact with each other. These are considered the most core concepts to being free and having the Liberty to live life how one wants without oppression from government.

Democratic Rights

The first known election in Canada was in 1657, but it wasn’t very democratic. It took us a long time to establish a free and fair democracy in Canada – our first national election in 1867 didn’t even guarantee a Secret Ballot! Thankfully the Charter’s democratic rights ensure that citizens get to vote in federal and provincial (or territorial) elections at least every five years and that Parliament and the Legislatures must have sittings each year to ensure Representative Government in Canada.

Mobility Rights

To ensure we are one nation, and that no province could become a closed society, the Charter grants mobility rights to all Canadians. This means that any citizen has the right to enter, remain in or leave Canada, and that they can freely travel among and live in any province or territory.

Legal Rights

Canadians enjoy a number of legal rights that protect them from government overreach and excessive or unjust police enforcement. This includes the right to life, liberty and security of the person so the law cannot harm, restrict or endanger someone wilfully without cause. The freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, arbitrary detention, right to legal counsel, guarantee of Habeus Corpus, presumption of innocence, rights after arrest, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, rights against self-incrimination, rights in court, and right to an interpreter all work to ensure Canadians are protected against government overreach and oppressive policing and enforcement. They ensure Canadians can live safely and securely and that police and government can only impact Canadians freedom and safety with due cause (such as warrants, or trial and conviction) and fair procedure.


The Charter provides that all citizens should be treated with Equality before and under the law, and that they must have equal protection and benefit of the law. This not only helps enshrine protection from many forms of Bigotry, but also works to prevent a Class or Caste System or political Corruption where some have more rights than others.

Language Rights:

Canada’s status as a bilingual country is enshrined in the Charter. It provides Canadians the right to deal with the Federal government in either English or French. It also guarantees that Parliament must print its statutes and proceedings in both Official Languages. This doesn’t just enshrine people’s ability to understand government, but Language Rights also ensures that it conducts itself publicly, that the public knows what the government is doing and what the laws are in writing.

The Charter is perhaps the single most important document in Canada, ensuring a range of freedoms and rights for all people and ensuring free and fair government. The more people know and understand this document the better we can ensure Canada stays a free and fair country.

What is a Jurisdiction?

The term Jurisdiction can be tricky because it can be used in different ways. It can mean an area, like a city, province or country, as in the area where a given law or regulation applies (As in: Toronto is the Mayor’s jurisdiction). It can mean an area of law, a topic that can be regulated (As in: The Parliament has jurisdiction over telecommunications law). As well, it can also mean the power to write or enforce a law in a given area or on a given person (As in: The RCMP has jurisdiction to investigate wire fraud). Jurisdictions are about authority, the assignment or limits of the power of the law.

Jurisdictions can overlap in different ways. A City is an example of a Municipal jurisdiction separate from other cities. It will be within a province, which is a provincial jurisdiction, that is separate from other provinces. Which are within a nation, which is a national, or federal, jurisdiction, that is separate from other nations. Each jurisdiction has its own Legislators who write laws, Executive who enact the laws including police who enforce the laws, and Courts who judge and apply. Each of these are dealing with the law at their own level, City Council deal with local city Bylaws, provincial legislators write provincial law, national courts decide national case trials.

In Jurisdictions: Canada we look at different scenes and see how the everyday items and activities are influenced by the different levels of government. We can see what Municipal, Provincial, and Federal laws, Regulations, and Governmental Organizations influence what aspects of our lives. This is important to know because it tells you who is responsible. A Democracy requires that citizens not only are educated and aware, but that they are involved and can hold power to account. By knowing who’s responsible you’ll know who to complain to if something is wrong or needs improving.

The Federal Government & Its Powers

A Federal Government is a national government, it represents and leads the whole country. Canada’s Federal government is officially headed by the King or Queen. The day-to-day operation of Canada’s national government is done by the Prime Minister & their Federal Cabinet who “execute” the authority of the government – they make its decisions. The laws of Canada are made by Parliament, which comprises the House of Commons and the Canadian Senate. They are the legislators of the nation, drafting, reviewing, amending and passing national laws. The legislators are Members of Parliament (MPs) who represent Ridings elected in federal elections, or Senators who are appointed by the Prime Minister to represent provinces. The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest judicial body in the nation, and they act to hear cases where they review, interpret and impose the law (and punishments) as needed, including potentially overturning laws that violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that the government may have passed.

The Federal Government’s role is to represent the whole of the nation. This includes dealing with the rest of the world in trade, diplomacy and military issues. It also oversees issues that deal with the fairness and cooperation between provinces. Issues and projects that affect everyone, ignore or span across borders, deal with foreign nations or people, set standards, or require a national effort or coordination are generally Federal responsibilities.

Provincial Governments & Their Powers

A Provincial Government is responsible for, and to, a portion of the nation. Canada is made up of 10 Provinces and 3 Territories, so we have 10 Provincial Governments and 3 Territorial Governments. Other nations have some kind of regional system too; some call their regions provinces, others states, some cantons, regions, or other terms.

A Province or Territory is led by a Premier and their Provincial Cabinet who act as the executive group making decisions for the government on its daily functioning. They are kept in check by a Legislative Assembly (called the National Assembly in Quebec) who write, review, revise and pass Provincial laws. The Legislators are Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) who are elected in Provincial elections to represent Constituencies. Each province also has a Provincial Supreme Court (called a Superior Court, Supreme Court or Court of King’s/Queen’s Bench depending on the Province) to review cases and make judgments about Provincial law and review it for its constitutionality.

According to the Constitution Act (1982) Provinces have jurisdiction over matters by default. They have authority over the law in any case except those given to the Federal government. This means most aspects of life are governed by provincial law – health, education, highways, most business regulations, etc. The Federal government only has jurisdiction over things that need to be national in scale or deal with multiple provinces, like the military, international or inter-provincial trade, foreign affairs, and many environmental issues. The Constitution Act doesn’t account for municipal governments, so provinces get to choose what responsibilities are delegated to them.

Territorial Governments & Their Powers

A territorial government is similar to a provincial government. It represents a region of the country, generally a remote or sparsely-populated one, that requires more assistance from the federal government than a province does. Many countries have territories, some examples are Guam (a US territory), Mayotte (a French territory), or Greenland (a Danish territory). Canada’s territories are unusual in that they are directly adjacent to the provinces, but they are still remote in a practical sense because travel is so limited to the North.

Territorial governments are run by Premiers & Territorial Cabinets and have Legislative Assemblies. They have Territorial Supreme Courts (or Court of Justice in Nunavut). The Federal Government retains control of some aspects of governing in the Territories compared to provinces. Historically the Federal Government has had much more control, but the Federal Government has been “devolving” or assigning more power and authority to Territories over the last 50 years so that today they are very similar in nature to the provinces.

Municipal Governments & Their Assigned Powers

The smallest form of government is Municipal, it is responsible for, and to, a local area, such as a town, city, county, or small rural area. Provinces can have hundreds of Municipal Governments within them. As the smallest form of government, they are the most accessible and obvious to daily life because they are active, responsible and based in the local area.

A Municipal Government is run by a Mayor, Reeve or Warden, and the Council. A Council is made up of Councillors elected to represent Wards. who act as Legislators (along with the Mayor) determining the Municipality’s Bylaws. A manager and staff do most of the executive work alongside the mayor. Urban Municipalities, like towns and cities, will often have courts and police forces, but many rural municipalities or counties don’t, and rely on provincial courts and police for their judicial and enforcement needs. Municipalities are most often responsible for local infrastructure, like roads, lights, Public Amenities (like pools and parks), as well as local policing. Municipalities have bylaws, rather than laws, a distinction that they do not have a constitutional basis, but are rather just local regulations. Bylaws are about daily life and ensuring everyone can get along – regulating noise, garbage, sewage, water use, and what can be built and where.The powers of a municipal government depend on what the province has assigned it. Provinces generally choose powers for municipalities based on a standard chart of population sizes, which determine whether it qualifies as a village, town, or city, or as a rural municipality. Because provinces make the rules, they can create special cases and exceptions if they want. In many countries, Capital Cities have special powers compared to other cities, with added powers, or even reduced representation in government for their citizens – weird but true!

Learn More

You can learn more about the terms and concepts around government and rights here by checking out the Glossary!

You can play the Jurisdictions: Canada game here!