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How Canadians Govern Themselves

by Eugene A. ForseyGet the PDF
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What Goes On in Parliament


Go to Parliament in Action

Opening of a Session

If the opening of a session also marks the beginning of a newly elected Parliament, you will find the members of the House of Commons milling about in their chamber, a body without a head. On a signal, the great doors of the chamber are slammed shut. They are opened again after three knocks, and the Usher of the Black Rod© Library of Parliament/McElligott Photography arrives from the Senate. He or she has been sent by the deputy of the Governor General, who is not allowed to enter the Commons, to announce that the Governor General desires the immediate attendance of Honourable Members in the Chamber of the Honourable the Senate. The members then proceed to the Senate Chamber, where the Speaker of the Senate says: “I have it in command to let you know that His Excellency [Her Excellency] the Governor General does not see fit to declare the causes of his [her] summoning the present Parliament of Canada until the Speaker of the House of Commons shall have been chosen according to law.” The members then return to their own chamber and elect their Speaker.

Black Rod© Library of Parliament/McElligott Photography
“Evil to the one who thinks evil,” motto of the Order of the Garter, is inscribed on the Black Rod. It is used to knock on the door of the House of Commons when it is summoned to the Senate.
Once the Governor General arrives in the Senate, the Usher of the Black Rod is again dispatched to summon the House of Commons, and the members troop up again to stand at the bar of the Upper House. The Speaker of the House of Commons then informs the Governor General of his or her election, and asks for the Crown’s confirmation of all the traditional rights and privileges of the Commons. The Speaker of the Senate delivers that confirmation, and the Governor General delivers the Speech from the Throne, partly in English, partly in French.

The speech, which is written by the cabinet, sets forth the government’s view of the condition of the country and the policies it will follow, and the bills it will introduce to deal with that condition. The members of the House of Commons then return to their own chamber, where, normally, the prime minister immediately introduces Bill C-1, An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office. This is normally a pro forma bill, never heard of again till the opening of the next session. It is introduced to reassert the House of Commons’ right to discuss any business it sees fit before considering the Speech from the Throne. This right was first asserted by the English House of Commons more than 300 years ago, and is reasserted there every session by a similar pro forma bill.

This formal reassertion of an ancient right of the Commons has been of very great practical use in Canada more than once. In 1950, for example, a nation-wide railway strike demanded immediate action by Parliament. So the moment the House came back from the Senate Chamber, the prime minister introduced Bill C-1, but this time it was far from pro forma; it was a bill to end the strike and send the railway workers back to work, and it was put through all its stages, passed by both houses, and received Royal Assent before either house considered the Speech from the Throne at all. Had it not been for the traditional assertion of the right of the Commons to do anything it saw fit before considering the speech, this essential emergency legislation would have been seriously delayed.

Rideau Hall© Government House
Rideau Hall is the residence of the Governor General.
The address in reply to the Speech from the Throne is, however, normally the first real business of each session (a “sitting” of the House usually lasts a day; a “session” lasts for months, or even years, though there must be at least one sitting per year). A government supporter moves, and another government supporter seconds, a motion for an address of thanks to the Governor General© Government House for the gracious speech. The opposition parties move amendments critical of the government and its policies, and expressing want of confidence in the government. Debate on this address and the amendments is limited to seven days, and ranges over the whole field of the nation’s business.


A Working Day in the Commons

At the beginning of each sitting of the House, the Speaker takes the chair, the Sergeant-at-Arms lays the Mace (a gold-plated war club, symbol of the House’s authority) on the long table in front of the Speaker, and the Speaker reads the daily prayer. Government supporters sit to the Speaker’s right, members of opposition parties to the left. The first few rows of desks on the government side, near the centre, are occupied by the prime minister and the cabinet. Opposite them sit the leader of the official Opposition and the chief members of his or her party. In the rest of the House, the actual seating arrangements depend on the number of members elected from each political party. The leaders of the other major opposition parties sit in the front row farther down the chamber, at the opposite end from the Speaker. At the long table sit the clerk of the House, the deputy clerk, and the other “table officers,” who keep the official record of decisions of the House. At desks in the wide space between government and Opposition sit the proceedings monitors, English and French, who identify each speaker and the person being addressed. This information complements the electronic recording of proceedings, which are published the next day. There is simultaneous translation, English and French, for all speeches, and all the proceedings are televised and recorded.

After certain routine proceedings, the House considers Government Orders on most days. Every day the House sits there is a question period, when members (chiefly opposition) question ministers on government actions and policies. This is usually a very lively 45 minutes, and is a most important part of the process of keeping the government responsible and responsive.

Go to Follow that Bill
Most of the rest of the day is taken up with bills, which are in fact proposed laws. Any member can introduce a bill, but most of the time is reserved for bills introduced by the government.

One hour of each day is reserved for the consideration of any business sponsored by a private member, that is, by any member who is not part of the cabinet.

A cabinet minister or backbench member proposing a bill first moves for the House’s “leave” to introduce it. This is given automatically and without debate or vote. Next comes the motion that the bill be read a first time and printed. This also is automatic and without debate or vote. On a later day comes the motion for second reading (although sometimes a bill is sent directly to a committee before second reading). This is the stage at which members debate the principle of the bill. If it passes second reading, it goes to a committee of the House, usually a standing committee. Each such committee may hear witnesses, and considers the bill, clause by clause, before reporting it (with or without amendments) back to the House. The size of these committees varies from Parliament to Parliament, but the parties are represented in proportion to their strength in the House itself. Some bills, such as appropriation bills (based on the Estimates), which seek to withdraw money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, are dealt with by the whole House acting as a committee.

Committees, sitting under less formal rules than the House, examine bills clause by clause. Each clause has to be passed. Any member of the committee can move amendments. When all the clauses have been dealt with, the chairperson reports the bill to the House with any amendments that have been adopted.

When a committee has reported the bill to the House, members at this “report stage” may move amendments to the various clauses (usually, amendments they have not had the opportunity to propose in committee). When these have been passed, or rejected, the bill goes to third reading. If the motion for third reading carries, the bill goes to the Senate, where it goes through much the same process. Bills initiated in the Senate and passed there come to the Commons, and go through the same stages as Commons bills. No bill can become law (become an Act) unless it has been passed in identical form by both houses and has been assented to, in the Queen’s name, by the Governor General or a deputy of the Governor General (usually a Supreme Court judge). Assent has never been refused to a federal bill, and our first prime minister declared roundly that refusal was obsolete and had become unconstitutional. In the United Kingdom, Royal Assent has never been refused since 1707.

Farm in Saskatchewan© Canadian Tourism Commission
Both Senate and House of Commons committees discuss issues around agriculture and agri-food.
There are some 20 or more standing committees (Agriculture and Agri-Food© Canadian Tourism Commission, Canadian Heritage, Veterans Affairs, and so on) whose members are appointed at the beginning of each session or in September of each year, to oversee the work of government departments, to review particular areas of federal policy, to exercise procedural and administrative responsibilities related to Parliament, to consider matters referred to them by the House, and to report their findings and proposals to the House for its consideration.

Included in the work of standing committees is the consideration of the government’s spending Estimates. The Standing Orders provide for these Estimates to be sent to the committees for review and reported back to the House in a timely fashion.

Finally, standing committees are designated as having certain matters permanently referred to them (such as reports tabled in the House pursuant to a statute, and the annual report of certain Crown corporations). Each of these automatic Orders of Reference is permanently before the committees, and may be considered and reported on as the committees deem appropriate.

The House of Commons can, and does, set up special committees for the examination of particular subjects, including legislative committees whose mandate is solely to examine a particular piece of legislation. It also establishes, with the Senate, joint committees of the two houses.


End of a Session

Normally, a session ends when its main business is concluded, though this is not always the case. The prime minister asks the Governor General to "prorogue" Parliament until the next session, which must, by law, come within a year. Prorogation brings the business of both the Senate and the House of Commons to an end. All pending legislation dies on the Order Paper and committee activity ceases, though all members and officials of the government and both houses remain in office.

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