How Long Can You Be a Prime Minister in Canada?

Shakil Afeni
Shakil Afeni Politics
23 Min Read

The list of Prime Minister can go very long. But ever wondered how long can you be a Prime Minister in Canada? Well, it is for sure an interesting question and an intriguing topic to discuss.

Justin Trudeau, who is the Prime Minister of Canada, was elected for office on 19th October 2015. He took the Prime Minister’s office by defeating Stephen Harper, who served as the 22nd Prime Minister from 2006 to 2015. In his tenure, he was able to win three general elections.

At present, Justin Trudeau is serving his first term of winning a majority government and a minority government on two occasions.

Technically, the Queen is Canada’s head of state, and the governor-general is the Queen’s ceremonial stand-in. To rule Canada, the Prime Minister has the utmost authority.

Known as the country’s head of government, the office of the Prime Minister is without a doubt one of the strongest leadership positions in a Western democratic country. The Prime Minister’s decisions play a significant role in Canadian politics.

Let us answer “How long can you be a Prime Minister in Canada” in detail and learn some intriguing facts about the governance in the second-largest country (area-wise) in the world.

canadian speaker podium flag illustration
Source: Freepik

Let’s Discuss—How Long Can You Be A Prime Minister in Canada?

Like a Prime Minister in Canada, there is no fixed term. If the Prime Minister dies or resigns, or is dismissed, they remain in office starting from the oath of office to the end of their term.

There are no limits to be a Prime Minister in Canada. As long as the PM commands the confidence of the House of Commons, he/she can continue to serve. 

To date, Macdonald and Sir John Thompson are the two Prime Ministers who have succumbed (died in office). The rest have either resigned or have taken retirement. Macdonald died in 1891 and Thompson in 1894.

Here, voters choose their members of Parliament, and subsequently, the Parliament chooses the Prime Minister. Although, the PM is expected to hold the leadership of the party and should maintain the confidence of the house.

Justin Trudeau, who is serving as the 23rd Prime Minister, was elected as the Leader of the Liberal Party in April 2013. His party won a majority government in 2015 where he became the Prime Minister.

After his election in 2019, Mr. Trudeau was elected to his second term. The Liberal Party won a minority government where Conservatives provided support by increasing their seats in the House.

Before we learn the Canadian system of government in detail, let us understand the difference between the President and Prime Minister.

1. Prime Minister Vs President—The Difference

To begin with, let me tell you that both these jobs are strong. Although they differ in some significant ways. We will be learning from the examples of Justin Trudeau (Prime Minister) and Joe Biden (President).

In Canada, Prime Minister leads the country and in The United States of America, President is the head.

In Canada, it is the Prime Minister’s role to lead cabinet meetings and answer questions in the house. Also, the PM takes care of maintaining foreign relations and representing the country in international meetings.

The executive branch of government in the USA is led by the President. The difference is, there is a separate committee that helps in making huge decisions.

The Canadians elect their Prime Minister in October every four years during an election. Although, the PM can also call for an election earlier than scheduled. After being elected, the PM serves at Her Majesty’s pleasure (Queen), which means there is no time limitation for a Prime Minister in Canada.

In the case of the United States, they elect a President every four years in November. Once the President is elected, he is guaranteed to serve for a minimum of four years (one term) and a maximum of eight years (two terms). You can’t serve for longer than two terms in the USA.

To be a Canadian Prime Minister, you do not have to be of any specific age group but it is required for you to be a citizen of Canada (does not matter if you are born outside the country).

In the United States, to be president, you must be a citizen of the country (being either born in the country or receiving citizenship at birth). Also, you need to be at least 35 years old to compete in the Presidential elections and you should have lived in the United States for a minimum of 14 years.

And lastly, the President of the United States gets to work and live at the White House. The PM of Canada works in the Parliament and lives in a huge house at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.

man with canadian flag on mountain peak
Source: Freepik

2. The Canadian System of Government

Let us shift our attention a little to the Canadian system of government. 

A parliament, a federal structure, and a constitutional monarchy govern Canadians.

Parliamentary Democracy

The system of government assures that law is the ultimate authority. The Constitution Act 1867 suggests that there should be one parliament for the country, which involves three distinct elements. The Senate, Crown, and The House of Commons.

Federal State 

As a Federal State, the lawmaking responsibility in the country is divided among one federal, ten provincial, and three territorial governments. The Federal Legislature has two houses, an upper house (The Senate) and a lower house (Commons).

The Senate consists of individuals assigned by the Governor-General to represent Canada’s provinces and territories. Whereas, members of the house are elected by Canadians who can vote.

Constitutional Monarchy 

It is the queen who has executive authority under the constitution. The Governor Council holds the executive function where the Governor-General acts with the assistance of the cabinet and the leader.

To put it simply, the executive powers are directed by the cabinet, ministers of the crown, and headed by the PM. Therefore, the monarch is the head of state.

3. Some Noteworthy Former Prime Ministers of Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie King was the longest-serving PM, who held the post for 21 years and 154 days! 

William Lyon Mackenzie King was the 10th PM of Canada and he also belonged to the Liberal Party.

William King served three non-consecutive terms in government, from 1921-1926 in the majority and minority governments, from 1926-1930 in minority governments, and 1935-1948 in the majority and minority governments.

John A. Macdonald was the first Prime Minister  and the second longest-serving prime minister at 18 years and 359 days. He took office from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891. Macdonald belonged to The Conservative Party of Canada. 

In addition to raising the protective tariff of the National Policy and completing the railway, Macdonald built a successful national government for the new dominion.

Among those who served as Prime Ministers, Sir Charles Tupper was the one who served the shortest period. He was able to hold the office of Prime Minister for only 68 days in 1896 (one majority government). He belonged to The Conservative Party of Canada and was the sixth Prime Minister of the nation.

Sir Charles Tupper was one of the three Prime Ministers who never sat in parliament while being Prime minister. The other two were Kim Campbell and John Turner.

Canadian flag pride man outdoors
Source: Freepik

John Turner has the second shortest term as serving Prime Minister at just 79 days in 1984. He was a Canadian lawyer and politician who served as the 17th Prime Minister of the country. He belonged to the Liberal party.

Mr. Turner happily took retirement from politics after losing an election in 1988 to Brian Mulroney.

Kim Campbell has the third shortest term as serving Prime Minister at 132 days. Having won one majority government in 1993, Campbell is the only female Canadian Prime Minister in history. She belonged to The Conservative Party of Canada. 

Another question you may wonder about is how short a term might be if you are a Canadian Prime Minister!

Pierre Trudeau, who is the father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was the 15th PM of Canada. Pierre Trudeau was in office for more than 15 years. He was the third longest-serving prime minister at 15 years and 164 days. 

Pierre Trudeau was said to be significant as his foreign policy included making Canada less dependent on the United States and the United Kingdom. He patriated the Constitution and set up the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These actions helped achieve full Canadian sovereignty. 

Pierre Trudeau won three majority governments and one minority government in his tenure. He died in the year 2000.

Stephen Harper served as the 22nd Prime Minister of the country. His tenure lasted for 9 years and 271 days. Mr. Harper resigned in 2015 when he was defeated by the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The income tax, corporate tax, and GST were reduced during his term in office.

Arthur Meighen was again a Canadian lawyer and politician who served as the ninth Prime Minister of the country. He remained in office for a year and 260 days. He served two short non-consecutive terms in 1920-21 (a majority government) and 1926 (a minority government).

Arthur Meighen lost the election in 1926 to William Lyon Mackenzie King. This was not the first time he had to resign as Prime Minister. 

4. How Is the Prime Minister Elected in Canada?

Moving further with our topic, here is how the election process takes place.

Members of Parliament are elected across Canada to fill the 338 seats in the House of Commons. The leader of the party with the maximum number of seats is then called up by the governor-general and is sworn in as the Prime Minister just after the election comes to an end. 

The Prime Minister can keep getting re-elected this way or he might lose office if a different party wins the majority of seats in the election. 

Parties in general have high standards and values for who they are willing to make their head. Thus, most Canadian Prime Ministers are competent politicians who have been actively participating in national politics for a long time. 

Normally, the Prime Ministers are former cabinet ministers who have kept a brilliant track record of accomplishments and failures of a prior Prime Minister. It is common for them to have earned fame and respect outside of politics, especially in the fields of business,  academia, law, civil service, media law, and diplomacy.

Sometimes, Prime Ministers combine both of these characteristics.

man with canadian flag on mountain peak
Source: Freepik

5. What Powers Does the Prime Minister of Canada Enjoy?

Let us learn the powers that a Canadian Prime Minister in office holds.

The PM plays an imperative role in shaping the country’s political image. And not only that, there are multiple other roles that the Prime Minister plays within the political system.

The Prime Minister’s office is considered powerful because the authority stretches out into several governmental areas and the decision-making is not restricted to many limitations.

1- Leader of the biggest party in Parliament

Parliamentary influence is also held by Canadian Prime Ministers. Alike other members, the Prime Minister also votes in the House of Commons.

However, as a leader of the biggest political party in parliament, the Prime Minister keeps enough control over the other party members. He goes through the entire parliamentary process to decide which bills are to be introduced and which laws are to be passed.

2- Head of the Executive Branch of the Government

As we know, Canada’s political system is based on British traditions. As the elected head of government, the Prime Minister is able to use the powers previously reserved for kings and queens. The Prime Minister is as powerful as the monarchs back in the day.

The power which is connected with ruling the country daily is known as the executive power. The Prime Minister is the head of the executive branch of the Canadian government.

The Prime Minister calls every shot in managing the government and taking imperative decisions like hiring other government officials, dividing and assigning projects to the different departments of the bureaucracy, and representing Canada through communication with national and local governments.

3- Appointment Powers

The Prime Minister is able to appoint a lot of other officials in the government besides appointing a cabinet of other members of parliament.

This involves the Governor-General, appeals court judges (also the judges of the supreme court of Canada), departmental heads and board of federal bureaucracy, leaders of the Senate of Canada, head of the Canadian armed forces, and the leader of the country’s central bank, The Bank of Canada.

4- Leader of Foreign Policy and the Military

The exclusive realm of Canada’s executive branch is its Foreign Policy. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister deal with Canada’s relationship with other countries.

During international meetings of world leaders such as NATO and United Nations meetings, it is the PM who represents and speaks for the country.

Moreover, the Prime Minister decides whether to send the Canadian Military to war or not.

5- Country’s Symbol

Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister is the country’s symbol as he represents the entire country in foreign countries and affairs. He also carries out a lot of symbolic duties along with political ones.

In actuality, the Governor-General and Queen are supposed to carry out the country’s figurehead duties. But, in today’s world, the Prime Minister performs important tasks.

Examples of such tasks would be meeting up with athletes, sending greetings on national holidays, and other national-level winners, visiting hospitals, the inauguration of an event, building, or anything like that.

6. What Determines the Extent of the Prime Minister’s Term at Office?

There are majorly two things that decide the Prime Minister’s length of term in the office. They are:

1- Party Leadership

In simple words, the leader of the winning party in an election becomes the Prime Minister. Parties decide and elect their leaders mutually; therefore the Prime Minister needs to maintain a good image and continue to earn the confidence of his fellow party members.

2- Confidence of the House of Commons 

The Prime Minister and his/her government must please and enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. This usually happens when enough members of parliament from a single party form a majority in the house and form a government. And the strategy is to win votes and maintain the confidence of the house intact.

At times, one party does not win enough seats to hold a majority. But the government is still formed, although there are chances for it to fall when the house decides to vote against the government on key motions called Confidence Votes. These are key financing bills, budget bills, or anything known as a Vote of Confidence.

canada flag waving person
Source: Freepik

7. In What Situations Does the Prime Minister Leave Office?

Having discussed the power of Prime Ministers, let me talk a little about the emergencies in the office.

As we are now aware that the Prime Minister is the head of the party who wins the maximum number of seats in the house after an election, did you also know that the Prime Minister can be thrown out of power if Canadians vote out the members of his parliament in the subsequent election?

Besides, in drastic situations such as a terrorist attack or an assassination, the Canadian government keeps an emergency order of succession to the Prime Minister’s office which ranks each member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet.

In case the emergency is not so huge, the sitting members of the house and senate gather and elect one among their own as acting Prime Minister.

But when the Prime Minister issues notice of his resignation well in advance, the prime minister’s party holds a national convention to choose a new leader. In this formal convention, all party members across Canada get a chance to voice their opinion.

Since there is no fixed term for the Prime Minister’s office and elections are not conducted on decided dates, the resignation of Prime Ministers is common.

Although it’s surprising, in the above-mentioned process, half of Canadian Prime Ministers have taken over the office.

One must also think of Justin Trudeau, having served for more than 6 years already, he would now be eying among the top three longest-serving Prime Ministers of Canada. 

In many countries across Europe, there is no maximum term limit for the leaders. The foremost examples are The United Kingdom and Spain.

The same thing goes for The Chancellor of Germany. The Chancellors of Germany are not directly elected by the people. People get to elect the parliament, and the parliament elects the Chancellor.

In countries where such a parliamentary system is followed, parliamentary mechanisms normally secure democratic rotation in office for Prime Ministers, The Venice Commission stated in a report on term limits in 2018.

In some countries, the premiership does not expire automatically but there are a few conditions to deal with. Speaking of which, Australia has no maximum term limit but the Australian Prime Minister must have the government’s support to stay in office.

To learn more about the former prime minister, opposition parties, the upcomig next election or the other notable part of canadian history, you can visit the national library in calgary.

Closing Thoughts

Undeniably, Canada has one of the most sophisticated government systems in the world. And for the visitors, the government is always kind and welcoming.

The next elections in Canada will be held in October 2025. However, early voting could be called for. It will be interesting to see if Trudeau can manage to remain in office as Prime Minister after the election.

The question of—how long can you be a Prime Minister in Canada is not that difficult to answer. Yet, it will continue to be a matter of discussion but I hope enough questions were answered and you have gotten a fair idea of how the Canadian government functions.



Last Updated on by Narayani Bhardwaj

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