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Canadian Political Vocabulary

The following is a reference glossary of terms, many of which are exclusive to Canada, commonly used when discussing Canadian government and politics.

Note that while these are not perfect “textbook” definitions, they do reflect the general understandings of the terms as used in mainstream Canadian political debate and the national news media. Italicized terms are defined elsewhere in the glossary.

24 Sussex Drive – the address of the official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada, often used to describe the job of prime minister in general, as in “the ambitious minister has his eyes set on 24 Sussex.” The address is used because the residence’s proper name is rather hard-to-pronounce: Gorffwysfa.

back bencher – a member of the House of Commons who is not a member of the prime minister’s cabinet, and thus has little power. “A mere backbencher, his criticisms were easily ignored.”

bilingualism – The idea that Canada should be a country where French and English are equal in status and equally used. In the Canadian context, a bilingual person is someone fluent in both French and English, while a bilingual institution is one that employs bilingual staff. See chapter on Canadian language. “The prime minister reaffirmed his commitment to bilingualism in the judiciary.”

caucus — A group of politicians who all belong to the same party. For example, the “Liberal Senate caucus” would be all the sitting Liberal senators.

Commonwealth realm – A country, like Canada, that recognizes the British monarch as its nominal head of state. “Changes to the Order of Succession still have to be approved by the Commonwealth realms.”

Confederation – Either a generic term describing the country formed by Canada’s 10 provinces (“the poorest province in Confederation”), or the July 1, 1867 date in which this constitutional union was established (“60 years since Confederation”).

conservatism – A political philosophy that generally emphasizes free-market capitalism, individual freedom, low taxes, and traditional moral values. Supporters are called conservatives and usually support the Conservative Party of Canada.

constitutional debate – Formally, any debate involving some proposal to amend the Canadian Constitution, but usually understood to mean a debate on changing the nature of Canadian federalism, particularly the status and powers of the province of Quebec. “He favored an elected Senate but was wary of the larger constitutional debate that could ensue.”

constitutional monarchy — A country, like Canada, where the monarch does not have political power.

Council of the Federation — Grandiose, but non-constitutional name sometimes used to describe a first ministers summit.

crossing the floor – When a sitting politician of one party joins a different one. Refers to the fact that Canada’s two main political parties sit on opposite sides of the House of Commons. “As a reward for crossing the floor, the rebel MP was promoted to cabinet.”

the Crown – Generic term meaning “the government of Canada” or the state. Usually used to describe the government’s side in a lawsuit or other dispute. “The Crown claims ownership of the contested land.”

Dipper – Somewhat old-fashioned slang term for a member of the New Democratic Party of Canada. A more common term is simply “New Democrat” or “NDP’er.”

dominion – A self-governing colony of the British Empire. After the Statute of Westminster (1931) granted full political independence to the British dominions, they became known as Commonwealth realms. “The Dominion of Canada” was often used as Canada’s full, formal name until the 1950s.

equalization payments – money that the federal government gives to have-not provinces so that all provinces can afford to provide roughly similar public services. See the federal government’s Equalization Program page.

establishment – Adjective referring to everything in the Canadian political or economic system that is entrenched, powerful, and unquestioned. The phrase “the establishment” refers to the idea that the country’s entrenched power structure is held by a particular group of people and institutions. “Her proposal for reform was opposed by much of the Ottawa establishment.”

federalism – The principle that each province of Canada should have some degree of local self-government independent from the federal government. Canada’s Constitution enshrines this idea. “The creation of a new national regulator was criticized by several provinces as undermining federalism.” 

federalist – In the context of Quebec politics, someone who wants the province of Quebec to remain part of Canada. “He was a staunch federalist with no time for talk of separation.”

first minister – A category used to describe executive-rank politicians in Canada, including the Prime Minister of Canada, the 10 prime ministers (premiers) of the provinces, and the three premiers of the territories. Sometimes there are first ministers conferences where all of Canada’s executive-rank leaders meet.

fiscal conservative – Someone whose political agenda emphasizes cutting taxes, limiting government spending, balancing the budget, and shrinking the debt. Can be found in any political party.

globalization — The phenomenon of increasing interconnectedness among the economies and governments of the world. Proponents of this are sometimes called globalists, often disparagingly. Contrasts with nationalists.

government — When said after the name of a prime minister or premier (for example, the “Clark government”), refers to the parliamentary caucus, cabinet and administration of that leader.

Grit – Old-fashioned nickname for a member of the Liberal Party of Canada.

have province – a well-off province that is a net contributor to the equalization program.

have-not province – a province that receives equalization payments.

head of state – In the Canadian understanding, a ceremonial figure who holds the highest rank in a political system but has little power. The British monarch is described as Canada’s head of state and the Governor General “acts” as head of state. The prime minister, in contrast, is called the head of government.

left-wing – Political values associated with a liberal or social democratic philosophy.

liberalism – A political philosophy that generally promotes equality and fairness for all individuals and a large, well-funded government able to provide a variety of public services. Supporters are called liberals and usually support the Liberal Party of Canada or the New Democratic Party. Prior to the 20th century, liberal was often used to describe a philosophy closer to libertarianism. This different ideology is now sometimes called classical liberalism.

libertarianism – A political philosophy that aggressively supports free market capitalism and individual rights and opposes most government-run public services and the criminalization of personal activities. Often considered a right-wing faction of conservatism. “A strict libertarian, she believed government had no business banning smoking in private businesses.”

MP, MPP, MLA, MNA etc. —Abbreviations of this sort that begin with the letter “M” describe a person who is a member of a legislative body. An “MP” is a member of Parliament, an “MLA” is a member of the Legislative Assembly, and so on. Different legislative bodies across Canada have different names.

monarchist – Someone who supports Canada’s status as a constitutional monarchy, especially in the context of a debate with a republican. “The royal wedding delighted monarchists.”

nationalist – Label usually used to describe someone who holds a protectionist or anti-globalist political and economic philosophy, particularly in regard to any debate over increasing trade or political ties with the United States. In Canada, nationalism is usually considered a mostly left-wing movement.

“opening up the constitution” – What one is doing by proposing to amend the constitution of Canada. Because passing constitutional amendments in Canada requires the approval of many provincial governments, it’s usually taken granted that proposing a constitutional amendment is an invitation for a long, open-ended, and painful period of political negotiations. See also constitutional debate. “A plan to reorganize parliament in such a dramatic way would almost certainly require opening up the constitution, as much as she denies it.”

non-partisan – Someone or something that has no allegiance to any political party, and usually does not promote identifiably right-wing or left-wing views, either. “The votes were counted by non-partisan volunteers.”

patriated – Uniquely Canadian word used to describe the 1982 transfer of the Canadian Constitution from British to Canadian control. Ordinarily, foreign-held artifacts are repatriated back to their original owner, but since Canada never owned its constitution, the prefix “re” couldn’t be used.

party system – The fixed number of political parties available to choose from in an election, or currently sitting in the legislature. Usually used in reference to arguments about limited choice. “He claimed Canada’s rigid party system was biased against independent candidates.”

politically-correct – Adjective used to describe anything that tries very hard to be inoffensive, particularly towards women or racial/religious minorities. Appointing a female, aboriginal judge would be more “politically-correct” than appointing a white male, for instance, and using the phrase “member of the Asian-Canadian community” would be a more politically correct term than “Oriental” or simply “Asian.”

poll — In the context of an election (and thus different than an opinion poll, which is a survey of opinions), a poll or polling division is a specific geographic part of a larger electoral district (or riding). Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in their polling division, and on election night the media releases election results on a gradual, poll-by-poll basis.

populist – A politician or political movement whose political appeal relies heavily on public resentment for the powerful and wealthy. Populist movements can be left-wing or right-wing but usually rely on charismatic leaders from outside the establishment.

red Tory – A member of the Conservative Party with moderate views, particularly on social issues. “She was more of a red Tory and didn’t care much about abortion.”

R. – Letter used to represent the side of the Crown in legal cases (“R. versus Jones”). Short for Regina, which is Latin for “queen.”

ROC – Acronym meaning “Rest Of Canada,” used when talking about Quebec to refer to the other nine English-speaking provinces.

republican – Someone who opposes Canada’s status as a constitutional monarchy and wants the country to become a republic instead. Usually used in the context of debates with monarchists. “He saw the removal of the Queen’s portrait from the city hall as proof the mayor was a republican.”

responsible government – A democratically-structured government that follows the rules of the modern Canadian parliamentary system. Used mostly in reference to the dates in which the pre-Confederation Canadian colonies established such systems.

Rideau Hall – The official residence of the Governor General of Canada. Getting the governor general’s ceremonial assent for something is often referred to as “going to Rideau Hall” or “asking Rideau Hall.”

riding – A geographically-defined electoral district. Every member of the House of Commons, or a provincial or territorial legislature, is elected to represent a specific riding. “The party swept numerous rural ridings.”

right-wing – Political values associated with a conservative or libertarian philosophy.

separatist – A Quebecer who believes Quebec should separate from Canada and become an independent country. “There was a large separatist protest in Quebec City.”

sovereignist – Another name for a separatist. The phrase Quebec sovereignty is often used as a synonym for Quebec independence. “The sovereignist vote is badly divided this election.”

sovereignty-association — Some new constitutional arrangement in which Quebec is mostly independent from the Canadian government but not a fully independent country. Quebec had an unsuccessful referendum on establishing sovereignty-association in 1980.

social conservative – Someone with strongly traditional or religiously-inspired views on social issues, chiefly abortion and LGBT rights. “Social conservatives rallied against the court ruling that prohibited public prayer at the event.”

social issues — Morally divisive political debates over issues involving families, religion, sexuality, gender, and human life. “He tried to steer clear of contentious social issues during the election debate.”

socialism – A political philosophy that supports the financial equality of all citizens and maximum degree of government control over the economy, including the largest possible welfare state.

social democrat – Someone with moderate socialist views, but still more left-wing than a liberal. The New Democratic Party describes itself as social democratic.

The state – The entire legal and political entity that is Canada, including its government and everything the government owns and controls. The term the Crown is a common way to describe the Canadian state in Canadian law. “She argued the state did not have a right to access her personal information.”

Stornaway – The official residence of the Leader of the Opposition.

Tory – Nickname for a member of the Conservative Party of Canada or a follower of a certain old-fashioned philosophy of conservatism emphasizing support for order, hierarchy, and British traditions and institutions. “The Tories are leading in the polls.”

territorial – Relating to the governments of Canada’s three northern territories: Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. “The territorial department of education unveiled its budget.”

welfare state – a government that provides its citizens with a variety of generous social services, particularly ones aimed at addressing health, poverty and unemployment. “Conservatives have traditionally been skeptical of the growth of the welfare state since the Second World War.”

Westminster System — a parliamentary system of government based on British democratic traditions. Canada is said to follow this system, as are other former British colonies like Australia, India, and Jamaica.