Who Is the Head of State in Canada?

Queen Elizabeth II

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The queen of the United Kingdom—Queen Elizabeth II, as of July 2018—is the head of state in Canada by virtue of Canada's former status as a colony of Great Britain. Before her, the Canadian head of state was her father, King George VI. The queen's powers as head of state are exercised on her behalf by the governor-general of Canada, except when the queen is in Canada. The governor-general, like the queen, remains outside of politics because the role of head of state in Canada is largely ceremonial. Governors general and lieutenant governors are considered representatives of, and therefore subordinate to, the head of state as opposed to being subordinate to the head of government, who in Canada is the prime minister.

What the Head of State Does

In contrast to the head of state in a presidential system such as that of the United States, the queen of Canada is considered the personification of the state rather than having an active political role. Technically speaking, the queen doesn’t “do” as much as she "is." She serves a mostly symbolic purpose, remaining neutral on political matters.

As outlined by the Canadian Constitution, the governor-general, working on behalf of the queen, has a variety of important responsibilities, from signing all bills into law, to calling elections, to inaugurating the elected prime minister and his or her cabinet. In reality, the governor-general performs these duties symbolically, generally giving a royal assent to every law, appointment, and proposal of the prime minister.

The Canadian head of state does, however, hold constitutional powers known as emergency "reserve powers," which separate the head of state and the head of government to ensure the proper functioning of Canada's parliamentary government. In practice, these powers are very rarely exercised.

Powers of the Head of State

The queen has the power to:

  • Appoint and dismiss the prime minister
  • Appoint and dismiss other ministers
  • Summon and dissolve parliament
  • Make war and peace
  • Command the armed forces
  • Regulate the civil service
  • Ratify treaties
  • Issue passports
  • Create peers, both life peers and hereditary peers

While ministers, legislators, police, public servants, and members of the armed forces swear allegiance to the queen, she doesn’t directly govern them. Canadian passports are issued “in the name of the queen,” for example. The primary exception to the queen’s symbolic, nonpolitical role as head of state is her ability to grant immunity from prosecution and pardon offenses before or after a trial.

Canada’s Current Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II, crowned queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in 1952, is the longest-reigning sovereign in Canada's modern era. She is head of the Commonwealth, a federation of countries including Canada, and is the monarch of 12 countries that have become independent during her reign. She acceded to the throne following the death of her father, George VI, who had served as king for 16 years.

In 2015, she surpassed her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, as the longest-reigning British monarch and the longest-reigning queen and female head of state in history.

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Munroe, Susan. "Who Is the Head of State in Canada?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/head-of-state-510594. Munroe, Susan. (2021, February 16). Who Is the Head of State in Canada? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/head-of-state-510594 Munroe, Susan. "Who Is the Head of State in Canada?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/head-of-state-510594 (accessed March 31, 2023).