This Week in Canada

Sue Spang

This week in Canada it has been cold and snowy. Besides Barack Obama inauguration fever, which is, frankly, out of hand — while listening to Canadian Public Radio last week, I was implored to submit song suggestions for an “Inauguration Mix: 49 Songs from Above the 49th Parallel,” and less charming and more disconcerting, this morning’s paper had a feature article titled “Chowbama,” about Mr. Obama’s food choices — the most exciting news has been Ontario’s lack of a snow-removal budget, causing the roads to be covered in inches of slush. In the midst of world economic collapse and unfavorable driving conditions, it seems curious that the Canadian government has been so quiet.
Have you heard anything lately about what the Canadian government is doing? If you haven’t, it may be because very little attention is paid to Canada’s parliament outside — and, really, even inside — the country. Then again, it might also be because Canada doesn’t really have a government right now. Technically.
Saying that Canada doesn’t have a government at the moment is perhaps an exaggeration. Saying that the Canadian government is on the verge of a major coup and potential toppling is not. In early December, a portion of the parliament moved to overthrow the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, democratically and fairly elected Oct. 14 — only six weeks previous — in favor of a Liberal “coalition” government.
If you’re thinking, “It doesn’t seem like they should be able to do that,” then you’re not alone. Alas — questions of democratic integrity aside — they absolutely can. Allow me to explain:
Canadian parliament has 143 Conservative members. In addition, the Liberals hold 77 seats, the New Democratic Party, or NDP, hold 37 and 49 belong to the always-fascinating Bloc Québécois, the French separatist party.
This means that even though there are more Conservative MPs than from any other individual party, the Conservatives do not hold a majority in parliament as a whole.
Dissatisfied with the fiscal plan presented by Harper in late November, the Liberal and NDP leaders banded together, persuaded the Bloc to enter a temporary union, giving the combined “party” the majority, and planned to vote down the plan, executing a vote-of-no-confidence and toppling the Conservative Harper.
Harper’s fate then lay not with the parliament, but rather in the hands of Micha‰lle Jean, the Governor General of Canada. This government position, which had not been utilized with regard to the Prime Minister since 1926, represents the influence of Elizabeth II, the Queen of England.
Jean, who had to be interrupted in the middle of a tour of Europe and flown back to Canada, had three choices: to dissolve parliament, prompting another election; to prorogue parliament, discontinuing the session without dissolving parliament; or to simply ask Harper to resign and appoint a new Prime Minister and form a new government.
Ultimately, Jean chose to prorogue parliament from Dec. 4 until Jan. 29, giving Harper time to redeem himself and giving Canadians time to think over the idea of Liberal coalition. During this time, parliament does not meet, and no legislation is reviewed.
While this government debacle has had some effect on Canada, the effect has been surprisingly small for an effective disbanding of the government. For about four days, Canadian politics were actually exciting, which, based on people’s reactions, I must assume does not happen very often.
Secondly, the proroguing taught everyone a little more about Canadian government, a system with so many caveats that even Canadian newspapers published flow charts showing the hierarchies of power in a parliamentary democracy.
Thirdly, it became clear that the possibility of the Bloc Québécois entering into anything resembling a seat of power terrified the Canadian public as a whole, and the fact that the separatist party’s seats represent the lynchpin of parliament is both hilarious and horrifying.
Lastly, the fiasco confirmed that when Canada really messes up, the Queen is, ever so coolly, though ever so confusingly, still the woman in charge. If only she could send some snowplows our way.