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Contemporary Canadian Govt. & Politics: A Research Guide: Overview and Background

A great way to start a research project is to read a concise overview of the issue. This will provide the context for the event or topic, and will help you to develop some understanding of it before starting on more detailed research. It can also help you to quickly narrow down your research topic. After reading an overview you can choose an interesting aspect of the topic on which to focus your research. While reading an overview, watch for and note key concepts, the words and phrases used, names of key people, dates, trends, ideas, and unresolved or debatable issues that could be interesting to develop. These key concepts, names, dates, etc. will also provide you with additional keywords that will come in handy when searching further for articles and relevant textbooks.

The most obvious place to start for a quick overview of a subject, one that will provide the most important facts, written by experts, and often with the additional bonus of a concise list of the key, recommended readings, is an encyclopedia. However, students should realize that the well-known, general encyclopedias like Britannica, Colliers or World Book are unlikely to provide as useful a starting point, especially for Canadian topics, as a well-chosen specialized encyclopedia.

Thousands of specialized encyclopedias exist, covering most subjects, including American and British politics and government, but unfortunately, there are none at present specifically on Canadian politics and government. The following are the specialized encyclopedias (sometimes called 'dictionaries' because of the alphabetical order of the articles), that are most useful in the study of contemporary Canadian government and politics:

TIP: Use the index (usually in the back) whenever there is one. Your topic may not have a main entry, or it may have several related entries. A good index will make these obvious so you can quickly get the most out of the encyclopedia.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. James H. Marsh, Editor in chief. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999. Also on CD-ROM and DVD. Online. By Historica Canada:

This is the premier Canadian encyclopedia. Its coverage is general, encompassing all aspects of life in Canada. The "Politics and Law" section includes many articles on government as well. The print edition is text only, with very few small sketches. CD-ROM and DVD versions include maps, graphs, audio clips, photographs, interactive features and text. The web version has timelines, theme-based collections, articles and videos. Updated frequently.

Encyclopedia of Government and Politics. Mary Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan, Eds. London: Routledge, 2003. 2 vols. 1483 p.

Covers all aspects of political science in general. Use for the basics of political theory, systems, institutions, processes and major world issues. Provides a world view, putting Canada in the world context. Contributions are by professors and each entry has a bibliography and list for further reading. Volume 2 has chapters on policy-making and specific policies, e.g. environmental, budgetary, etc., and major issues.

See also Special Topics.

Annual Reviews:

Note that most government departments and agencies published an annual report or review of their activities in the past, and many still do. Where these are no longer required, there are other ways to find annual reviews of government activities. See Primary Sources - What was Written - Government Publications - Departmental Annual Reports for more details.

Canada Year Book. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Print: 1867 - 2012. Online versions: 1867 - 1990, and 2006 - 2012:

This annual brings together some very basic information and statistics about Canada including its government and legal system. Note: The earlier volumes contain more textual information than recent ones.

Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1901-1937/38; 1960 - . Title varies: 1901-1938: Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs, 1960-70: Canadian Annual Review.

Essays provide a survey of the year's events in politics and related subjects in each province or region, and nationally. Publication of volumes lags by several years.

See also Special Topics.

The following are just a few examples of a variety of good textbooks on Canadian federal government and/or politics. Although many kinds of books can be used as textbooks, these texts generally provide good introductory summaries of key issues and events with helpful study aids such as indexes, explanations of key terms, and references to further reading. The selected texts are easy to read and understand even for people with little or no background knowledge of the subject.


Canadian Politics. Ed. by James Bickerton and Alain-G. Gagnon. 7th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020. 552 p.

Covers Canada's government and politics with contributions from political science professors. Chapters include important contemporary issues and list of suggested readings.

Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches. By Rand Dyck, Christopher Cochrane and Kelly Blidook. 9th ed. Top Hat Press, 2020. 688 p.

Provides an excellent overview and discussion of issues in Canadian politics, with extensive reference notes and lists of sources for further reading following each chapter. A detailed table of contents and index make it easy to use for quick reference on specific issues.

The Canadian Regime: An Introduction to Parliamentary Government in Canada. By Patrick Malcolmson, Richard Myers, Gerald Baier, and Tom Bateman. 7th ed. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 2021. 320 p.

An introduction to the foundations and principles of the Canadian political system.

A History of the Vote in Canada. Ottawa: Elections Canada, 1997. 109 p. Also issued as a video, 1995. Updated in 2020 online:

The book is divided into four chapters; chapter 3 covers 1920 - 1981; chapter 4 covers 1982 - 2020. Each chapter identifies significant social trends of the period, relates them to changes made regarding who could vote and other issues related to elections, and provides some of the debate that surrounded the changes. Includes chronologies, a bibliography, and a list of voter turnout since Confederation.

House of Commons Procedure and Practice. Ed. by Marc Bosc and André Gagnon. 3rd ed. Ottawa: House of Commons, 2017.

This very detailed book provides an excellent grounding in how Canadian government works.

How Canadians Govern Themselves. By Eugene Forsey. 10th ed. Ottawa: Library of Parliament, 2020. 52 p.

A very good beginner's guide to Canadian government. Originally written in 1980, the latest online version is updated by the Library of Parliament, with interactive elements. Click on "Read the Book" to see the full text in pdf.

The Public Servant's Guide to Government in Canada. By Alex Marland and Jared J. Wesley. University of Toronto Press, 2019. 113 p.

An overview and introduction to the inner workings of the federal government, with insights and advice from public servants and political staffers.

For textbooks on provincial and municipal government and politics, and other special topics, see also Special Topics


Parliamentary and Legislative Research Papers:
The Library of Parliament and the provincial Legislative Libraries are mandated to provide research and information services to the members and staff of Parliament or their Legislature. Some publish brief research papers, backgrounders and legislative summaries on current and emerging topics of interest to legislators, ie. all manner of social policy issues and government concerns. These can also be excellent resources for researchers. Not all legislative libraries provide online public access to these documents. 

Library of Parliament Research Papers. By Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament. 2001 - .

You can browse the list, or search the collection by year, keywords, or topic. Topic list includes "Government, Parliament and Politics." Previously published in print and made available through depository libraries. A selection of older papers is also available on the Depository Services Program site:

British Columbia Legislative Library Research Papers. By the Legislative Library of British Columbia. Search the Library Catalogue.

The library published background papers, briefs, and "current issues" papers on public policy issues in the early 2000s. These are available online, linked to from the legislative library catalogue.

Ontario Legislative Library Research Papers. By Ontario Legislative Library. Legislative Research Service. Search the Library Catalogue.

These research papers, formerly "backgrounders" and "current issue papers" are brief, factual guides to the topics in the news and under consideration by the legislature. Online versions are restricted to the Intranet. Print papers can be consulted by the public in the library only.

TIP: Select "Advanced Search" to combine keywords from the authoring body and the topic to find a research paper on your topic (e.g. phrase: "indigenous peoples" in the Subject field, and the phrase: "legislative library" in the author field). Or browse the list of research papers by searching using the phrase: "research paper" in the series field combined with "legislative library" in the author field. Records retrieved can be displayed by most recent first ("publication date descending").