How Federal Elections in Canada Work

A Simple Explanation of a Canadian Federal Election

Parliament Buildings in Ottawa
Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Dennis McColeman / Photographer's Choice

Updated: 07/23/2015

When Are Federal Elections Held in Canada?

Canadian federal elections are usually held every four years. There is fixed-date legislation on the books that sets a "fixed date" for federal elections to be held every four years on the first Thursday of October, however exceptions can be made, especially if the government loses the confidence of the House of Commons.

Ridings and Members of Parliament

Canada is currently divided into 308 electoral districts or ridings.

For the 2015 Canadian federal election, scheduled for October 2015, the number of ridings has been increased to 338. Voters in each riding elect one member of parliament or MP to send to the House of Commons. The Senate in Canada is not an elected body.

Federal Political Parties

There are 18 registered federal political parties in Canada. Each party can nominate one candidate for each riding. During the 2011 Canadian federal election in 2011, representatives of only five federal political parties - the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party - won seats in the House of Commons.

Forming the Government

The party that wins the most ridings in a general federal election is asked by the Governor General to form the government. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister of Canada. If the party wins more than half the ridings - that's 170 seats in the 2015 election - then it will have a majority government, which makes it much easier to get legislation passed in the House of Commons.

If the winning party wins 169 seats or fewer, it will form a minority government. In order to get legislation through the House, a minority government usually has to adjust policies to get enough votes from MPs of other parties. A minority government must constantly work to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons in order to stay in power.

The Official Opposition

The political party which wins the second highest number of seats in the House of Commons becomes the Official Opposition.