As at the provincial level, federal elections must be held every five years, according to the Constitution, though they usually take place at approximately four-year intervals. The process is set in motion when the Prime Minister requests the Governor General, who represents the Queen as the head of state, to dissolve Parliament and to request the issuing of writs by the Chief Electoral Officer for an election.
The Canada Elections Act stipulates that the writ must not be issued later than the 36th day before polling day, making the minimum length of a federal election 36 days.
Other countries with parliamentary systems, such as the United Kingdom, have shorter minimum election periods. Canada’s size, however, probably necessitates a reasonably long campaign to give party leaders an opportunity to visit different regions and constituencies.
It should also be noted that in the United States, where elections are fixed under the Constitution and no campaign period is specified, candidates for the presidency or other major offices can spend a year or more pursuing election. Suggestions have been made in recent years that federal elections be held at fixed intervals, or on fixed dates, to facilitate planning, ensure predictability and remove the discretion and advantage of the governing party. Others argue, however, that such a system would be inconsistent with a parliamentary system and the confidence convention, whereby the government must retain the confidence of a majority of the House of Commons or tender its resignation. Some provinces are experimenting with, or considering, fixed election dates. (See Library of Parliament link in More on the Issue.)
Timing of federal elections
The following table shows that the length of time between elections at the federal level is usually longer when the government holds a majority of seats in the House.
|Durations Between Federal|
General Elections Since World War II *
|Election date||Majority/minority result||Prime Minister||Duration between elections **|
|June 27, 1949||Majority||Louis St-Laurent||4 years, 1 month|
|August 10, 1953||Majority||Louis St-Laurent||3 years, 10 months|
|June 10, 1957||Minority||John Diefenbaker||10 months|
|March 31,1958||Majority||John Diefenbaker||4 years, 3 months|
|June 18, 1962||Minority||John Diefenbaker||10 months|
|April 8, 1963||Minority||Lester Pearson||2 years, 7 months|
|November 8, 1965||Minority||Lester Pearson/Pierre Trudeau||2 years, 8 months|
|June 25, 1968||Majority||Pierre Trudeau||4 years, 4 months|
|October 30, 1972||Minority||Pierre Trudeau||1 year, 8 months|
|July 8, 1974||Majority||Pierre Trudeau||4 years, 10 months|
|May 22, 1979||Minority||Joe Clark||9 months|
|February 18, 1980||Majority||Pierre Trudeau/John Turner||4 years, 7 months|
|September 4, 1984||Majority||Brian Mulroney||4 years, 3 months|
|November 21, 1988||Majority||Brian Mulroney/Kim Campbell||4 years, 11 months|
|October 25, 1993||Majority||Jean Chrétien||3 years, 7 months|
|June 28, 1997||Majority||Jean Chrétien||3 years, 6 months|
|November 27, 2000||Majority||Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin||3 years, 7 months|
|June 28, 2004||Minority||Paul Martin|
* This chart is copied from the site of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.
** Durations are extended slightly to the nearest full month.
As at the provincial level, if you are interested in challenging a nomination in a federal riding, you must keep abreast of the news and establish contacts with the party of your choice to be as prepared as possible to start campaigning when the time comes.
For information on your federal riding, see the sites of the four political parties elected to the House of Commons in 2004 referred to in More on the Issue. You will at least find out about the incumbent and his or her political affiliation.
Time requirements if elected
The time requirements at the federal level are the most demanding. Usually the ridings are quite far from Ottawa and therefore travelling is an important element in all members’ schedules. Furthermore, the sessions are quite long. The House traditionally sits from September to December, and from February to June, five days a week, breaking Friday noon to allow members to get to their riding. A Member of Parliament will then be expected to dedicate a good part of his or her time to constituency affairs once he or she is back in the riding.
Many members of Parliament must also fulfill duties on one or more of the various committees, sub-committees, standing committees and joint committees, or as a parliamentary secretary to a minister. For more details on the range of committees and subcommittees of the House of Commons, visit the Parliament of Canada site referred to in More on the Issue.