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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.

Governor General

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 session.

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 topic.

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.

The Senate

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

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, sit.

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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