OTTAWA—What the heck does the federal government even do, and why are those annoying people knocking at your door?
A federal election campaign, the 43rd in Canada’s history, has kicked off. That means on Oct. 21 you will get to cast a vote for lawmakers who will wield a fair amount of power in all our lives.
Sure. Your provincial government, or your municipal government, might feel closer to home.
After all, provinces are responsible for delivering services that touch people’s daily lives, things like health care, education, job skills training, some natural resources, highways, bridges and public transit, and municipalities receive provincial dollars and collect property taxes to run libraries, city parks, water and sewage systems, and local police.
But consider this: the federal government handles some of the biggest responsibilities that are shared across provincial boundaries and beyond our national borders.
It is the level of government that collects the biggest part of what you pay in income taxes to pay for all those big ticket items.
Overall, the federal government spends nearly $300 billion a year, a bit more than it takes in through taxes or fees, so Ottawa is currently borrowing to cover its costs. It employs roughly the equivalent of 350,000 workers.
In fact, the biggest federal department by number of employees is the taxman: the Canada Revenue Agency, with nearly 44,000 employees.
All those taxes pay for spending in areas of federal responsibility, things like national defence, foreign affairs, border services, immigration, the employment insurance and old age security systems, the regulation of safe airlines, shipping, railways, and pipelines, or sectors like banking, telecommunications (radio/television/telephones/cell and internet communications), fisheries, the post office, and departments that write criminal laws or operate federal penitentiaries.
The federal government has constitutional responsibility for Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, their rights and lands.
It is responsible for a combat-ready army, Air Force and Navy, and reserve forces so that Canada can respond to immediate crises or threats with military force, or can provide aid in humanitarian disasters here or abroad.
The federal level of government is responsible for the federal police force, the RCMP, although wherever the Mounties are contracted to act as a provincial or municipal police, those costs are shared with provinces or territories.
While the provinces are mostly responsible for the administration of the criminal law, legislators in Ottawa write the criminal code, deciding what constitutes a criminal offence.
Ottawa also pays the bill for the administration of federally-appointed senior trial and appeal courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada; the Canada Border Services Agencies which controls border entry points and is the front line for immigration, trade and security controls; the federal prisons where offenders serving a jail sentence of two years or more go to do their time; Canada’s spy agencies — the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Communications Security Establishment — and the spies’ oversight agencies.
And the feds are in charge of foreign affairs. So the party elected will get to decide Canada’s priorities abroad, direct all of Canada’s embassies, consulates and trade offices, and guide a big policy department that handles international diplomacy, foreign aid, and international trade relations. That’s a job shared among three ministers.
So you can expect to hear a lot from political parties about who is best placed to represent Canada, its interests, and its values on the world stage.
In fact, whichever party is elected gets to tell their version of the national story for the next four years.
Conservative party spokesman Brock Harrison said beyond that, federal governments decide “a lot of things that matter to the day-to-day lives of Canadians” including levels of taxation and “that has an impact on people’s pocketbooks and bottom lines.” Other sectors of the economy, he said, “can attest to the fact that Justin Trudeau’s policies on things like the energy sector” have had a direct impact on jobs and livelihoods.
“So there’s always plenty of reasons to vote but especially in this campaign — where we know that affordability is going to be such a deciding issue, what with the carbon tax and the rising cost of living … the outcome is going to have a significant impact on people’s ability to get ahead.”
Liberal party spokesperson Dan Lauzon said the Liberal message to voters is look at the latest job creation numbers. He said 1.1 million jobs have been created since 2015, the economy “is performing very well” and people in the middle class “have more money in their pocket today than they had four years ago.”
“That’s why your vote matters in this election. Because when you choose jobs, when you choose to focus on people and believe in them, and when you choose to have the sort of policies that will not just allow the economy to grow but allow people to benefit from that …that’s what you’re voting for in the federal government.”
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“When people are engaged in the democracy process, they can force positive change in their government. We need to make different choices to get better results for people. In this election, I’m in it for you.”
So the next time you wonder whether you should bother voting, remember that when candidates come knocking, it’s you who gets to wield a wee bit of power.
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The federal government’s policies have a fair bit of impact on the daily lives of Canadians. Which issues matter the most to you?