1. Division of Powers

Canada is a federal state, which means the federal government, the territorial governments and the provincial governments share lawmaking responsibilities. The Constitution says which level of government handles certain subjects. We call this “division of powers.”

Section 91 of The Constitution Act, 1867 sets out the federal government’s responsibilities, which include:

  • regulating trade and commerce
  • unemployment insurance
  • raising money through a tax system
  • postal service
  • military and navy services
  • navigation and shipping
  • transportation between provinces by boat, rail and vehicle 
  •  currency and coinage
  • banks (except for credit unions)
  • bankruptcy and insolvency
  • copyrights and patents
  • marriage and divorce
  • criminal law and penitentiaries
  • Government of Canada employees

Section 92 sets out the provincial and territorial governments’ responsibilities, which include: 

  • provincial taxes
  • managing provincial public lands (and the sale of timber and wood from these lands)
  • provincial prisons
  • managing hospitals
  • municipalities
  • transportation within a province
  • incorporation of companies with provincial objectives
  • property and civil rights
  • marriage ceremonies
  • provincial courts
  • fines, penalties and jail terms for provincial offences
  • provincial government employees

So, who gets to make laws about matters  that don’t fall under the subjects listed in sections 91 and 92? The drafters of the Constitution included as many subjects as they could. But of course, new matters have come up as time goes on and our society evolves. Sometimes new matters are like the listed subjects. Other times, the governments cannot agree on who has jurisdiction over the subject or matter. For example, carbon taxes have ended up in the courts for direction on which level of government has authority.

You might also be wondering where municipal governments fit in. Provincial and territorial governments can give certain law-making responsibilities to other municipalities.