How Canada's Parliament Works
How Our Parliament Works
Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy
with a federal system. Canada, as a constitutional monarchy, is
headed by the British monarch, who is represented in Canada by the
Governor General. The Canadian Constitution, ratified in 1982 by
the federal government and nine of the ten provinces, replaces the
British North America Act of 1867, and sets out the system of governance
in Canada and the federal-provincial division of powers. The federal
system allows for considerable independence by the ten provinces,
and less autonomy for the two territories.
The Governor General, or at the provincial level, the Lieutenant
Governor, acts as the representative of Canada's head of state,
the British monarch. In this capacity, the Governor General gives
Royal Assent to all legislation, calls together Parliament after
a general election, and gives the Speech from the Throne, among
other ceremonial duties. The Governor General and the Lieutenant
Governors are appointed by the Prime Minister.
Prime Minister and the Cabinet
The Prime Minister is the elected leader of the political party
forming the federal government after an election or leadership convention.
His or her Cabinet is composed of members of the governing political
party, almost always elected Members of Parliament. The Prime Minister
and the Cabinet are the executive arm of the federal government.
Each member of the Cabinet, or Minister, has an area of responsibility
which often includes a federal government department, and under
it a number of federal agencies and crown corporations. The Cabinet
is appointed by the Prime Minister, and can be "shuffled"
by him or her at any time.
House of Commons
After a general election, which is called, no more than five years
after the last election, at the discretion of the Prime Minister
of the previous Parliament, the Governor General calls Parliament
together. The current Parliament, resulting from the general election
of June 2nd, 1997, is the thirty-sixth Parliament since Confederation.
The Governor General reads the Speech from the Throne, outlining
the objectives of the Government, and the new Parliament begins.
It can last up to five years until another general election has
to be called, and contains one or more sessions. Each session begins
with a Speech from the Throne and ends with dissolution, or prorogation.
Upon the dissolution of a session, all bills in the legislative
process "die," and committee work ceases until the next
The Speaker moderates the business of the House or Senate and enforces
the parliamentary rules and regulations. The Speaker of the House
is elected at the beginning of each Parliament from among the Members
of Parliament, and is usually a member of the government party.
The Speaker of the Senate is appointed on the advice of the Prime
Minister. It is the Speaker's duty to be completely impartial in
enforcing the parliamentary regulations and maintain an orderly
process of parliamentary business. The Speaker sits in a large chair
at the front of the House or Senate.
There are 301 seats in the House of Commons, each representing
an area of Canada, roughly equal in population. These seats are
won by a "first-past-the-post" system where the candidate
receiving the greatest number of votes cast by registered voters
wins that riding. See the accompanying graph for the current breakdown
of Members of Parliament by party and seats per province.
In this Parliament the Liberal Party is the Government. The Reform
Party is the Official Opposition. There are three other officially
recognized opposition parties: the Bloc QuÉbÉcois,
the New Democratic Party, and the Progressive Conservative Party.
There is also one Independent Member of Parliament. To be officially
recognized in the House, a party must have twelve sitting members.
The Government Members sit to the right of the Speaker, with the
Prime Minister and members of Cabinet at the front. Those Members
of Parliament without Cabinet responsibilities are sometimes called
"backbenchers," referring to their seating towards the
back of the government benches in the House.
The Opposition Members sit to the left of the Speaker, with the
Leader of the Official Opposition seated directly across from the
Prime Minister. The Official Opposition is the party with the second-largest
number of seats. It acts as the "government-in-waiting,"
and both it and the other opposition parties seek to hold the government
accountable for its actions and legislation.
The Official Opposition and the other opposition parties assign
critics for each portfolio who are responsible for presenting the
party's position on a particular area of government responsibility.
One of the primary avenues for interaction between the government
and opposition is the daily Question Period, presided over by the
Speaker, where proposed legislation is debated and issues of the
day discussed. Both government and opposition MPs may question Cabinet
ministers, examining the actions of the government upon a particular
The Process of Legislation
Proposed legislation, or a bill, is customarily considered first
by the House of Commons, and then passes through the Senate, although
the process can be reversed. Bills follow a set pattern, passing
though three readings and a committee stage before being proclaimed
into law. A bill must pass both Houses before it can become law.
First Reading: The bill is "read" or proclaimed
to the House for the first time. No debate takes place at this time,
and the bill is printed. Bills are introduced by the cabinet minister
sponsoring the legislation, after the approval of the Prime Minister.
Individual MPs can also propose private members' bills, which will
not pass without the support of the government.
Second Reading: The bill is presented to the House again,
and this time it is debated in principle, without examining specific
details. The bill is voted upon by the MPs, usually along party
lines. If the bill passes this second reading, it is sent to the
appropriate House committee.
Committee Examination: A Standing Committee of the House
of Commons examines the bill in more detail, calling concerned witnesses
and experts to give evidence and offer suggestions on amendments.
The committee can either approve the bill in whole or propose changes
or additions to the bill. Much of the significant work of the House
and Senate is accomplished at the committee stage.
Report Stage: Amendments to the bill can be proposed either
by the examining committee, or by individual MPs. All these amendments
may be moved, debated by the House, and voted on. Amendments without
the support of the governing party are unlikely to succeed.
Third Reading: At this crucial stage the bill is voted on
for the final time by the Members of the House. If it passes, the
bill passes moves on the next stage. Now, as at the earlier readings,
if the bill is defeated, it is abandoned.
Message: At the federal level, the bill is sent to the other
house, usually the Senate, where the whole process starts again
from First Reading through Second Reading and the Committee State
to Third Reading.
Royal Assent: The Governor General, acting as the representative
of the Queen as head of state, gives the bill royal assent. The
bill is now law.
Senators are not elected, but appointed by the Governor General
on the advice of the Prime Minister. There are a few requirements
for becoming a Senator, most importantly that they be over 30 years
old, and own a piece of property worth at least $4,000 worth of
property in the province they represent. Each province and territory
has a specific number of representatives in the Senate, ranging
from twenty-four each for Quebec and Ontario, to one each for the
Yukon and Northwest Territories.
A Senator can serve until reaching the age of 75, at which point
the Senator retires. Due to the appointed nature of the Senate,
it can often be under the control of a different party from the
government. The Senate committees are regarded as very useful forums
for examining in-depth issues in a usually less partisan atmosphere
than House of Commons committees.
Provincial parliaments are structured along the lines of the federal
parliament. The key difference is the absence of provincial equivalents
to the Senate. All provincial legislative assemblies consist only
of an elected legislative assembly, in which the elected members,
known as MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in most provinces,
While details may differ from province to province, the essentials
of the first-past-the-post, multi-party parliamentary system govern
them all. The Northwest Territories has a unique non-partisan system
in which MLAs are elected and sit without formal party affliation.
The process of legislation in a provincial legislative assembly
differs from the federal in that there is only one house of assembly
through which the bill must pass to become law. The provincial Lieutenant
Governor will then proclaim the bill into law.
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