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Canada is both a constitutional monarchy and a representative democracy.  This seeming contradiction actually serves to divide authority between the federal and provincial governments and appointed representatives of the British monarch.  Neither political parties nor the Queen’s representatives can wield absolute power.

In constitutional monarchies, the reigning monarch appoints representatives to each government.  The Canadian Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, is represented in Parliament and each provincial Assembly by a governor general and lieutenant governors, respectively.  These representatives give Royal Assent to bills passed in the House of Commons and each Legislature.  While the governors can withhold this approval, rarely have they exercised this power.  They may also dissolve Parliament or the Assembly, or they may dismiss the government when it loses the confidence of the majority of its members.  Therefore, each government must work to achieve consensus among its members to stay in power.

In representative democracies, members are elected to represent each constituency.  The party with the most elected members forms the government.  Their leader, in Canada the Prime Minister or Premier, is the Head of Government.  These leaders do not hold power themselves, although the cabinets to which they belong share executive powers with the governor general and lieutenant governors.  They derive this power symbolically from the reigning monarch.  Thus, we still refer to each cabinet as the "Queen’s Privy Council" and their leaders as the "Queen’s First Ministers".

Aberhart and Bowen in cartoonIn the late 1930’s, when William Aberhart was Premier of Alberta, Lieutenant Governor John Bowen exercised his power to refuse Royal Assent to certain bills deemed to be unconstitutional.  The Lieutenant Governor "reserved" Royal Assent to other bills for the Governor General to consider.  Aberhart was essentially running a "one-man government", and many Social Credit MLAs opposed his leadership.  In response, Bowen dissolved the legislature before the 1937 spring session was to end.  Normally, this would have led to the Premier's resignation; however, Aberhart was able to appease the dissidents by assigning them to the new Social Credit Board.  While Aberhart was allowed to continue, the lieutenant governor and Social Credit MLAs demonstrated that he could not act unilaterally without their approval.

Subsequent lieutenant governors in Alberta have not had to intervene as Bowen did in the late 1930's to restore order to government.  They continue to epitomize the monarch’s power, though customarily, they act on the government’s behalf.  The Speech from the Throne, delivered by the Queen’s representatives at the opening of each session, is actually written by the government.  They formally approve "orders-in-council" for all executive acts each cabinet proposes.  Their power is mostly symbolic, entrenched in the traditions of parliamentary democracy.



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Voices of Politics
Former Governor General Edward Schreyer explains the Speech from the Throne as an expression of the Monarch's power. He then compares our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy to the United States' system of government.
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Jurisdictions, Roles and Responsibilities - Elections - Institutions

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