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The Branches of Government

Canada’s system of government has three branches: the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Each one has separate powers and responsibilities that are defined in the Constitution: the legislative branch passes laws, the executive implements them, and the judicial interprets them.

Canada's Branches of Government

Canada’s Branches of Government: Constitution Monarch; Legislative Branch: Senate, House of Commons; Executive Branch: Prime Minister, Cabinet, Government Departments; Judicial Branch: Supreme Court of Canada, Provincial and Territorial Courts.

The Legislative Branch

Parliament is Canada’s federal legislature. It includes the Monarch (represented by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons. Members of the Senate and House of Commons propose, review and pass bills, which then become laws. To become law, all bills must be adopted by the Senate and the House of Commons in identical form and receive Royal Assent from the Governor General or a representative.

  • The Senate: Senators are appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, to represent Canada’s provinces and territories. Senators introduce bills, refine legislation, propose amendments to bills, and investigate and report on important issues.
  • The House of Commons: Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected by Canadians to represent different areas of the country called constituencies. MPs spend much of their time debating, voting, participating in committees and representing the concerns of their constituents. Like senators, they also introduce bills, refine legislation, and suggest amendments to Senate bills.

Representatives of the three branches of government gather in the Senate Chamber for the Speech from the Throne
Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Executive Branch

The executive branch is composed of the Monarch (represented by the Governor General), the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

  • The Governor General is the Monarch’s representative in Canada. They have important constitutional responsibilities, including signing bills into law, summoning and dissolving Parliament, and swearing in the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
  • The Prime Minister is the Head of Government. They traditionally play many roles including political party leader, Cabinet leader and MP. The Prime Minister determines the government’s agenda, guides policy development and selects members of the Cabinet.
  • The Cabinet develops policies to govern the country and introduces bills to transform these policies into law. Most Cabinet ministers oversee a government department. They report to Parliament and explain their department’s activities. They also provide direction to their departments on the development and implementation of government policies.

The Judicial Branch

The judicial branch is made up of a system of courts, administrative boards and tribunals at the federal, provincial and territorial levels. It is independent from the legislative and executive branches.

  • The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court in Canada, and the final court of appeal. This means it has the final say on important cases of private and public law. It hears appeals related to decisions made by the federal, provincial and territorial courts of appeal, and also considers important questions of law referred to it by the Governor in Council (Cabinet).
  • The federal court system specializes in federal laws, such as intellectual property, maritime law and tax assessments. It includes the Federal Court, the Tax Court and the Federal Court of Appeal.
  • Provincial and territorial courts make up most of the courts in Canada and are created by provincial and territorial legislatures. These courts deal with most criminal offences, as well as civil and family law and other matters. Almost all provinces and territories have three levels of courts: lower, superior and appeal. (Nunavut has only one level of trial court.)

What are Canada’s three branches of government?

Parliament vs. Government

Parliament has a very specific meaning. Created by the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament is the legislative branch of government. Its main purpose is to make laws and hold the government to account.

Government is a broader term with different meanings. Inside the House of Commons, it usually refers to the Prime Minister, Cabinet and other members of the governing party. Outside the House of Commons, the term often also includes government departments.

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