The Role of Government

Last week I attended a local all-candidates debate in my riding for the upcoming federal election on October 14th, 2008.  Representatives were there from all of the major parties, and some smaller ones too, including the Green Party, NDP, Liberals, Communists, Conservatives and some party about animal rights.

The format allowed members of the community to ask questions of the panel of candidates.  The venue was a small church in the St. Jamestown area, which has a very high proportion of immigrants.  I assume that all of the people in attendance are interested in politics, at least enough that they want to make an informed decision as voters.  After hearing a few questions it was clear to me that most of the people asking them did not understand the role of the federal government in the lives of Canadians.  Many questions were very specific, and aimed at services that are clearly provided by the city.

This is not an idealogical post about what activities Government should or shouldn’t be involved in.  This is a very basic primer on the purpose each level of government serves for Canada and Canadians.  You should have learned this in school, but if you weren’t paying attention or didn’t go to school in Canada, here’s your chance to catch up.  There are three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal.

The federal government, aka the Government of Canada, is responsible for representing Canada on national and international issues. Unlike the United States of America, in which the states have all powers not explicitly in the constitution as belonging to the federal government, the Canadian constitution explicitly grants certain powers to both the provinces and federal government.  Anything not explicitly defined remains the domain of the federal government.

So what does the Government of Canada do?  Things of national importance, such as the military, criminal code, chartered banks, economic policy and federal agencies (e.g. Health Canada, Industry Canada, CRTC, etc.) all roll up to the feds.  The provinces do a lot of important things too; healthcare and education are under strictly provincial jurisdiction.  Something like 50% of Ontario’s provincial budget is devoted to healthcare.  The universal healthcare system that we demand doesn’t come cheap!

Federal and provincial elections generate substantial interest.  Ironically, most of the services you use on a daily basis are provided by the municipal level of government.  Utilities such as hydro and water are owned by the city.  Garbage and recycling collection, public libraries, roads and public transportation, police*, fire and ambulance services are all municipal services.

* All three levels of government have police.  Large cities tend to have their own police force, however smaller municipalities rely on provincial police (e.g. OPP) or the federal mounties.

So, before you cast your vote next week, take a minute to consider what you expect from your candidate and the federal government, and whether it’s something they can actually do.  Perhaps the reason people like to blame the government for everything is that they just don’t understand what government does or how it works.

Further reading:

Canadian Federalism

Monarchy in the Canadian Provinces

Constitution Act, 1867

Government of Canada

Politics of Canada

One Response to The Role of Government

  1. euandus says:

    On Federalism and industry in the US (in case you are interested for comparative purposes): I suspect that the latest compromise regarding state banking regulation points to the influence of large corporations on the Congress as a culprit in the on-going eclipse of federalism. I have just posted on this.

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