Fundamentals of democracy in Canada
I have chosen the subject of Fundamentals of Democracy in Canada for this presentation for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think a discussion on democracy is a timely one. Politically, 2015 was an interesting year in both Nigeria and Canada. The presidential elections in Nigeria were a landmark in that they resulted in the first transition in your country from an incumbent to a candidate of an opposition party following a democratic electoral process. In Canada, too, there were federal elections last October which resulted in a change of government. Democracy, of course, is about much more than elections. But the keen interest around the elections in both countries focussed much attention on our respective democracies.
I also believe the subject to be interesting because we can learn from each other by sharing experiences on how democracies function in different countries. I have had the privilege of serving as a diplomat in seven foreign countries, all of them democracies, and most of them young democracies. I have found it fascinating and rewarding to compare experiences.
Canada is an immense country. With an area of nearly 10 million square kilometres, it is the second largest country in the world. It is nearly eleven times the size of Nigeria. However, Canada is one of the most sparsely populated countries, largely because the climate and terrain in much of our territory is inhospitable and not conducive to sustaining a large population. The population of Canada is 36 million which is about one-fifth that of Nigeria.
Canada’s political development from 1763 has been largely an incremental and evolutionary one. Unlike our United States neighbours and most of the countries of Latin America, Canada never experienced an armed struggle for independence. Nor has Canada ever experienced a civil war or a military coup d’etat. Instead, Canada’s political institutions evolved gradually. This included the transfer of powers of self-government from London to the colonies and the introduction of democratic reforms in response to growing pressure on the part of the inhabitants of the colonies.
Canada’s history of political stability and democratic governance has proven conducive to sustained economic development. Historically, Canada’s economy relied heavily on our bountiful natural resources such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry, solid minerals, oil and gas and renewable energy. Over the decades, Canadian governments have pursued policies that have aimed to diversify the economy and we have achieved good results. It remains true today that the exploitation of natural resources represents a larger share of Canada’s economy than is the case for most other developed countries. However, Canada’s economy today is highly diversified and includes vibrant manufacturing, high-tech and services sectors.
The fact the Queen of the United Kingdom is also the Queen of Canada reflects the gradual and evolutionary manner in which Canada grew from a group of British colonies, to a united self-governing entity, and eventually to a full-fledged sovereign country, but maintaining a constitutional link to the monarchy. The House of Commons is the principle law-making body of the federal government and is essentially the counterpart of the House of Representatives of Nigeria’s National Assembly. Its members are usually elected for a four-year term. As a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, Canadians do not directly elect their Prime Minister. Instead, they elect 338 Members of Parliament to represent them. Each member represents an electoral district. Voters cast a single ballot in a “first-past-the-post” system.
The second chamber of Canada’s federal parliament is the Senate. Unlike the House of Commons, its members are not elected. Instead, they are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Free and fair elections are at the heart of any democratic, political system and Canada is no exception. Canada’s electoral processes are well consolidated over many decades of practice. Canadians have a high level of confidence in the integrity of the electoral system. Citizens express their ownership of the process by following election campaigns, by voting, by joining political parties – and, often, by volunteering to participate in the campaigns of their preferred candidates.
Elections Canada is an independent, non-partisan organization that reports directly to parliament. Since its creation in 1920, it has secured the respect and confidence of the Canadian people for its professionalism in ensuring that Canadians are able to exercise their democratic rights to elect freely their federal representatives. The high level of respect that Elections Canada enjoys is enhanced by its commitment to transparency and, of course, by its strict adherence to electoral laws and procedures that cover everything from the compilation of voters’ lists, the organization of the actual voting process, and the announcement of results.
One of the defining features of Canada’s political system is federalism. While there are many federations around the world including, of course, Nigeria, Canada’s federal system is among the most decentralized and the division of jurisdiction between federal and provincial authorities most developed. The division of powers between the federal and provincial governments is defined by Canada’s constitutional documents. The provinces have jurisdiction over natural resources both above ground and, in contrast with Nigeria, underground as well. They also have jurisdiction over the delivery of education and health services to their people, as well as cultural affairs. Provincial legislatures have power over direct taxation in the respective province to raise revenue for provincial purposes. The provinces also administer justice with regard to provincial laws, and the legislatures have power over property and civil rights as well as social security in the provinces.
According to Canada’s constitution, the federal government has jurisdiction over everything that does not fall under the responsibility of the provinces. Some of the federal powers include: foreign affairs, defence, international and interprovincial transport and infrastructure, regulation of trade and commerce, banking, criminal law, currency and direct and indirect taxation, to mention a few areas.
A professional and politically non-partisan civil service is essential for the delivery of government programs. It implements the decisions taken by the political leadership, but also represents a pool of expertise that is able to provide informed recommendations to the political leadership on how best to advance the government’s agenda. We have few political appointees to public service. The rule of law is an essential element of any modern democracy, including Canada. Canada’s well-developed human rights institutions and legislation are an integral aspect of the rule of law. Civil society organizations also play an active, complementary role to political institutions in informing the Canadian public about issues and lobbying governments to address issues of concern to them.
His Excellency, Calderwood is the High Commissioner, High Commission of Canada in Nigeria. This is an excerpt of the lecture he delivered at Lagos State University Faculty of Social Sciences Lecture Series, February 4, 2016.