The Prime Minister of Canada

Though the Queen may be Canada’s head of state, and the governor general the Queen’s stand-in, it is the prime minister who truly rules Canada. Known as the nation’s head of government, his office is said to be one of the most powerful leadership positions in any western democracy, meaning a great deal of Canadian political life centres around his deeds and decisions.

How the Prime Minister is Chosen

There are two different methods of selecting a prime minister: an election, where the voters choose, or a an internal appointment, where the ruling party does.

Paul Martin being sworn in.

Paul Martin (b. 1938) reads the oath of office to become Canada's 26th prime minister. Prime ministers are officially sworn in at the residence of the governor general, Rideau Hall, by the Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada's head bureaucrat.

As explained in the Parliament chapter, in a Canadian federal election, voters elect members to fill the 308 seats in the Canadian House of Commons. The leader of the political party who wins the most of those seats is then automatically installed as prime minister once the election concludes. He can keep getting re-elected in this manner forever, or he can lose office once a different party wins the majority of seats instead. Pretty simple.

But what happens if a prime minister dies or resigns? For extreme situations, the government of Canada maintains an emergencey order of succession to the prime minister’s office, that ranks every member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Currently, the Finance Minister is in the number one spot. If it’s less of an emergency, the parliamentary caucus of the prime minister’s political party, which is to say, all its sitting members in the House and Senate, will quickly assemble and elect one of their own to serve as acting prime minister. If there’s a longer window of opportunity, such as, if the prime minister announces his planned date of resignation weeks in advance, the party will hold a formal national convention to pick a new leader, where all party members across the country — not just the politicians — will get to have a say.

Since the office of prime minister has no term limit and since Canadian elections are not held on fixed dates, prime ministerial resignations are common, and around half of all Canadian PMs have won the job via the party appointment process mentioned above. This is not without controversy, however. A PM who was installed by party insiders, rather than duly elected by the Canadian people, will often have his democratic legitimacy to rule questioned if he stays in office too long. Luckily, the prime minister has the ability to call a federal election to seek a fresh mandate (more on this later), and most party-appointed PMs chose to do this quite soon after their inauguration.

What Sort of People Become Prime Minister?

Canada's Next Great Prime Minister judges

From 2007 to 2009, the CBC hosted a reality show called "Canada's Next Great Prime Minister," where college students pitched themselves as prospective politicians. The judges were former prime ministers (left to right) Brian Mulroney (b. 1939), Joe Clark (b. 1939), Kim Campbell (b. 1947) and Paul Martin (b. 1938).

As mentioned, a prime minister is by definition also the leader of Canada’s most successful political party. Getting a job like that requires a great deal of commitment and partisan bona fides, so, needless to say, most Canadian prime ministers are senior politicians who have been involved in national politics for quite some time. Usually, they’ll be a former cabinet minister who had some track record of accomplishment serving in the administration of a prior PM.

Less commonly, they may be accomplished figures from outside of elected politics, such as a business, law, academia, the civil service or diplomacy. A great deal of prime ministers are some combination of both.

Powers of the Prime Minister

To best understand the powers of the prime minister, it may be helpful to think of the PM as a guy who wears several different hats and plays several different roles within the Canadian political system. A large part of the reason why the office is so powerful is precisely because a PM’s authority extends into many different jurisdictions and is not subject to very many checks and balances that limit his decision-making.

Head of the Legislature

Stephen Harper in the House of Commons

Stephen Harper (b. 1959) speaks in the Canadian House of Commons, in his triple capacity as prime minister, leader of the Conservative Party and a Member of Parliament.

The prime minister continues to serve as a Member of Parliament during his entire prime ministerial career, and sits in the House of Commons just like everyone else. As party leader, however, he maintains tight control over all other members of his parliamentary caucus and generally leads the entire legislative process, including deciding which bills are introduced and which laws are passed.

As mentioned in the political parties chapter, party discipline in Canada is quite rigid and hierarchical, meaning that individual members of the House of Commons have very little independence and basically just vote how they’re told or risk being booted from caucus. The House of Commons and the Senate are thus almost always very supportive of the prime minister’s agenda, and virtually no laws are passed in Canada unless the PM has had at least some hand in creating them. The only exception would be in those rare cases when the PM’s party only controls a narrow plurality of seats in the House (known as a “minority government“). In such circumstances, the prime minister will have to rely on the votes of at least one other political party in order to get anything passed, meaning the bills introduced will usually be the result of some degree of bipartisan compromise.

Perhaps the PM’s most important (and controversial) power over the legislature is his ability to close it. The prime minister controls the duration of time that Parliament will stay open and consider laws (known as a sitting), and is able to suspend, or prorogue it, as well. When he thinks the present parliament has sat long enough, he can dissolve it, and call a federal election to let voters choose a new one. In practice, this power is often used to ensure that elections are called at the most politically convenient time for the PM, while the prorogation power has been occasionally used to temporarily shut down the House during particularly heated or embarrassing sessions.

Head of the Executive

One of the principles of the British parliamentary system is that the Crown “reigns, but does not rule,” meaning that all the executive power that used to be exercised by the king or queen back in the bad old days is now granted to the democratically-elected prime minister. This concept of Crown authority is where the PM draws much of his contemporary power. As we discuss in the monarchy chapter, most of the executive powers that the Canadian constitution formally grants to the Queen or governor-general are actually used by the PM in day-to-day governance.

Privy Council

"Governor-in-Council" is a term often used in Canadian law and legislation to describe prime ministerial authority. It’s sort of a convoluted term that reflects the fact that the Crown’s power flows through the governor general, and the governor general’s power is delegated to the Privy Council, which is in turn delegated to the cabinet. And the PM runs the cabinet. Seen here, the Privy Council meeting room (and hall of prime ministers) in Ottawa.

The prime minister is the chair of Canada’s cabinet, which he appoints to help himself govern. Though the cabinet as a collective is constitutionally required to make certain decisions, in practice it’s the PM who decides “what cabinet has decided.” At best, the cabinet is a sounding board or focus group for a prime minister who wishes to discuss future policies and legislation. At worst, it’s a group he informs of his decisions after they’ve already been made. Generally speaking, the prime minister will only have a close relationship with a few of the most powerful cabinet ministers, usually the minister of finance, minister of foreign affairs and minister of justice, with whom he’ll work closely in developing relevant legislation and policies that falls under their jurisdiction.

In addition to their formal cabinet, most PMs in recent years have taken to appointing a large “staff” of advisers who often hold just as much — if not more — power over the PM’s agenda. Staffers of this sort would include people like the prime minister’s chief of staff, press secretary, communications adviser, legislative assistant and other non-politicians who have won his loyalty and trust.

Appointer-in-Chief

From the authority of the Crown also flows the authority of appointments and patronage, and this is a power the prime minister has in spades. Virtually all important positions in the federal government are appointed by the prime minister directly, including, amongst others:

  • Members of the Senate of Canada
  • The Governor General of Canada
  • Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada
  • Justices of other federal courts
  • Ambassadors
  • Board members and presidents of Crown corporations
  • Members of other federal boards, such as the refugee board, labour relations board and parole board

Now, in practice, even the most patronage-happy prime minister can’t possibly find enough people to fill every single one of these offices single-handedly. As a result, the less consequential a position is, the more likely the prime minister is to delegate the appointment to some other official more closely involved with the position in question, usually a cabinet minister or non-partisan appointment board. You can learn more about this in the bureaucracy chapter.

Commander-in-Chief

The Prime Minister with troops

Prime Minister Harper visits Canadian troops involved in the 2011 Libyan mission at an air force base in Italy.

The decision to send Canadians to war is strictly a matter for the executive branch, which is to say, the PM. Though the controversial nature of military action means a vote of Parliament will be frequently sought to provide legitimacy and accountability to any overseas deployment of the Canadian armed forces, prime ministers are still the ultimate decider of who gets bombed and where the soldiers are sent. Most of Canada’s senior military hierarchy is likewise appointed by the prime minister, including the Chief of Defence Staff, who serves as Canada’s top soldier.

It should therefore go without saying that the prime minister is also in charge of Canada’s foreign policy, and often travels the world signing treaties and meeting with other world leaders on behalf of Canada.

Symbol of the Country

Poster of prime ministers of Canada

Many Canadian classrooms will feature a poster of past prime ministers, such as this one. You can order your own copy for free if you click on the image.

Lastly, the PM has a lot of miscellaneous, symbolic obligations that relate to his position as the nominal “head of the nation.” Though technically the governor general and Queen are supposed to perform most figurehead duties, these days the prime minister of Canada is just as likely to be seen cutting ribbons, touring hospitals and congratulating athletes. Most Canadian schoolchildren are taught from a young age to view the Prime Minister of Canada as one of the main symbols of their country, and understand the importance of men like John A. MacDonald and Wilfrid Laurier, even before they can understand politics.

To learn more about the prime ministers of Canada, check out the biographies of Canada’s prime ministers chapter in the history section.

Links About The Prime Minister:

Quick Facts:

  • The prime minister is the head of the Canadian government and ruler of Canada.
  • A person becomes prime minister by being leader of the political party that wins the most House of Commons seats in a Canadian federal election.
  • The prime minister runs the legislative process by controlling his MPs in the House, and instructing them what bills to introduce and how to vote.
  • The prime minister's office is extremely strong, and he directly appoints most of the other high-ranking officials in the Canadian government.