Essay Non-Fiction posted November 15, 2011

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Primer on Canadian Politics

by Spiritual Echo

Canada has but a mere thirty-three million citizens, but it is the second largest country, by area, in the world and is the United States' largest trading partner. Yet, over the years through my travels into the US, I am astounded by Americans' lack of knowledge about their northern neighbour.

In part, this is due to a lack of interest in anything outside of American borders, but in my opinion, it is also due to a lack of media coverage, not just about Canada, but the world as it exists across two oceans that flank America. In Canada, as part of a regular cable TV package, we receive three mainstream American television stations and CNN. Even on Canadian stations weather reports routinely display temperatures in every major US city, although in Celsious. We are better informed because the information is readily available.

In school we are taught world history, including an extensive segment on American geography and history. When past Presidents and Vice Presidents come to Canada on speaking tours, tickets for the event ranging from two hundred to five hundred dollars a person are snapped up to a sold-out crowd. Canadians are interested in what America has on her mind.

We speak the same language in Canada as in the States but there are differences in spelling, perhaps the most obvious, especially on this site where members hail from the United Kingdom and Australia as well as Canada,is the habit of dropping in a "U" in words like colour (color), humour (humor) and neighbour (neighbor) and quite frankly, the inclusion of this unnecessary letter has had a certain impact on our economy. Think about how much ink we have needlessly wasted by emulating the 'Queen's' English.

As in all countries, there are culinary preferences. I for one can neither stomach nor understand white gravy and the appeal of grits is beyond my comprehension. Be assured when Barack Obama came to Canada and went on a walking tour in a farmer's market, the beaver tail he consumed was never attached to a living creature. It is a pastry with a strange name. Should you travel into Quebec, our Belle Province, you will likely see poutine on the menu in most fast food restaurants. This is a dish with a base of French fries (and yes, we sometimes call them chips.) then covered with cheese curds and finally smothered in gravy; that's brown gravy.

Aside from our quirky differences our political system may baffle many Americans. As a public service I shall try to give you a thumb-nail sketch of our system.

Canada has ten provinces and three territories. From west to east they are British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. In addition we have three northern territories. Yukon abuts Alaska, then The Northwest Territories and finally our newest territory Nunavet. Each province has their own Premier, equivalent to a governor of a state or in the case of the territories a commissioner. Just like the US, we have a provincial government, provincial taxes and the occasional obscure laws unique to the province. But, the judicial system is federally legislated. When it comes to criminal acts, the law of the land is the same coast to coast. Canada does not have a provision for the death penalty, although we have had our fair share of criminals who have deserved that sentence.

Our equivalent to the President is our Prime Minister who is currently Steven Harper. We have a Deputy Prime Minister and a Minister of Justice, Agriculture, Immigration, Northern Affairs and the list goes on and on. Our Prime Minister can stay in office for unlimited terms, provided his party continues to win elections. Should an opposing party take the majority of seats and form a government, he becomes the Leader of the Opposition. Unless, of course his own party decides his leadership is no longer of value and he is ousted by a convention and party member votes. This happens behind closed doors. There is no impeachment process.

There are three major political parties. The Conservative party, which currently has a majority in the House of Legislator, is very similar in basic ideology to the Republicans. There is a major difference in that comparison, as religion plays no active role publicly in any party. The Liberals are very much like the Democrats and finally there is The New Democratic Party that grew out of the labour movements and is heavily backed by unions.

Anyone can form a new political party and so it is not unusual to see others represented on the ballot. The Green Party was formed to promote and endorse environmental issues. The Communist Party, that needs no explanation, is represented on many ballots, but has yet to elect a single member to Parliament.

There is one party that is exclusive to Quebec, once known as the Separatist Party and more recently The Bloc. The prime interest of this party was to protect the identity of Quebec and they have over several decades lobbied to have Quebec sucede from Canada and form their own Sovereignty. In the last Federal election their power was reduced to two seats in Parliament.

Every province has their special interests, but Quebec received consideration in Canada's Charter. Due to their original alliance with France, French is recognized as one of two official languages in Canada. Every citizen, regardless of where he may live in this country is guaranteed a trial in French, if it is so requested. Every official form issued by the government must have both languages printed and a bilingual clerk must be available in all government offices. Additionally, Quebec was granted the right to have children educated in a Catholic school system and so there might be two schools beside each other, one offering public education, while the second has a religious base in its curriculum. The province also operates under Napoleonic Law. This does not supersede Federal law in criminal cases, but continues to have patriarchal bias in family law.

Canada's Parliament buildings are in our national capital, Ottawa, while provincial Parliaments are located in Provincial capitals. It is quite usual to have a one party in power in federal politics and completely different ones in each province. Which I suppose is similar to the States. Yet, there is a distinction. Conservative Provincial Premiers can not be counted on by the Prime Minister for absolute support in Federal policy.

Members of Parliament (MPs) meet in the House of Commons to table new laws and scream at each other like uncivilized baboons upon occasion, but if they succeed in passing a law or bill, the final reading before the law is enacted, must be approved by The Senate.

The Senate is not an elected body. They are appointed by the Prime Minister and of course, patronage exists. There is constant clatter about Senate reform as these well paying jobs are often awarded to people who calmly collect their remuneration without ever going to work.

Perhaps this is a simple version of Canada's political system, but it may assist interested American citizens to understand the terminology if they tune into satellite radio transmissions or take an interest in global politics.

Before concluding, I would be remiss in not giving Americans a general overview of the Monarchy. Canada is part of the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were once under the rule of the Sovereign. Each nation operates as an independent country and our ties to Queen Elizabeth and all future monarchs are largely ceremonial. The Queen's representative in Canada is called the Governor General. The provincial equivalent is titled the Lieutenant Governor. Officially their roles are to oversee Parliament, endorse elections and ensure political integrity. In reality the post is ornamental, pomp and ceremony and the majority of their time is spent promoting good will and promoting Canada's role globally. Due to a dense population of United Kingdom immigrants, the monarch retains a revered and exulted honourable, but powerless reverence in Canada.

Americans are like treasured cousins who also share a commonality. The North American continent was populated by adventurers from Europe. There is a stronger population base in the US that hailed from England and Spain, while Canada's original settlers were predominantly from England and France. We've had our civil wars and we've fired our cannons at Americans, as they crossed the St. Lawrence River, but I can not imagine thinking of America as anything less than our friend.

We too have a commonality. Both countries were settled by people looking for a better life and had the courage to board ships that would sail without a horizon. Some landed in Canada, while others drifted south, but we started our pilgrimage with the same dreams; our ancestors were looking for a future.

America imported slaves and as enlightenment and bloodshed washed the plains, a population stolen from Africa became a part of the same dream. Canada was the recipient of those still enslaved, until freedom was granted to all men. As part of the exit strategy for the enslaved, America delivered Canada new citizens through the "Underground Railroad." Centuries later the 'draft dodger' found home a few miles north of his beloved birthright.

There is one fundamental difference between Americans and Canadians. The thing that continues to separate us is that which we simply call home. The earth smells the same each spring on either side of the border and should you send me seeds, they will grow in my soil, the place I call home.

God bless us all.

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