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Canada - Political Parties

Political parties are an integral part of the Canadian political process. However, in a parliamentary system voters cast their ballots, both legally and theoretically, for individual candidates. They are not electing a particular government, party or leader; rather, they are voting for a person to represent their constituency in Parliament. The reality, though, is quite different: most serious candidates belong to political parties, and generally only representatives of the dominant parties are elected.

In the United Kingdom, the development of a party system began in the middle of the 18th century and became fully developed in the period between 1832 and 1867. In Canada, similar party politics emerged in the 1840s. Originally, political parties were informal entities, and it is only relatively recently that they acquired legal status.

Until 1970, election ballots listed the names, addresses and occupations of candidates, but there was no provision for identifying their political affiliations. Therefore, a voter had to know before entering the voting booth which candidate represented a particular party. There was great scope for voter confusion, whether inadvertent or consciously orchestrated by candidates. The law was changed in 1970 to allow the political affiliation of candidates to be shown on the ballots and to delete the address and occupation of candidates. These changes not only assisted voters, but also accorded better with the reality of modern political campaigns. The changes coincided with the enactment of legislation that, for the first time, formally recognized political parties as entities that are subject to regulation by Elections Canada when they engage in activities related to the electoral process.

The legal status of political parties continues to evolve. Although they retained their common-law status as voluntary or unincorporated associations without legal personality or status, their integration in a complex statutory electoral scheme greatly enhances their identity and status in law within the electoral process.

The legal recognition and registration of political parties that wish to contest elections is a relatively recent development in Canada. Registration under the Canada Elections Act is not mandatory, but it does bring significant benefits and opportunities; with these rights come corresponding duties and obligations, including the requirement to provide certain reports.

The Canada Elections Act was amended in June 2001 to allow the political affiliation of candidates who do not belong to registered parties to be indicated on the ballot, provided the group nominates at least 12 candidates. The Ontario Court of Appeal had previously ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit all political affiliations except those of registered parties from being shown on ballots. Registration, however, remains the key to being eligible for other benefits accruing to parties.

Until recently, a political party was required to nominate at least 50 candidates in a general election in order to qualify as a registered party. In June 2003, however, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Figueroa that the 50-candidate threshold was unconstitutional under section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court held that a threshold higher than one candidate diminished citizens' rights to play a meaningful role in the electoral process and to make an informed choice. The Supreme Court suspended the decision for 12 months, until 27 June 2004, to afford Parliament the opportunity to amend the legislation. A bill to address the decision received Royal Assent on 14 May 2004.

The bill amended the requirements for application for registration. Under the provisions of the bill, a party is eligible for registration if it has at least one candidate whose nomination has been confirmed for an election and its application to become registered was made at least 60 days before the issue of a writ for that election. The bill included, for the first time, a definition of a "political party" as an organization "one of whose fundamental purposes is to participate in public affairs by endorsing one or more of its members as candidates and supporting their election."

It provided for the name of the political party that has endorsed a candidate to be listed on the ballot under the name of the candidate, if the party is a registered party. This amendment eliminated the requirement that a party have candidates in a minimum of 12 electoral districts in a general election. Parties that fail to run a single candidate in a general election, however, will be automatically deregistered.

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