Contemporary Canadian Government & Politics:
A Practical Research Guide

Introduction   Starting   Clarifying   Bibliographies   Finding & Evaluating
Primary Sources   Special Topics   Citing Sources   Ask Your Librarian!   Detailed Table of Contents
2. Clarification and Direction: Finding the Facts
Introduction Definitions Facts & Figures Overview & Background Information

Overview & Background Information:

Encyclopedias Annual Reviews Textbooks Parliamentary and Legislative Research Papers

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.

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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: Canadian Encyclopedia Plus, 1995 -- . Online version:
This is the premier Canadian encyclopedia. Its coverage is general, encompassing all aspects of life in Canada. Articles are written by scholars. Many entries have select bibliographies. 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 contains the complete text (in French and English) and most of the interactive features of the CD and DVD, with updates.
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.

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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 Part 5: Primary Sources - What was Written - Government Publications - Departmental Annual Reports for more details.

Canada Year Book. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. 1867 - . Online version: Canada e-Book. 2001 - .
This annual brings together some very basic information and statistics about Canada including its government and legal system. Note: The earlier volumes contain more 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, 1971- current title.
Essays provide a survey of politics and related subjects in each province or region, and nationally.
See also Special Topics.
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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: Critical Approaches. By Rand Dyck. 5th ed. Scarborough, ON: Thomson Nelson, 2008. 722 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.
A Citizen's Guide to Government. By C. Richard Tindal. 3rd ed. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2005. 363 p.
Written by a professor of government, and intended for an introductory Canadian Politics course, this easy-to-read book explains how government and politics works at all levels in Canada, and how to become politically active.
A History of the Vote in Canada. Ottawa: Elections Canada, 1997. 109 p. Also issued as a video, 1995. Online version has only the table of contents and an illustrated quiz: Select "General Information". Highlights from the book also available as "Explore a History of the Vote in Canada" at
The book is divided into three chapters; chapter 3 covers 1920 to the present. Each chapter identifies significant social trends of the period, relates them to the changes made regarding who could vote 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 at Work. By John A. Fraser. Montreal: Les Editions de la Cheneliere, 1993. 195 p.
An easy-to-read textbook explaining the functions of the House of Commons.
House of Commons Procedure and Practice. Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit. Ottawa: House of Commons and Montreal: Chenelière/McGraw-Hill, 2000. 1152 p. Online version:
This very detailed book provides an excellent grounding in how Canadian government works.
How Canadians Govern Themselves. By Eugene Forsey. 6th ed., Ottawa: Public Information Office, Library of Parliament,2005. 54 p.
A very good beginner's guide to Canadian government.
Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions, Behaviour and Public Policy. By Robert J. Jackson and Doreen Jackson. 6th ed. Toronto: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. 617 p.
Chapters are grouped under the 4 themes in the title and cover all aspects of Canadian politics. Each chapter has a critical debate theme with opposing points of view as samples of arguments to consider further and a bibliography. The Companion web site has quizzes, short-answer and essay questions, and links to web resources.
Introduction to Canadian Politics and Government. By W.L. White, R.H. Wagenberg, & R.C. Nelson. 7th ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1998. 323 p.
Introductory Readings in Canadian Government & Politics. Edited by Robert M. Krause & R. H. Wagenberg. 2nd ed. Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd., 1995. 471 p.
For textbooks on provincial and municipal government and politics, and other special topics, see also Special Topics
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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 that are extremely valuable research tools on topics of interest to legislators, ie. all manner of social policy issues and government concerns. Only the Library of Parliament and the Ontario Legislative Library currently provide public access to these publications:

Library of Parliament Research Papers. By Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament.
Previously published in print and made available through depository libraries, these are now only available in electronic form. The most recent collection is at the Parliament of Canada Virtual Library site listed by topic:
A selection of older papers is also available on the Depository Services Program site: and can be searched by subject, type of publication, or keyword. These can also be found using AMICUS.
Prepared by the Research Branch of the Library of Parliament, these brief, easy to read summaries provide excellent background information on issues of current concern in Canadian society. Sample subjects in the past: Senate reform, electoral systems, referenda, public opinion polling, aboriginal rights, etc.
Current Issue Reviews.
Short descriptions of topical issues; often contain a chronology of events, related legislation, and a reading list.
Background Papers.
These are brief, but more in-depth studies on various subjects.
Legislative Summaries. Sept. 1997 – .
Provide background information and analysis of major government bills, with comments from interest groups, the media, and other sources.
Mini Reviews.
Very short papers for information on recently announced court decisions.

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 excellent, brief, factual guides to the topics in the news and under consideration by the legislature. Unfortunately, online versions are now restricted to the Intranet. These papers can be consulted in the library only.

TIP: Select "Guided Search" to combine keywords from the authoring body and the topic to find a research paper on your topic (e.g. "government" in the Subject field, and "legislative research service" as a phrase anywhere).

Introduction Definitions Facts & Figures Overview & Background Information
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Introduction   Starting   Clarifying   Bibliographies   Finding & Evaluating
Primary Sources   Special Topics   Citing Sources   Ask Your Librarian!   Detailed Table of Contents

Created and maintained by Anita Cannon, Librarian
R. P. Bell Library   Mount Allison University   Mount Allison Centre for Canadian Studies
Last Updated: January 4, 2008