Responsible Government

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


The Canadian Encylopedia defines responsible government as a government that is responsible to the people.

It goes on to say:

“In Canada, it technically means a government responsible to the representatives of the people – an executive or Cabinet collectively dependent on the votes of a majority in the elected legislature or Parliament. The key principle of responsibility is that a government needs the confidence of Parliament to create laws and taxation.”

Note that although responsible government cannot occur without Representative Government, it is possible to have representative government without having responsible government in a situation such as Canadian colonies in the three decades before the passage of the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867)

Responsible government and unwritten conventions

Aucoin, Jarvis, and Turnbull (reference below) describe how, in Canada, the conventions of responsible government remain largely unwritten:

“It is important to note that no new written constitution reflecting this transformation in power accompanied the reform, aside from the British government’s written instructions to the colonial governors. Instead, the British tradition and preference for unwritten constitutional conventions was maintained. The result: the term “responsible government” appears nowhere in Canada’s 1867 constitution. Written constitutions were for the French or the Americans. This meant retaining, as much as possible, the traditional formal structures of government each time a reform was adopted. At the same time, of course, it was assumed that everyone understood that the actual practice was to be governed by new unwritten rules. In adhering to this British tradition of evolutionary reform, political leaders were expected not only to know the conventions of the constitution but also to respect their spirit by acting in good faith.”

“… Except for the rule that a parliament not last longer than five years, the provisions describe the formal structures in ways that do not reflect the democratic distribution of powers in practice as governed by the unwritten conventions of responsible government. The most important provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 that do not reflect the conventions are those dealing with the Queen and the governor general as her representative in Canada. The written constitution, for instance, states that:

  • the executive powers are vested in the Queen;
  • the members of the Queen’s Privy Council (or Cabinet of ministers) who assist and advise the governor general are chosen by and may be dismissed by the governor general.

“The written constitution reflects the legal reality that the Queen of Canada and the governor general are part of a constitutional monarchy. In Canada, as in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, the Queen reigns but is not meant to rule.”

For a discussion of some of the ambiguities in Canada’s constitutional conventions, see Aucoin, Jarvis, and Turnbull’s Reforms.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Constitutional Framework (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica, Representative Government, at, accessed 12 August 2016.

Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull, (2011). Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, pp. 39. Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publications.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 August 2016.