Okay, so yesterday’s post on Bob Rae led me to thinking along the following lines.
1.) I have a predominantly American readership – even if this wasn’t obvious from all the “whozat” questions every time I delve into Canadian politics, Google Analytics confirms it pretty conclusively anyway.
2.) I like to post about Canuck politics every so often, because I like politics and I live here, and as I progress through law school I rather doubt this will change.
3.) Americans know practically jack shit about Canadian politics, regardless of whether or not we are your largest single trading partner (which we are). Most Americans know that Jim Carrey and Mike Myers are Canadians, and we appreciate that, but that is not quite the same thing.
So, in the interests of simple understandability, I am going to write a quick primer here for people who know shit-all about Canadian politics. This will not make you an expert by any means (well, except possibly in a relative sense). But it should provide the required basic glossary.
Absolute idiot level beginning. (Advanced readers may wish to skip to the next paragraph.) Canada is a federal parliamentary system: we have ten provinces and three territories. Constitutionally, governmental powers are strictly divided between the federal government and the provinces. This aspect of our constitution leads to all sorts of interesting legal quandaries (like, for example, whether securities law should be federally regulated or not; on the one hand, property law belongs rightly to the provinces, but on the other hand the federal government can assert that securities law being uniform is necessary for the national public good).
Both the federal parliament and provincial legislatures elect Members of Parliament (MPs) / Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs, although this designation technically varies from province to province, but MPP is a good catchall term). MPs and MPPs are elected on a riding basis: ridings are geographically divided segments of the country/province, much like American congressional districts. Our system is first-past-the-post, which often leads to disproportionately high majorities; attempts to switch to mixed-member representation (as used in Germany or New Zealand) usually fail, because the largest political parties shockingly do not want to give away their chances at majority governance and make sure nobody finds out about mixed-member representation.
(Canada also has a Senate, which is mostly superfluous and primarily exists for old-school political loyalists of note to occasionally say “wait, there’s a severe problem with this law here, try again” and then go back to having a nice nap. There remains fierce debate about how much everybody hates the Senate in this mold, but nobody can agree on what they want instead so it sticks around.)
Since Canada has a parliamentary system, that means our political system is – big shock – defined by political parties.
The Liberals. AKA “the Grits.” The Liberal Party is – despite its name – fairly centrist in political outlook, having drifted rightward somewhat over the past twenty years. (At most, it is at present very slightly centre-left.) It is also worth noting that the history of Canadian federal politics is, more or less, the history of the Liberal party, writ cyclically. For the past 120 years or so, the history of Canada can be written as follows:
Step 1.) Canadians put Liberals in power.
Step 2.) Liberals govern mostly competently for ten to fifteen years, and gradually grow corrupt with power.
Step 3.) Canadians get tired of blatant Liberal corruption, and elect a Tory government.
Step 4.) Tories stay in power for five to ten years, fuck up a lot, and remind everybody why they voted Liberal in the first place.
Step 5.) Repeat.
The Liberal party has historically been home to some very powerful and very notorious prime ministers: Pierre Trudeau is the most famous and probably most admired prime minister in Canada’s history, but Jean Chretien was a legendary backroom political streetfighter (complete with funny accent), Lester B. Pearson unified the armed forces, instituted national health care and helped give us our flag  and the extravagantly named William Lyon Mackenzie King led Canada through World War II, which started defining ourselves as a nation independent of Britain.
Then again, the Liberals also elected John Turner to office, and that didn’t really work out. The current leader of the Liberal Party is Stephane Dion, who is kind of like Harry Reid with better environmental bonafides and a funny accent, and is generally not expected to last much longer in the role.
The Conservatives. AKA “the Tories.” In comparison to the Liberals, the Conservatives live up to their name, by being the generally rightmost of Canada’s political parties. However, the question of “how right is rightmost” remains one of debate.
See, twenty years ago, the party was called the Progressive Conservatives – which, yes, is kind of like calling your party the “Liberal Republicans” or “Libertarian Socialists,” but that’s just how the Tories rolled at the time. However, the problem with conservatism as a philosophy in Canada is the same with conservatism in the United States – it’s a marriage of social conservatism and fiscal conservatism, and especially in Canada there are plenty of fiscal conservatives who are socially quite liberal – classically referred to as “Red Tories.” 
When Brian Mulroney led the PC party off the cliff at the federal level with his disastrous, contentious majority in the late 80s and early 90s, the party splintered into three factions: the “classic” Progressive Conservatives, the separatist-conservative Bloc Quebecois (more on them later) and the western-based wacko-conservative Reform party. The latter two parties picked up a bunch of seats in the 1993 federal election while the PCs were reduced to a mere two seats (out of more than 300, understand).
The Reform party, in a lame-ass attempt to rebrand so that it would become viable east of Manitoba, renamed itself the “Conservative Alliance.” This did not really work. A few years ago, the somewhat-rebuilt Progressive Conservative party and the Alliance merged to form the new Conservative Party.
The current party is a mishmash of remnant old-school Red Tories, Prairie-based social conservatives and religious rightists, and wannabe-Republicans desperate to enact every shitty idea the United States has already had, even if they failed the first time around. The current prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, falls from a mix of the latter two schools of Conservative thought, and his continued political strategy basically lies in convincing Canadians that he doesn’t mean all of it.
The New Democratic Party. AKA “the NDP” or “the Dippers.” A social-democrat party founded in 1961 when the CCF (farm-based socialists) and CLC (labour organizers) got together and decided to pool their political power. Their first leader, Tommy Douglas, the CCF premier of Saskatchewan and essentially the inventor of modern Canadian single-payer healthcare as we know it, is a beloved political figure in Canada on the level of secular sainthood. (He is also the grandfather of Keifer Sutherland. Isn’t that interesting?)
The NDP have never been in power at the federal level. They have been in power at the provincial level a fair number of times, sometimes successfully (multiple Saskatchewan governments, New Brunswick), and sometimes not (the Bob Rae government in Ontario). They are resolutely leftist, sometimes irritatingly so. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively to the expected norm, although the NDP do well in big urban centres with leftist cores, they also have quite a few rural ridings – remember, this is a party that got started in Saskatchewan.
The current leader of the federal NDP is Jack Layton, a former Toronto municipal politician noteworthy both for his attack-dog politics and his Alex Trebek moustache. (His wife Olivia Chow, also an MP, is on record as absolutely hating her husband’s moustache. Layton periodically promises to shave it if the NDP win X percent of the vote then never does.)
The Bloc Quebecois. AKA “the Bloc.” The Quebec separatist party. The fact that Canada has a sizable political party dedicated, in essence, to ending the country as we know it has been remarked upon many times before, so do yourself a favour and don’t bother. Politically, the Bloc tends to be all over the map, as its only serious unifying political position is “Free Quebec – or, if not, then give Quebec stuff.” Rural Bloc MPs tend to be more socially conservative, but urban BQers are among the most socially liberal in Canada.
The current leader of the Bloc is Gilles Duceppe, generally agreed to be a well-liked, honest politician and isn’t it a shame he’s trying to tear the country apart.
The Green Party. AKA, like everywhere else, “the Greens.” For a long time the Green Party was the same assortment of boring old hippies driving soy-diesel VW vans and rambling on about the Man that you get everywhere else, but this changed about ten years ago when a collection of disaffected Red Tories joined the party and started gradually remaking it. Nowadays, the Green Party – while devoutly an environmentalist party in all respects – is more oriented towards an axis of fiscal conservatism and government investment/regulation in market-oriented solutions. (This should not be construed as the advancement of Republican-lite voluntary-targets type ideas. The Greens are serious.) The Green Party currently has zero MPs, but their share of the popular vote has, over the past decade, climbed from two percent to around twelve, so it’s generally considered to be only a matter of time.
Regionalism. Canadian politics, partly due to the federal system and partly due to the fact that we are geographically spread out all over the place (and mostly right next to the American border, where it is warmest and most convenient for trade), tends to have a very regional slant, with majority governments elected throughout the country happening with vanishing rarity. The makeup of Parliament varies from period to period as parties’ fortunes rise and fall, but right now the basic gist of things is as follows:
Ontario: The biggest province in Canada, obviously, so everybody else hates it with a passion for being big and rich and rich and big. Toronto (which everybody else in Canada hates, a fact which amuses Torontonians endlessly because it’s so cute when they act like their opinions matter) is a Liberal bastion with NDP pockets. Elsewhere, the most competition tends to be between Liberals and NDP for seats, although the Tories do have a good concentration in “the 905” (the ring of suburban ridings surrounding Toronto); however, Stephen Harper’s blatant willingness to interfere in Ontario politics from the federal level has helped steadily drive Tory fortunes downward in the province by dribs and drabs, and John Tory’s disastrous provincial leadership campaign didn’t help much either. (Yes, the Tories had a provincial leader named “Tory.” No, it wasn’t confusing, why do you ask?)
Quebec: Was for a very long time a contested region solely between the Bloc and the Liberals, depending on how sovereigntist or federalist Quebec generally felt at any point. However, the Tories and more recently the NDP have been making inroads here over the last few years, mostly because Quebecois have come to realize that voting for other non-Bloc parties can display a love of federalism just as easily as voting for the Liberals can. The Liberals, needless to say, are not happy about this, and less happy that other parties have figured out that Quebec will routinely vote for whichever national party offers them the most stuff simply for being Quebec.
The Maritimes: Mostly Liberal with Tory pockets, and the Tories here are largely Red Tories. The Maritimes are kind of like New England, except whiter. (Exception: Nova Scotia, which has a respectable black population descended from escaped slaves. I bet you didn’t know about that!)
Manitoba and Saskatchewan: Pretty much evenly divided between the Tories, NDP and Liberals, with one party generally slightly above the other two. Right now, the order of power here is probably Tories-NDP-Liberals. FUN FACT ABOUT MANITOBA AND SASKATCHEWAN: there are no fun facts about Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Alberta: Wishes it were Texas, votes accordingly. Occasionally a Liberal will get elected in an urban riding in Calgary or Edmonton, but the key word is “occasionally.” At the provincial level, Alberta has had Tory governments for the past billion years or so and unsurprisingly has the lowest provincial taxes in Canada. Until about twenty years ago, was a receptor of transfer payments from the federal government, until all those tar sands suddenly became economically feasible for oil extraction and pretty much overnight it started funding poorer provinces instead of being a fundee. Albertans are tremendously bitter about this and often threaten to secede. This is because they are schmucks.
British Columbia: Canadian diversity in microcosm, contrasting the giant hippie commune that is Vancouver and Victoria with the BC inlands, where they look at you funny if you mention the wheel. The Green Party also has deeper roots here than elsewhere in Canada, so most likely when the first Green MP gets elected, it’s probably going to be in BC. Also, you put your weeeeeeeeeed in here, maaaaaan.
Health care. Yes, we have single-payer health care. It does not cover dental, optical, and most pharmaceutical costs (which are lower here than down south thanks to government barganining power), but pretty much everything else is covered. As political footballs go, this is one that right-wing parties have to juggle very carefully, because the gamut of Canadian opinion on government health care mostly ranges from “it is awesome” to “it is awesome, but it could be even more awesome by doing X.” (X is usually “hiring more staff” or “spending more money” or both.) The most notorious and radical advocates of free-market medicine mostly just suggest that we move to a private/public tier system like in France. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when someone posts on your favorite political blog claiming to be Canadian and how our health care system is a nightmare, understand that they are either lying about their nationality or a poster to FreeDominion, which is the Canadian equivalent of guess what website.
Small-l liberalism. Finally, it is important for American readers to remember that, for the most part, Canadian politics as a whole is significantly to the left of American politics. Those “centre-left” Liberals I mentioned would be liberal Democrats in America, and most New Democrats would be to the left of Bernie Sanders. Even the average Tory would be, at best, a fairly liberal Republican. (Of course, the rise of the Stephen Harper wing has created its very own group of dumb-assed neocon wannabes who would fit in just fine in the Republican caucus.)
Finally. Toronto is not pronounced “Toe-RAWN-toe.” It is pronounced “Toe-RAH-know” if you don’t live there, and “Trawnna” if you do. This has little to do with politics, but it’s valuable for you to know these things.
 Which, and this is true, was created by having a national contest where everybody could submit their designs and then having a parliamentary campaign pick the winner. Isn’t that great?
 Understand that in Canada we’ve had our political colours defined long before 2000 calcified the “red state blue state” thing down south. Tories are blue, Liberals are red, the NDP is orange, the Bloc is teal, and the Greens are, duh, green. Yes, this is the opposite of how the Americans do it. Tough. We came up with it first.