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How do the Canadian and American systems of government compare?

Canada and the United States are both democratic, federal states. Our countries share many cultural similarities, but very different structures, processes and laws govern each country. Perhaps the greatest distinction lies in our constitutions. The American Constitution consists of a single written document (the Constitution of the United States of America). Canada’s constitution is made up of both written elements (British and Canadian statutes, as well as court judgments) and unwritten elements (traditions, customs and conventions).

Click on the image below to find out about other differences between these two systems of government.

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Canada has two official languages (English and French).

The U.S. has one basic language (English).

System of Government

Canada is a constitutional monarchy. The Queen, represented by the Governor General, is the head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of Government.

The U.S. is a republic. The head of state and head of the Government are the same person: the President.

Membership of the Houses

The Prime Minister and the members of the Cabinet are expected to belong to either the House of Commons or the Senate – Canada’s two parliamentary houses. If they do not hold a seat in one of these houses then they must acquire one within a short period of time. This would, for example, occur when a party wins the majority of seats and is invited to form the Government but the leader of that party loses the election in his or her riding.

To ensure a separation of powers, the President and members of Cabinet cannot belong to either the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate—the two houses of Congress.

Frequency of Elections

The Prime Minister and MPs have no fixed term in office, however an election must be held at least once every five years.

The President and members of both Houses serve fixed terms. The President may be elected to a maximum of two terms.


Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and serve until age 75.

Senators are elected and serve fixed terms.


Members of Cabinet or their representatives introduce legislation in the form of Government bills.

The President and Cabinet cannot introduce legislation (it is not their responsibility to do so).

Support of the House

Prolonged disagreement between the Government and the House of Commons can result in a new Government or House of Commons. The Government must maintain the support of the majority in the House of Commons. This makes for a confident and responsible Government.

The President and Congress can be in constant disagreement but the President will remain in power until his term is complete.

Role of the Leader

The Prime Minister’s position and powers are not outlined in Canada’s Constitution, and the Prime Minister was not even referred to in the Constitution until 1982.

The President’s position and powers are clearly outlined in the Constitution.

Federal Authority

The federal government has authority over everything not distinctly under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories.

The federal government has a set list of powers; everything else falls to the individual states.

Division of Powers

In interpreting the Constitution, the courts have broadened provincial power and narrowed federal power in a process known as ‘decentralization’.

In interpreting the Constitution, the courts have broadened federal power and narrowed state powers in a process of ‘centralization’.

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