Ontario has a unicameral (“one chamber”) parliament, based on a British model from 1215.  In that year, King John of England signed the Magna Carta, limiting the monarch’s power to overrule the law.

The Constitution Act, 1867

In 1867, the British parliament passed the Constitution Act (formerly the British North America Act).  This created the Canadian federation, originally comprised of four provinces:

  • Ontario
  • Quebec
  • Nova Scotia
  • New Brunswick

The act also created two orders of government:

  • the federal (or national) government based in Ottawa, Ontario
  • provincial governments

Both federal and provincial legislatures were modelled after those in Britain. 

Division of powers

Facing weak links between regions, few people and vast, underdeveloped areas, the founders of the Canadian federation gave the federal government powers to strengthen regional links. 

The Constitution Act, 1867 divided responsibilities between the federal and provincial levels of government, with some powers to be shared.

Federal government powers include:

  • immigration
  • indirect taxation
  • criminal justice
  • defence
  • trade and commerce

Provincial powers include:

  • education
  • health and social services
  • administration of justice
  • direct taxation (sales tax)

Both levels of government consult on matters of mutual interest.

Canada’s independence: a timeline

1867: The Constitution Act gives Canada more independence from Great Britain, though ultimate power remains with the British Crown.

1931: The Statute of Westminster passes in the British parliament, giving Canada full jurisdiction over foreign affairs.

1949: The Supreme Court of Canada becomes the highest court for all legal issues of federal and provincial jurisdiction (replacing appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London).

1957: Legislation is introduced to confirm the distribution of revenue from the federal government to provinces to support administering and delivering public services.

1982: Canada becomes fully independent when the British Parliament passes the Constitution Act, 1982, giving Canada the power to amend its Constitution, and all other previous acts of the British parliament.

1982: The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (sections 1 to 34) is introduced as part of the Constitution Act, 1982. 

1982: The distribution of money from the federal government to provinces to provide “reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation” (called “equalization payments”) is entrenched in Canada’s constitution.

Today: Canada is now a federation of 10 provinces and three territories.

Structure of Ontario's government

Electoral System: first-past-the-post (the candidate with the most votes wins the seat and becomes a Member of Provincial Parliament).

Lieutenant Governor: the Queen’s official representative in Ontario and province’s head of state.  The appointee performs various legislative and ceremonial duties.

Premier: the leader of the winning party (one with the most seats) becomes the Premier-elect.

Majority government: a party that wins a majority of seats (63 in Ontario) forms a majority government.

Minority government: no party has won a majority of seats; the party with the “confidence of the House” – or support from members of other parties — forms a minority government.  Minority governments are defeated when a majority of members do not support the government on a vote of confidence.

Cabinet: the Premier chooses an Executive Council, called a Cabinet.  Members of Cabinet are called ministers.  Cabinet develops policies and sets priorities.  Ministers introduce new laws for consideration in the House.

Legislative Assembly: also known as the Ontario provincial parliament or the House – all elected members (MPPs) gather here to consider new laws (bills), and pass, change or repeal laws.

Members of the Opposition: elected members from the political parties that do not form the government. 

Official Opposition: the opposition party with the greatest number of opposition seats.

Independent members: elected members not affiliated with a party.

Question Period:  elected members, usually opposition MPPs, question the government on any matter of public concern.  Question Period lasts one hour.  House proceedings can be watched on television.

Courts: Ontario has several courts (for example, Court of Appeal for Ontario, Superior Court of Justice, Ontario Court of Justice and Small Claims Court). The Ministry of the Attorney General oversees courts and the administration of justice.

Quick facts

General elections: held every four years.

Number of ridings: 124.

Number of seats in provincial parliament: 124 (one for every riding).

Major political parties: Progressive Conservative Party, New Democratic Party and Liberal Party.

Municipal government in Ontario

Canada has three levels of government:

  • federal
  • provincial
  • municipal (local)

Each level of government is responsible for different programs and services.

Municipal government consists of: 

  • regions
  • counties
  • municipalities

A region might have many municipalities (cities, towns, villages or townships).  Your address determines what region, county or municipality you live in. 

Local governments administer and deliver local services.  These services differ from region to region, city to city and town to town, depending on various factors (for example, location and legal definition of the community).

Some examples of local government services include:

  • transit
  • policing
  • maintaining arterial roads
  • child care
  • social housing and social assistance
  • public health
  • garbage collection
  • land-use planning (how land is used)

Planning boards

These bodies provide advice and support on land-use planning matters in Northern Ontario.  The boards have powers under the Planning Act and as designated by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.  Some boards consist of members who are appointed.  Others are organized locally.