Constitutional Monarchy

Constitutional monarchy is Canada’s system of government. In contrast to an absolute monarchy, where the monarch has unchecked power, a constitutional monarch is limited by the laws of the Constitution. Constitutional monarchs do not directly rule, but instead carry out constitutional, ceremonial and representational duties. The monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state, while the prime minister is the head of government. The monarch is represented in Canada by the governor general and lieutenant governors.

Constitutional Monarchy and the Constitution

Canada’s constitutional monarchy has roots in both the French and British monarchies. At Confederation, political leaders decided to remain a constitutional monarchy. According to the Constitution Act, 1867, “The Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.” This granted Canada a system of government modelled on that of the United Kingdom. However, the British government continued to control Canada's foreign policy. Over the years, Canada gained more control over its relationship with other countries. In 1982, the Canadian Parliament gained full control of its Constitution in what was known as patriation.

Under the Constitution, the Crown is the source of nonpartisan sovereign authority in Canada. That is, the Crown has the power to govern, but entrusts this power to the elected government, which holds it on a temporary basis. As head of state, the monarch is above politics, unlike the head of government, the prime minister.

How the Constitutional Monarchy Works

Under Canada’s system of responsible government, the Crown is a vital part of the legislative, executive and judicial powers that govern the country. The Crown is the source of these powers, but they are exercised by the federal and provincial governments. In theory, the Crown and its representatives (governors general, lieutenant governors) can reject the advice, decisions and actions of parliament, ministers or judges. However, this rarely happens. In general, the Crown is bound to follow the government’s advice, which in turn represents the will of the people. For example, Parliament and provincial assemblies vote on and pass bills. Before they become law, they must be approved by the Crown. In theory, the Crown could withhold its assent, but this has not happened since 1945.

The monarch and vice-regal representatives in Canada, known as the governor general and lieutenant governors, have prerogative powers. These can be made in theory without the approval of another branch of government, though they are only used in emergencies. One of these powers is to ensure that there is always a first minister, that is, a prime minister (federal government) or premier (provincial government). Following a general election, the monarch (represented by the governor general) invites the party leader with the most support to form a government. If the current prime minister receives the most support, he/she continues to govern as before and confirms a new cabinet.

The Monarch

Canada’s Head of State is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen is also the Head of State in the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth realms. According to the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701, Queen Elizabeth II will be succeeded by her eldest child, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. He will in turn be succeeded by his elder child, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.

In 2013, the Act of Settlement was reformed to end the system of male primogeniture. Prior to this, the eldest male child inherited the throne. Therefore, a younger son could displace an older daughter. The 2013 reform — which came into effect across the Commonwealth in 2015 — ended this system and made the eldest child, regardless of gender, the heir to the throne.

The Governor General and Lieutenant Governors

In Canada, the monarch is represented by the Governor General. The current Governor General is Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette. In Canada’s 10 provinces, the Crown is represented by a Lieutenant Governor. Territorial commissioners represent the federal government in the territories but perform similar duties to lieutenant governors.

Further Reading

  • David Smith, Invisible Crown: First Principle of Canadian Government (2013)

  • Nathan Tidridge, Canada’s Constitutional Monarchy (2011)

  • Carolyn Harris, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada (2015)

  • Philippe Lagassé and Patrick Baud, eds., The Crown and Parliament (2015)