Parliament of Canada

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

The Parliament of Canada (French: Parlement du Canada) is Canada's legislative branch, seated at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. According to Section 17 of the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament consists of three components: the Sovereign (la Couronne), the Senate (le Sénat), and the House of Commons (la Chambre des communes). The Sovereign is normally represented by the Governor General, who appoints the 105 members of the Senate on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The 308 members of the House of Commons are directly elected by the people, with each member representing a single electoral district, frequently called a constituency or a " riding" in Canadian English.

The lower house, the House of Commons, is the dominant branch of the Canadian Parliament. The upper house, the Senate, rarely opposes the will of the other Chamber, and the duties of the Sovereign and Governor General are largely ceremonial, as in theory he or she could refuse to sign a bill, and could dismiss the cabinet and call an election unprompted. The Prime Minister and Cabinet must retain the support of a majority of members of the Lower House in order to remain in office; they need not have the confidence of the Upper House.


After Great Britain conquered it from France during the French and Indian War ( 1754– 1763), Canada (which then consisted mainly of the modern Province of Quebec) was governed under the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation was superseded in 1774 by the Quebec Act, under which the power to make ordinances was granted to a Governor and Council, both appointed by the British sovereign. In 1791, the Province of Quebec was divided into the provinces of Upper Canada (which later became Ontario) and Lower Canada (which later became Quebec), each with an elected Legislative Assembly and an appointed Legislative Council.

In 1841, the British Parliament united Upper and Lower Canada into a new colony, called the Province of Canada. A single legislature, consisting of an elected Legislative Assembly and an appointed Legislative Council, was created. The assembly's eighty-four members were equally divided between the former provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, though the latter had a higher population. The British government, through the royally-appointed Governors, still exercised considerable influence over Canadian affairs. This influence was reduced in 1848, when the province was granted responsible government.

Montreal Parliament after the fire
Montreal Parliament after the fire

In 1849, the Parliament of Canada, which had been transferred from Kingston to Montreal in 1843, burnt down. The fire was due to a riot led by the Tories that was a consequence of a series of tensions between francophones and anglophones, as well as an economic depression. In 1857, the Parliament was finally moved to Ottawa, after a few years of alternating between Toronto and Quebec.

The modern-day Parliament of Canada, however, did not come into existence until 1867. In that year, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act 1867, uniting the Province of Canada (which was separated into Quebec and Ontario), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a single federation, called the Dominion of Canada. The new Canadian Parliament consisted of the Queen (represented by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons. An important influence was the American Civil War, which had just concluded, and had indicated to many Canadians the faults of the federal system as implemented in the United States. In part because of the Civil War, the American model, with relatively powerful states and a less powerful federal government, was rejected. The British North America Act limited the powers of the provinces, providing that all subjects not explicitly delegated to them remain within the authority of the federal Parliament. Yet it gave Provinces unique powers in certain agreed-upon areas of funding, and that division still exists today.

The British North America Act 1867 granted the Parliament significant powers, but with several restrictions. Most notably, the British Parliament remained supreme over Canada, and no Canadian act could in any way abrogate a British one. Furthermore, the United Kingdom continued to determine the foreign policy of the entire British Empire.

Greater autonomy was granted by the British Parliament's Statute of Westminster 1931. Though the Statute allowed the Parliament of Canada to repeal or amend British laws (with respect to their application in Canada), it did not permit the abrogation of Canada's constitution, including the British North America Acts. Hence, whenever a constitutional amendment was sought by the Canadian Parliament, the enactment of a British law became necessary. Still, the Parliament of the United Kingdom did not unilaterally impose amendments on the Canadian federation, only acting when requested to do so by the Canadian Parliament. The Parliament of Canada was granted limited power to amend the constitution by a British Act of Parliament in 1949, but it was not permitted to affect the powers of provincial governments, the official positions of the English and French languages, or the five-year term of Parliament.

The Parliament of Canada last requested the Parliament of the United Kingdom to enact a constitutional amendment in 1982, when the Canada Act 1982 was requested and passed. The Act ended the power of the British Parliament to legislate for Canada, and the authority to amend the constitution was transferred to Canadian legislative authorities. Most amendments require the consent of the Canadian Senate, the Canadian House of Commons, and the Legislative Assemblies of two-thirds of the provinces representing a majority of the population. The unanimous consent of provincial Legislative Assemblies is required for certain amendments, including those affecting the Queen, the Governor General, provincial Lieutenant Governors, the official positions of the English and French languages, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the amending formulas themselves.


The present Queen of Canada is Elizabeth II(2).
The present Queen of Canada is Elizabeth II(2).
The Chamber of the House of Commons is decorated in green, and that of the Senate in red, following the tradition of the British Parliament.
The Chamber of the House of Commons is decorated in green, and that of the Senate in red, following the tradition of the British Parliament.

The Queen of Canada (in French la Reine) (presently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) is one of the three components of Parliament. The monarch's functions are customarily delegated to the Governor General (presently Her Excellency The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean), who is appointed on the advice of the Canadian Prime Minister. Governors General serve at the Queen's pleasure, but normally for a term of approximately five years. Though the Queen and Governor General have vast powers in theory, they rarely exercise them in practice. Rather, both perform ceremonial duties, exercising political powers only on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The entirely appointed Upper House of Canada's Parliament is the Senate (in French, le Sénat). Though they are meant to represent the provinces, senators are selected by the Prime Minister, and are formally appointed by the Governor General. To become a senator, one must be at least thirty years old, must be a subject of the Queen, and must own property with a net worth of at least $4,000. The senator must reside and own land worth at least $4,000 in the province he or she is meant to represent. Senators formerly life, but, since 1965, leave the Senate at the age of seventy-five. Senators may resign their seats, and lose their positions if they fail to attend two consecutive sessions of Parliament.

The constitution groups Canada's provinces into four divisions, each with an equal number of senators: twenty-four for Ontario; twenty-four for Quebec; twenty-four for the Maritime Provinces (ten for Nova Scotia, ten for New Brunswick, and four for Prince Edward Island); and twenty-four for the Western Provinces (six each for Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Newfoundland and Labrador, which became a province only in 1949, is not assigned to any division, and is represented by six senators. Furthermore, the three territories (the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut) are allocated one senator each. Hence, the Senate normally consists of 105 members. The Governor General, however, may temporarily increase the size of the Senate by summoning an additional four or eight senators, provided the approval of the Queen is secured. Canada's four "divisions" must remain equally represented. This power has only been employed once in Canadian history: on the advice of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1990 to ensure the passage of a bill creating the Goods and Services Tax. There may be no more than eight additional senators at any time (making the maximum size of the Senate 113).

Parliament's democratically elected component is the House of Commons (in French, la Chambre des communes). Each member represents a single electoral district (or "riding"), and is elected in that district by the simple plurality voting system. They must be Canadian citizens and at least 18 years old. Members hold office until they resign or Parliament is dissolved, and can be reelected any number of times.

The constitution does not fix the size of the House of Commons, which is re-adjusted every ten years after a census. The House must consist of at least 282 seats, of which three are reserved for the territories. The remaining 279 seats are assigned to the provinces based on their populations. However, the "senatorial clause" guarantees each province at least as many Members of Parliament as senators. Furthermore, the "grandfather clause" guarantees each province at least as many Members of Parliament as it had in 1976 or in 1985. Because of these two clauses, the size of the House of Commons exceeds the minimum (282). At present, the House includes 308 members.

No individual may serve in more than one House of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons are commonly called "Members of Parliament" or "MPs"; this term is never applied to senators, even though the Senate is a part of Parliament. Though less powerful, senators occupy higher positions than Members of Parliament in the order of precedence.


Each of the two Houses is presided over by a Speaker. The Speaker of the Senate is a senator selected by the Prime Minister and formally appointed by the Governor General. The Speaker of the House of Commons, on the other hand, is elected by his fellow members. In general, the powers of the Speaker of the House are much greater than the powers of the Speaker of the Senate. Following the British model, the upper House is more or less self-regulating, whereas the Lower House is controlled from the chair. In 1991, however, the powers of the Speaker of the Senate were expanded, moving his or her position closer to that of the Speaker of the House.

The constitution establishes the quorums of both Houses. The quorum is fifteen senators in the Upper House and twenty members in the Lower House. In each House, the Speaker is counted when ascertaining the presence of a quorum.

Both Houses may determine motions by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question, and, after listening to shouts of "Yea" and "Nay" from the members, announces which side is victorious. The decision of the Speaker is final, unless a recorded vote is demanded by members of the House (at least two senators or at least five members of the House of Commons). Members in both Houses vote by rising in their places to be counted. In the Senate, the Speaker is allowed to vote (though he or she does not often do so, in the interests of maintaining impartiality), and if there is no majority, the motion is defeated. In the House, however, the Speaker may not vote, unless there is a tie. Moreover, the Speaker customarily votes in favour of the status quo. Although it parliamentary tradition for the Speaker to vote for the status quo, he is bound only by custom. For example, during the 2005 budget vote, which was considered a vote of confidence, the Speaker of the House cast the tie-breaking vote and voted in favour of the budget.


After a general election, the Governor General (acting on the advice of the Prime Minister) formally issues a proclamation summoning Parliament. On the day indicated by the proclamation, the members of the two Houses assemble in their respective chambers. The ceremony observed at this time is similar to that observed in the British Parliament. Having assembled, the Commons are summoned to the Senate Chamber, where they are instructed to elect a Speaker. The Commons return to their chamber, elect a Speaker, and then adjourn.

On the next day, the formal opening of Parliament occurs. The Usher of the Black Rod, an official of the Senate, formally summons the Commons to the Senate. The Commons process to the Bar of the Senate, but do not enter the Senate Chamber itself. The Speaker of the House then presents himself to the Monarch or the Governor General (who takes his or her seat on the Throne in the Senate Chamber), formally claiming the rights and privileges of the House of Commons. The Speaker of the Senate then replies, acknowledging, on the behalf of the Governor General, the privileges of the House of Commons. With the members of the House of Commons remaining at the Bar, and with the senators seated in the Senate Chamber, the Monarch or the Governor General (seated on the Throne) delivers an address known as the Speech from the Throne. In it, he or she outlines the program of the Government for the upcoming legislative session. The speech is actually written by the ministers and not the Crown.

A session of Parliament, having been formally opened, continues until a "prorogation" brings about its conclusion. Prorogation is generally achieved by a proclamation of the Governor General, again issued on the advice of the Prime Minister. No special prorogation ceremony, however, needs to be observed. Having been prorogued, each House does not conduct any further business until the Governor General issues another proclamation for a new session. The procedures described above are used at the beginning of such a session, except that a new Speaker need not be elected and the privileges of the House of Commons need not be claimed again.

Each Parliament, after a number of sessions, comes to an end, usually by a "dissolution." A dissolution is effected by the Governor General, who, however, acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. Because a general election follows, the timing of a dissolution is usually politically motivated, with the Prime Minister selecting the moment most advantageous to his or her political party. A dissolution, however, may also become necessary if the Prime Minister's support in the House of Commons collapses. Dissolution is not the only method by which a Parliament may be brought to an end: parliamentary terms expire five years after they begin. In the history of Canada, however, no Parliament has been allowed to "expire".

After each Parliament ends, whether by dissolution or by effluxion of time, members of the House of Commons face general elections, but senators continue in office. Each body that assembles following an election is considered a separate Parliament; thus, the body which assembled in 2004 is known as the Thirty-Eighth Parliament.

Legislative functions

Laws, in draft form known as bills, may be introduced by any member of either House, but are most often introduced by Ministers of the Crown, and are known as Government Bills. Bills introduced by members who are not Ministers are known as Private Members' Bills (in the case of the House of Commons) or as Private Senators' Bills (in the case of the Senate). Bills may also be categorised as Public Bills (if they apply to the general public) or as Private Bills (if they particularly concern a person or a limited group of persons).

Each bill goes through a number of stages in each House. The first stage, known as the first reading, is purely formal. At the ensuing second reading, the general principles of the bill are debated; though a rejection is possible, it is not common in the case of Government Bills.

Next, the bill is sent by the House in question to one of several different committees. Most often, the bill is committed to a Standing Committee, a body of members or senators which specialises in a particular subject (such as foreign affairs). The committee may examine witnesses, Ministers, and experts, debate the bill, and recommend amendments. The bill may also be committed to the Committee of the Whole, a body which consists, as the name suggests, of all the members of the House in question. Finally, the bill could be referred to an ad hoc committee established solely to review the piece of legislation in question. Each chamber has their own procedure for dealing with this, with the Senate establishing special committees, which function like most other committees, and the House of Commons establishing Legislative Committees. A Legislative Committee is an ad hoc committee established to consider a piece of legislation, but the Chair is appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and is normally one of his deputies. The Senate has no procedure for Legislative Committees. Whichever committee is used, any amendments proposed by the committee are considered by the whole House in the Report Stage. Furthermore, additional amendments not proposed by the committee may also be made.

After the Report Stage (or, if the committee made no amendments to the bill, immediately after the Committee Stage), the final stage of the bill—the third reading—occurs. Further amendments are not permitted in the House of Commons, but are allowed in the Senate. If it passes the third reading, the bill is sent to the other House, where it passes through the same stages. Amendments made by the second House require the assent of the original House in order to stand part of the final bill. If, however, one House passes amendments that the other will not agree to, and the two Houses cannot resolve their disagreements, the bill fails.

Finally, if the bill is passed in identical form by both Houses, it is presented for the Royal Assent. In theory, the Governor General has three options: he or she may grant the Royal Assent (making the bill law), withhold the Royal Assent (vetoing the bill) or reserve the bill for the Signification of the Queen's Pleasure (allowing the Sovereign to personally grant or withhold Assent). If the Governor General does grant the Royal Assent, the Sovereign may, within two years, "disallow" the bill, thereby annulling the law in question. By modern constitutional convention, however, the Royal Assent is always granted, and bills are never disallowed.

In conformity with the British model, only the House of Commons may originate bills for the imposition of taxes or for the appropriation of public funds. Otherwise, the theoretical power of both Houses over bills is equal, with the assent of each being required for passage. In practice, however, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber of Parliament, with the Senate rarely exercising its powers in a way that opposes the will of the democratically elected House.

Relationship with the Government

The Parliament of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
The Parliament of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

The Canadian Government is answerable to the Lower House of Parliament, the House of Commons. However, neither the Prime Minister nor members of the Government are elected by the House of Commons. Instead, the Governor General requests the person most likely to command the support of a majority of the House of Commons (usually the leader of the party with the greatest number of seats in that House) to form a government. If no party holds a majority, it is customary to appoint a minority government rather than a coalition government. The Prime Minister then selects the members of the Cabinet, who are then formally appointed by the Governor General.

So that they may be accountable to the Lower House, the Prime Minister and most members of the Cabinet are members of the House of Commons instead of the Senate. If the leader of the largest party is not a member of the House of Commons, then he or she, by constitutional convention, seeks election to that House at the earliest possible opportunity. Normally, a junior member of Parliament who holds a safe seat resigns to allow the Prime Minister to enter the House of Commons.

The House of Commons, not the Senate, is the responsible House of Parliament, meaning that the Government is answerable to it alone. It controls the executive by passing or rejecting its Bills and by forcing Ministers of the Crown to answer for their actions, for example during " Question Period," when the Ministers are obliged to answer questions posed by members. The Lower House may attempt to bring down the Government by rejecting a Motion of Confidence or by passing a Motion of No Confidence. Confidence Motions are generally originated by the Government in order to reinforce its support in the House, whilst No Confidence Motions are introduced by the Opposition. Important bills that form part of the Government's agenda are generally considered matters of confidence. Furthermore, the confidence of the House of Commons is deemed to have been withdrawn if that House "withdraws Supply," that is, rejects the Budget.

Where a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to either resign (allowing the Governor General to appoint the Leader of the Opposition to the office), or seek the dissolution of Parliament and a new general election. A precedent, however, was set in 1968, when the Government of Lester Bowles Pearson unexpectedly lost a confidence vote, but was allowed to remain in power with the mutual consent of the leaders of the other parties. Though the Governor General is theoretically permitted to refuse to dissolve Parliament, it is highly improbable that he or she would do so.

In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is very weak. Since the First-Past-the-Post electoral system is employed in elections, the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. Modern Canadian political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. In many cases, MPs may be expelled from their parties for voting against the instructions of party leaders. Thus, defeats of majority governments on issues of confidence are very rare. The last Prime Minister to lose a confidence vote was Paul Martin in 2005. Prior to this, the last Prime Minister to lose a confidence vote was Joe Clark in 1979.


The powers of the Parliament of Canada are limited by the constitution, which divides legislative powers between the federal and provincial governments. In general, provincial Legislatures may only pass laws relating to topics explicitly reserved for them by the constitution, such as education, provincial officers, municipal government, charitable institutions, and "matters of a merely local or private nature." Under the constitution, any matter not under the exclusive authority of the provincial Legislatures is within the scope of Parliament's power. Thus, Parliament alone can pass laws relating to, amongst other things, the postal service, the census, the military, navigation and shipping, fishing, currency, banking, weights and measures, bankruptcy, copyrights, patents, Indians, and naturalization. In some cases, however, the powers of Parliament and the Legislatures seem to overlap. For instance, Parliament regulates marriage and divorce in general, but the solemnization of marriage is regulated only by the Legislatures. Other examples include the powers of both Parliament and the Legislatures to impose taxes, borrow money, punish crimes, and regulate agriculture.

The powers of the Canadian Parliament are also limited by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most of the provisions of the Charter may be overridden by an Act which includes a notwithstanding clause. Such a provision, however, has never been used by Parliament, though it has been employed by provincial Legislatures. Laws violating the Charter, as well as laws violating other parts of the constitution, are invalid, and may be ruled unconstitutional by the courts.


The Parliament of Canada possesses a number of privileges, known together as parliamentary privilege. Each House is the guardian of its own privileges, and may punish breaches thereof. Parliament itself determines the extent of parliamentary privilege, but the constitution bars it from conferring any privileges "exceeding those at the passing of such Act held, enjoyed, and exercised by the [British House of] Commons … and by the Members thereof."

The foremost privilege held by both Houses is that of freedom of speech in debate: nothing said in either House may be questioned in any court or other institution outside Parliament. In particular, a member of either House cannot be sued for slander based on speeches made in the course of parliamentary proceedings. The only restraints on debate are placed by the Standing Orders (or rules) of the two Houses themselves. Another privilege of individual members is that of freedom from arrest in civil cases (but not for allegedly criminal actions). Members of both Houses are also privileged from jury service and attendance of courts as witnesses.

Each House, furthermore, possesses privileges as a body, including the privilege of determining its own internal affairs and the privilege of disciplining its members for disobeying its rules. Furthermore, each House may punish contempt of Parliament (that is, disobedience of its authority, for example by giving false testimony before a parliamentary committee) and breaches of its own privileges.

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