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Institutions of the Canadian Parliament

The Canadian parliament is not a single institution, rather it is a collection of institutions that work together to craft legislation and implement executive functions of the state. Parliament in Canada can be broadly divided into three distinct yet interconnected institutions; the Crown (represented in the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Commons. In this post we will briefly examine each institution in light of one another.

The Crown-in-Parliament

The badge of Parliament incorporates the maces from both Houses of Parliament and elements from the Royal Coat of Arms.
The badge of Parliament incorporates the maces from both Houses of Parliament and elements from the Royal Coat of Arms.

In the public law of Canada, the monarch plays a double role as part of parliament and has having “Executive Government” power. The Queen is Canada’s “official head of state” (Public Law: 2006, Craik et al., 153). In practice however the powers of the Queen are exercised by the Governor-General which was formalized in letters patent issued by George VI in 1947. These prerogative powers are governed almost exclusively by constitutional conventions and dictate the relations between the Prime Minister of the day and the Governor-General.

Royal Coat of Arms of Canada. These represent the Crown-in-Canada are are used on official state documents, such as Passports.
Royal Coat of Arms of Canada. These represent the Crown-in-Canada are are used on official state documents, such as Passports.

The current reigning Canadian monarch is Queen Elizabeth the Second. Although the identity of the monarch is determined in the United Kingdom, the Crown-in-Canada is a constitutionally and legally distinct entity and thus the Crown is solely Canadian in nature. This is starkly evident when we consider that the Queen cannot act in Canada on powers granted in the UK and she cannot act in the UK on powers granted in Canada. Although many powers and customs concerning the Crown-in-Canada were imported from the UK, Canada has diverted from the UK as a sovereign entity and all of the powers and customs vests in the Crown-in-Canada contain uniquely Canadian conventions that dictate their implementation. This distinction cannot be stressed enough in light of anti-monarchist rhetoric that link the British Crown to Canada.

Colours of the Governor-General of Canada. This badge is often used alone to signify the Governor-General.
Colours of the Governor-General of Canada. This badge is often used alone to signify the Governor-General.

The uniquely Canadian nature of the Crown can also be seen in the heraldry used in Canada which includes Canadian maple leaves and Canadian designs. A common misconception concerns the Royal Coat of Arms of Canada which are actually a symbol of the monarchy in Canada, and not simply a symbol of Canada (see inlay photo).

The Crown-in-Parliament refers to one aspect of the Crown-in-Canada, specifically it’s function as a parliamentary institution. The Crown summons parliament at the start of a new parliament and at each session within. The Crown gives Royal Assent to bills which have been approved in both Houses of parliament (each their own separate institution within parliament as well). The Crown also gives authority to the Speaker and to Officers of Parliament which is signified in the presence of the Mace and the powers of the Sergeant-at-Arms. The Crown also plays an important role in the formation of government, as it is the Governor-General who summons a Member of Parliament to form government and recommend Ministers of the Crown to join the Privy Council of Canada. The Crown also receives the writs of election for each Member of Parliament and oversees their swearing-in through the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In the physical Parliament of Canada buildings, the Crown resides in the Senate Chamber, although is rarely present for sessions of the Senate.

The Senate of Canada

The composition of the Senate is clearly established in the Constitution Act, 1867. It calls for a Chamber of Senators appointed by the Governor-General (on the advice of the Prime Minister). These members must meet certain residency and financial qualifications but for the most part, whomever the Prime Minister of the day recommends to the Governor-General becomes a Canadian Senator until the age of 75. The Senate was best described by John A. MacDonald during a debate on the proposals for confederation as the “Chamber of sober second thought.” Although it can be argued that the Chamber has been nothing more than an organ of partisan holdings.

The badge of the Senate of Canada. It includes themes from the Royal Coat of Arms and the Mace of the Senate.
The badge of the Senate of Canada. It includes themes from the Royal Coat of Arms and the Mace of the Senate.

The modern Senate has done great for work Canada however has also been the subject of some of the most significant scandals in recent memory.

The Senate has a legislative role in parliament that permits it to propose bills and motions that are also brought before the House of Commons for consideration. The Senate also forms committees which examine legislation that originate in it’s Chamber and from the House of Commons. In the past, Senate committees have championed reports on subjects that would have otherwise received little or not attention in the House of Commons because of a lack of partisan political will. The Senate cannot veto legislation brought to it from the House of Commons. If the Senate refuses to support legislation from the House of Commons, it is sent back to the House and reaffirmed and then it, conventionally, receives Royal Assent. More often than not, legislation being considered by the Senate is often amended over being outright objected upon because Senators acknowledge that they have not been elected by Canadians.

The Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. The Speaker is the chair of all sittings of the Senate and take a seat at the head of the Chamber forward of the Canadian Throne (which belongs to the Governor-General). Some Prime Minister’s have opted to appoint a Senator who has first been elected by the Senate to be Speaker, however most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to advise the Governor-General on an appointment without consulting the Senate. The Speaker of the Senate, like the Speaker of the House of Commons, is the head of the Senate and is their official spokesperson. Together with the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Speaker of the Senate is responsible for security within the parliamentary precinct.

The current Speaker of the Senate, Hon. Leo Housakos in the Senate Chamber.
The current Speaker of the Senate, Hon. Leo Housakos in the Senate Chamber.

Procedure in the Senate is dictated through the Rules of the Senate of Canada. The Senate Chamber is physically located in Centre Block on Parliament Hill. It is important to note that the Senate is a separate institution of parliament and therefore Senators are subject to codes of conduct and procedure which are determined by the Senators themselves alone. This is an important power of the Senate which gives it authority to investigation and act on its own will without interference from any other institution in parliament, including the Crown and the Cabinet.

The House of Commons

When listing the three institutions of parliament, it is common to leave the House of Commons until the last, however in the scheme of how parliament functions from a democratic standpoint, the House of Commons is the central institution. Within the House of Commons are the elected Members of Parliament who represent Canadians across the entire country. Also, because Canada is a fused-Executive system, the government of the day resides and is held accountable within the House of Commons. For most Canadians, the most engaged institution in parliament will be the House of Commons.

The House of Commons is often referred to as the "Green Chamber" because of the colour of the carpet and desktops.
The House of Commons is often referred to as the “Green Chamber” because of the colour of the carpet and desktops.

This is evident when Canadians head to the polls in a General Election where candidates run on campaigns across the country for seats in the House of Commons, the outcome of which is used by the Governor-General to determine who forms government.

The head of the House of Commons is the Speaker. They are elected by Members of Parliament following the opening of the first session of each parliament by secret ballot. The Speaker traditionally comes from the government benches, although this is not always the case, especially in a minority parliament where the government of the day does not wish to weaken their partisan position in the House. The Speaker takes their chair at the head of the Chamber forward of the Table where the Clerk of the House of Commons resides.

The badge of the House of Commons is similar to the of the Senate, with the exception of the Mace which is detailed in accordance with the House of Commons unique design.
The badge of the House of Commons is similar to the of the Senate, with the exception of the Mace which is detailed in accordance with the House of Commons unique design.

The House of Commons is the central legislative body in parliament and it is where government bills are introduced. In Canada, the Executive is composed (for the most part) of persons who have been elected to a seat in the House of Commons. In order for a leader to form government in Canada, they must hold the confidence of the House of Commons and thus are subject to scrutiny at all times by all members of the House. This is an important concept in Canadian democracy. Ministers of the Crown serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister of the day (through the Governor-General) but collectively they are responsible to parliament for their actions (or inaction). This concept is appropriately called responsible government, and it is a key component of Canadian democracy.

Member of Parliament are elected in a first-past-the-post election (currently) 338 ridings across the country. Canadian is a parliament democracy that uses the party system which means that the leader of the party with a plurality of seats in the House of Commons is conventionally invited to form the government following an election. In accordance with the Constitution Act, 1982, the longest term for a parliament is five years but legislation brought forward in 2007 made changes to the Canada Election Act and required election on the third Monday of October every four years.

The rules of procedure within the House of Commons are governed through the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. The House of Commons Chamber is physically located within Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Like the Senate, the House of Commons is an independent institution of parliament. Members vote on their own salaries, benefits, official expenses and procedure. The is largely conducted through the Board of Internal Economy which is chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

More Information

There are some great resources available to the public that concern the function of parliament. Your first stop should always be the Parliament of Canada website. From there you an access PARLinfo which has a lot information on the current parliament as well as many in the past. You can follow legislation as it moves though parliament at LEGISinfo. The Governor-General’s website has great outreach information on his role in Canada and his day to day activities with Canadians. I also recommend the parliamentary procedure documents website if you are a procedure wonk at heart like me.

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