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The Executive Branch in Canadian History

Photograph of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, circa 1884

Photograph of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, circa 1884
Source

 

Group of small photographs of the members of the House of Commons, 1893

Group of small photographs of the members of the House of Commons, 1893
Source

The political executive of the Canadian government holds power only so long as that government maintains the confidence of the House of Commons. If a majority of those elected to the House vote against key legislation or other important business moved by the government, the resignation of the political executive usually ensues, and the governor general — performing his or her formal executive duty -- invites another individual to form the government and fill the vacant Cabinet positions, including that of prime minister.

In the smaller Cabinets of the nineteenth century, executive political power was shared between the prime minister and his Cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell (1823-1917) reluctantly conceded this point in 1896, when he lost the confidence of his Cabinet and was forced to resign. Over the past few decades, however, observers of Canadian political culture have noted that executive power has been increasingly concentrated in the office of the prime minister, while the collective influence of the federal Cabinet has declined. This modern balance of power is determined by the prime minister's priorities and personality.

The conventions that animate the relationship between executive offices, and that ensure the political executive remains accountable to the legislature as a whole, were established in mid-nineteenth century British North America along with responsible government. Many of Canada's unwritten constitutional rules derive from the system of representative democracy developed in Britain, where the Crown acts according to the advice of the prime minister. Canada's unique historical experience has also informed the conventions, character and actions of the executive branch of government, just as the executive has shaped Canadian history.