Canada’s political history and practice is probably the most different from other countries in the Anglosphere.
Canada is a federation of ten provinces and three territories. It has certain similarities to Australia. Its federal structure overlays three large provinces and a number of small provinces, covering a large land mass. Unlike Australia, political battles are fought on completely different lines in each province.
In terms of population, Ontario and Quebec are the two largest, respectively having a similar proportion of the population to New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. These two provinces occupy a similar centrality in Canadian history, geography, population and politics as NSW and Victoria do in Australia. Like Queensland, British Columbia is rapidly growing as the third large province.
There are also the four provinces of Atlantic Canada, namely New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, and the three provinces of the Prairies, namely Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The three northern territories each elect one MP to the House of Commons in Ottawa.
Most of the marginal seats lie in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. While Ontario is dominated by battles between the Liberals and Conservatives, the main rival to the Conservatives in BC is the New Democrats. In Quebec, where the contest has been largely between the Liberals and the BQ since 1993, the Conservatives have been challenging BQ seats in this year’s election, with the Liberals pushed aside. The seven smaller provinces all have variations on these patterns.
There are also great differences between provincial and federal politics. Neither the Liberal or Conservative parties have affiliations with provincial parties, even though there are a number of parties using similar names in provincial politics. There are many cases of politicians participating in one party on a federal level working with a different party on a provincial level without any difficulty. The NDP has affiliated provincial parties in every province except for Quebec, where the Quebec NDP split off after adopting a pro-independence policy in the early 1990s.
British Columbia politics is fought between the two major parties of the NDP and the Liberal Party. The BC Liberals is dominated by politicians and supporters who support the Conservatives in federal politics. Quebec is split between the governing Liberal Party, who is led by a former federal leader of the Progressive Conservatives, the Parti Quebecois, who has links with the BQ but has no formal affiliation, and the conservative Action démocratique du Québec. Political positioning in Quebec is often defined by one’s position on separation from Canada, rather than a position on the left-right spectrum.
The NDP has also been successful in forming governments in Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan. The NDP has dominated government in Saskatchewan since the 1940s, yet has failed to elect any federal MPs in the province since 2004. The NDP is currently in government in Manitoba, and was in government in Saskatchewan as recently as 2007. NDP governments last held office in British Columbia and Ontario in 2001 and 1995 respectively.
Election results in both provincial and federal elections have also proven to be much more volatile than in Australia, New Zealand or the UK. Elections regularly produce results where third parties form government or nearly every single seat changes hands. Ontario in 1990 saw the New Democratic Party, who had been a minor party prior to a bad result for the Conservatives in 1988, defeat the Liberals and form government.
British Columbian politics also saw the Liberal government reduced to two seats at the ??? election. The most famous example was the 1993 federal election, when the Progressive Conservative government was reduced to two seats, with the Prime Minister and all but one minister defeated in their ridings. This is worth keeping in mind when considering the potential for radical change in the coming election.
The most obvious added dimension to Canadian politics is the significant francophone population. In addition to dominating Quebec, there are francophone Acadian populations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and french-speaking Canadians in Manitoba. The rise of Quebec separatism has seen French recognised as an official language. All Canadian governmental processes are communicated in both English and French. Indeed, many Prime Ministers were raised speaking French as a first language, including most recently Jean Chretien.
The importance of French in Canadian politics can be seen in the person of Stephane Dion. The Leader of the Opposition is taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister, despite having rather poor English skills for a senior politician in a country dominated by English speakers. In addition, anglophones like Stephen Harper and Jack Layton are required to demonstrate their French skills.
You can see this played out in the recent election debates. A French-language debate is held one night followed by an English-language debate the next night. If you’ve ever learnt a second language, you could appreciate the difficulty in being expected to debate complicated issues of policy in the pressures of a nationally-televised debate in a language you struggle to speak fluently. Greens leader Elizabeth May, participating in her first debate, struggled with the French language, at times bursting out in English and drawing blank on particular French words.
This complicated relationship between two dominant languages can make it difficult for politicians in attacking each other. Stephen Harper has come under criticism in recent days for attacking Dion over an English-language television debate where he failed to understand a question on the economy and asked the interviewer for a chance to re-do his answer. Harper’s attack on Dion’s credibility came off as being seen as mocking Dion’s language ability, threatening Harper’s support among francophone Quebecois.
If you want to see more about these issues, you can catch both English and French debates (translated into English) on YouTube. Below is the first of 13 parts of the English-language debate: