Provincial legislatures and the Quebec National Assembly, as well as the Canadian House of Commons, function according to a parliamentary system of government. This system is based on a British model dating back to 1215. In that year, King John of England signed the Magna Carta that set the principle according to which a monarch cannot overrule the law.
Each province has a legislative assembly, or House, consisting of elected members, the majority of whom form the governing party whose leader becomes the premier of the province. He or she then appoints members of the Cabinet or Executive Council who formulate government policies and are each responsible for the administration of a ministry of government. Cabinet meets regularly to set the business the government will propose to the legislature.
The party with the second most elected members forms the Official Opposition. Each opposition party leader appoints a shadow cabinet that mirrors the members of the governing party’s Cabinet in order to scrutinize the programs and policies of the government department to which they are assigned.
All members debate new laws, pass them and amend them. They also vote each year on a budget and estimates that are introduced by the Minister of Finance to set taxes and determine the allocation of funds.
The House traditionally meets twice a year for what is known as the fall and spring sessions. These sessions can run for two to three months depending on the province. Each day the legislature 'sits', there is one hour devoted to Question Period during which members of the opposition can question the government about its activities.
All members also participate in meetings of the many Committees and Standing Committees that extend beyond the sessions of the House. These committees meet throughout the year to debate policies, legislation and programs and hold public hearings.
The territories now function much the same way as provinces, though this has been the case only since the 1970s in the Yukon. Nunavut – which means 'our land' in Inuktitut – was created on April 1, 1999. Both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut apply a consensus system of governing rather than a system based on political parties, because consensus is more in keeping with the way that aboriginal peoples have traditionally made decisions. Unanimous agreement is not necessary for decisions to be made, motions passed, and legislation enacted. A simple majority carries the vote. Nunavut has four official languages. As for the Northwest Territories, it provides equal status to the numerous northern aboriginal languages as well as English and French.
Find out more about your provincial or territorial government by visiting its website where you will find a wealth of information on the powers and structure of government and its members. You can access all these sites from that of the Government of Canada referenced in More on this Issue.