Although the government of Canada may fall under the umbrella term democracy, why does Canada not have a president as head of state?
Does canada have a president? Canada does not have a president because Canada is a constitutional monarchy and not a republic. In order to understand the variances and nuances of different forms of democratic governance, one must have a basic understanding of the history of what caused these differences in the first place.
This article will outline a brief history on the topic of democratic divergence in North America, the differences between constitutional monarchies and republics, and finally the Canadian model of government.
Part A History
North American Colonization
When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 and announced he had discovered a new continent, the course of western politics would change immensely for the next half millennium. After the news of the New World had spread, Britain, France, and Portugal began to send their own explorers in earnest. In the early days of colonization of the Americas, only the most daring men and Protestants fleeing persecution came to North America. But by the 1600s that had changed. Both England and France were actively encouraging their citizens to emigrate to the colonies for a new life of economic prosperity and to expand their respective empires. Of course, by the 1750s discontent was rising among the colonial subjects of the British Empire. Whispers of sedition in churches and taverns were becoming more common place, that the British monarchy was as incompetent as they were tyrannical.
American Revolution and the War of 1812
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, formally declaring that The Thirteen Colonies were no longer part of the British Empire. The American Revolutionary War would finally end in 1783, with King George III legally acknowledging the independence of the United States of America. This is another important turning point in human history because all governmental forms up til then had either been principalities or theocracies. The French would soon follow suit and completely overthrow their monarchy.
But by 1812, the young fledgling American government had completely recovered from the revolutionary war and set their sights beyond their borders. It wasn’t enough that the British not rule The Thirteen Colonies, the British must be driven out of North America completely! After all, the American government, both before and after the revolution, had butted heads with the British over their northern colonies. It was, after all, the patriotic duty of every proud American to liberate the people who were still British Subjects. And in June of 1812, the American military would invade both upper and lower Canada in order to drive out the British and bring the Canadian Territories into the United States. Ultimately, the American military failed to make any substantial gains and would sign a peace treaty in 1814. However, interestingly, both Canada and America say that they won the War of 1812.
Confederation and the Dominion of Canada
Despite that, the first Canadians had fought for the British Empire during the War of 1812, which did not guarantee that those Canadians did not want to be an independent nation. In fact, just like in The Thirteen Colonies, there were many in Canada who wanted to succeed from the British Empire. Not to mention that the westward expansion into the continent as well as a larger general population required an expanded government. So on July 1, 1867, the provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick signed legislation called the Canadian Confederation and formed the Dominion of Canada.
Essentially for the British, the Dominion of Canada was a puppet state. The Dominion was legally a democracy with elections, however, the government still answered to the British monarchy. There is an argument that can be made that these elections were a sham, however, given the distance of Canada from England, as well as it’s proven loyalty in the past, the Dominion government was granted large amounts of autonomy. The ruling monarch was the legal head of state, but since the King would rarely visit the Dominion of Canada, someone would have to represent him. This position is called the Governor-General and is technically the highest position in Canadian government. But it is not the job of the Governor-General to draft laws, only to approve them. It is the job of the Prime Minister to run the House of Commons, and draft legislation for the Governor-General.
Part B Different Forms of Democracy
What is the difference between a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary republic?
Both American and Canadian governments are democratic, but have different philosophical underpinnings on how a democracy should function. This is the main reason why republics have presidents and constitutional monarchies have prime ministers. Ideally speaking, a president should only ever serve the people, but the prime minister of Canada is legally a servant of the ruling British monarch. In practical terms, that means the prime minister of Canada must physically bow in the presence of a British monarch. Of course, this goes against the American claim that God created all men equal. Yet in this day in age, bowing is more about ceremony rather than philosophy.
But the real differences, that still exist today, are in how these different forms of government are allowed to operate. A key feature of the American Declaration of Independence is the separation of governmental powers. The executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government must be completely separate with a set of checks and balances in order to combat corruption and tyranny in the American government. Canada does not, and has never had the same sets of checks and balances as the United States. The Dominion of Canada was created with the executive and legislative branches to work in tandem, and are by in large one in the same. Only the judicial branch of government is legally separate from the other two branches.
The Head of State and Life Long Appointments
By law an American president can only run the US government for two terms, then he becomes disqualified from ever becoming president again. In Canada, however, one can be elected prime minister as many times as possible. For example, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was elected prime minister three different times, and not all were consecutive. But he ran the Canadian government for a total of 21 and half years. Albeit, most politicians usually fall out of their respective party’s favor when they are not elected or last as long as Mackenzie King.
Another large difference between American and Canadian democracies is that the whole Canadian Senate (executive) is life long appointment once elected. This does not mean they cannot lose their appointment or become disqualified, but unless they fail to be disqualified or do not commit treason, they cannot be removed. Interestingly, they are elected by a current prime minister if there are open seats, not through a general election as in the United States.
Part C The Canadian Model of Governance
Change in Colonial Attitudes
Canada is no longer a dominion in the British Empire, and any and all ties to the British monarchy are purely ceremonial. For those in parliament in England, Canada is referred to as a realm in the British Commonwealth. This change in colonial attitudes changed at the conclusion of the First World War. When King George V declared war on the German Kaiserreich in 1914, all British dominions were ordered to declare war on Germany. This war changed colonial attitudes on how much say the British government should have on the lives of Canadians. By 1918, the British monarchy could no longer order Canada to fight its wars. However, in Canadian fashion, Canada would not declare official independence but rather draft law that would grant the country more autonomy.
The Prime Minister in Practicality
As Canadian laws changed over the years, the role of prime minister has become increasingly powerful. Legally speaking, the Governor-General is still the head of state, but this position is chosen by the prime minister and not a separate governing body. In fact, every now and again you will hear politicians call for the abolishment of the position of Governor-General and the Canadian Senate because these groups do not serve any practical use to the Canadian public. This is because these two forms of government are largely influenced by whoever is currently prime minister. But more importantly, they have no real legal means to oppose a ruling prime minister.
Unfortunately, this is a problem that transcends party politics, as all parties have long histories of abusing the ever-increasing power of the prime minister. An example of this is the treatment of freedom of speech by the Canadian government. In the original Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the federal government cannot imprison anyone for anything they say, political or otherwise. However, this charter has been amended heavily and no longer considers “hate” speech to be free speech. The problem with this is that it is the prime minister who determines what “hate” speech is, and this list is increasing all the time.
What is the difference between president and prime minister?
Is there really a difference between a president and prime minister. In practical terms no. They may operate under different ceremonies but the government in the same way. The real difference lies in what their respective government allows them to do. As such a Canadian prime minister has far more power and control over the Canadian people than an American president has over the American people. This is the nature of a republic, it is decentralized government in order to stop abuses from being too severe. But the Canadian constitutional monarchy is very centralized because decisions needed to be made without having to wait for British monarchical approval.
Democratic constitutional monarchies have prime ministers because a monarch is still technically the head of state, however, in the case of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II has no real power. The prime minister’s office is de facto the highest position in government. Republics have presidents because either through revolution or forced abdication, have no monarchs. Only by understanding Canada’s history prior to confederation, can you understand how Canada came to have prime ministers instead of presidents. A president or a prime minister may govern in similar ways, but typically speaking constitutional monarchies grant far more power to prime ministers because they are modeled after how a monarch rules. But ultimately, a president or prime minister only has as much power as their people allow.