Canada was a former colony of Great Britain. Unlike other nations, it did not achieve independence by means of revolution. Instead the process was a gradual one, culminating in the British North America Act in which the British parliament awarded self-rule in 1867. Its last formal legislative link with the United Kingdom was not severed until 1982, and Canada remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. As such, the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II of England. She is represented by the governor-general, a post currently held by Adrienne Bing Chee Clarkson (since 7 October 1999). However, the roles of the queen and governor-general are largely ceremonial.
Real political power lies with the prime minister and the Parliament. The Parliament consists of a Senate of 104 members appointed for life and a House of Commons of 301 members elected from single-member constituencies for maximum terms of five years. The House of Commons is the stronger of the two bodies and carries out the day-to-day governance of the country. The majority party in the House of Commons forms a government, and its leader becomes the prime minister. As of January 2002, the Liberal Party, led by Jean Chrétien, held a majority in parliament with 172 seats. The official opposition is the Conservative Alliance, led by John Reynolds, with 66 seats. Other major parties include the Bloc Québécois (BQ), 38 seats; the New Democratic Party (NDP), 13 seats; and the Progressive Conservatives, 12 seats.
Canada has a well-developed federal system in which power is shared between the national and provincial governments. Each of the country's 10 provinces has a lieutenant governor and a legislature, from which a premier is chosen.
The provinces enjoy a large measure of autonomy and are responsible for matters including education, municipal affairs, direct taxation, and civil law. This autonomy is especially important to Canada's largest province, Quebec, which was originally settled by the French, and is the only province with a French-speaking majority. National unity has always been a particular challenge in Canada because of the desire for separatism on the part of many in Quebec.