The Old House of Commons Chamber (1866-1916)

While I was browsing at the Astrolabe on Sparks Street two days ago (which, sadly, is closing down soon), I happened upon this neat photograph of the old Canadian House of Commons, taken in 1898, 18 years before the great fire destroyed the original Center Block and the Victoria Tower. Library and Archives maintains […]

via The Old House of Commons Chamber (1866-1916) — James Bowden’s Blog

Oral Questions / Question Period

Oral Questions, or Question Period as it has come to be unofficially called, is by far the most routinely watched and followed segment of the parliamentary day. It is during this daily 45 minute period that Members of Parliament are permitted to put oral questions to the government of the day and Ministers of the Crown are called upon to answer. Since Confederation, the period of time reserved for oral questions has evolved and now includes formal rules outlined in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons as well as through various Speaker Rulings throughout the history of the House of Commons. In this post we are going to examine the modern nature of oral questions, their historical significance and development over time.

Historical Development of Oral Questions

Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.
Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.

When Parliament first opened following Confederation, there were actually no provisions within the Standing Orders for oral questions. The only provisions for any sort of questions from MPs toward the government came in the form of written questions. Interestingly enough, the first recorded oral question took place without any formal guidance in place on 29 Nov 1867 (a full three weeks before any rules were formally written down, actually) when an oral question was posed to the Chairman of the Printing Committee. The inspiration for an oral question period came from the British House of Commons where the Prime Minister was subjected to questioning three times a week by MPs. It became a Canadianized practice during the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and eventually in the United Province of Canada prior to Confederation. It was not uncommon for MPs to put forward oral questions to Ministers of the Crown for urgent matters that required an answer within a timeline tighter than that of written question requirements. It was under this sentiment that Speaker Timothy Anglin made the first of a series of historical Speaker’s Rulings on oral questions when he said in 1878:

It is customary for hon. members to ask the Government for any special information between the various calls from the Chair for the day, before Notices of Motion or the Orders of the Day. I am not aware that any hon. member has a positive right even to do that; but I think he must confine himself entirely to asking the information from the Government, and he must not proceed to descant on the conduct of the Government.

But the 1940s a period of oral questioning had become an accepted part of the parliamentary day. However, there remained no official rules or guidelines covering their use and conduct. In 1944, the House procedures committee reviewed the practice of oral questions and concluded that it was “neither possible not advisable to do away with [oral questions].” However, the report from the committee was not accepted by the House of Commons and therefore was not actioned. This did not mean that oral questions went by the wayside, simply that the practise continued with little or no formal guidance in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

In 1964, the Speaker of the House of Commons attempted to enforce what was later viewed to be outdated rules concerning the conduct of oral questions and the formation of specific questions. This led to the formal codification of oral questions into the House of Commons Standing Orders. Thus Standing Order 37 was born which established a period of time for questions of an urgent nature to be put before the government. Under this new order, the Speaker had the power to determine that a question was not urgent enough to warrant an oral answer and could order the question sent to written questions. By 1975, a set timeframe for oral questions was established when a complete overhaul of the House of Commons routine business was conducted by the procedures committee. Since that time oral questions happen for 45 minutes each day at 2:15 pm EST Monday-Thursday and 11:15 am EST on Fridays, immediately following Statements by Members.

In 1974, Speaker Jerome established guidelines for questions during oral questions which were expanded and articulated in 1986 by Speaker Bosley. Bosley’s directions on oral questions remain the standard today for the conduct of this segment of business in the House of Commons. Speaker Bosley established four principles for the conduct of oral questions:

  1. The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
  2. The public in large numbers do watch, and the House, recognizing that Question Period is often an intense time, should be on its best possible behaviour.
  3. While there may be other purposes and ambitions involved in Question Period, its primary purpose must be the seeking of information from the Government and calling the Government to account for its actions.
  4. Members should be given the greatest possible freedom in the putting of questions that is consistent with the other principles.

And adding to the ruling made by previous Speakers of the House of Commons, Bosley went on to articulate the principles, saying:

Mr. Speaker Jerome, in his statement 11 years ago, put his view with regard to the first principle of brevity so well that I would merely quote it:

“There can be no doubt that the greatest enemy of the Question Period is the Member who offends this most important principle. In putting the original question on any subject, a Member may require an explanatory remark, but there is no reason for such a preamble to exceed one, carefully drawn sentence.

“It is my proposal to ask all Hon. Members to pay close attention to this admonition and to bring them to order if they fail to do so. It bears repeating that the long preamble or long question takes an unfair share of the time, and invariably, in provoking the same kind of response, only compounds the difficulty.”

I agree with these comments and would add that such comments obviously also apply to answers by Ministers. I would also endorse Mr. Speaker Jerome’s view that supplementary questions should need no preambles; they should flow from the Minister’s response and be put in precise and direct terms without any prior statement or argument. It is the Chair’s view that it equally follows from the first principle, that time is scarce, that Members should seek to avoid merely repeating questions that have already been asked. I do not mean that other questions on the same subject should not be asked — as apparently I have been interpreted — just that subsequent questions should be other than ones already asked.

For similar reasons it has always been a fundamental rule of questioning Ministers that the subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions.

Beyond these few restrictions, there are a few other traditional restraints that flow from the principles above. Questions should relate to matters of some urgency and not be purely hypothetical. They should not seek a legal opinion or inquire as to what legal advice a Minister has received. They should not normally anticipate Orders of the Day. However, I hasten to add that there is normal exemption to that with regard to the budget process which I fully intend to honour. Members should be very careful with regard to questions or matters that are sub judice. Ministers should be questioned only in relation to their current portfolios and not in relation to any previously held responsibilities or Party responsibilities.

Since his ruling in 1986, Speaker Bosley remains the authority on determining the conduct of business during oral questions and has been cited by Speakers since as the foundation of our understanding of business during this segment of the parliamentary day.

Supplementary Questions

The development of oral questions over time also saw the introduction of supplementary questions– or follow-up questions. Today, the standard is that one question is asked and then the member who posed the original question has up to three supplementary questions to ask. There is very little formal guidance for these supplemental questions but in 1997, Speaker Parent articulated in a ruling that supplementary questions should be related to the topic of the original question. This has become somewhat outdated with the current practice of having a different member rise to ask a supplemental question, and little formal direction has come out as of late from the Speaker’s Chair. It is not uncommon to see the Leader of the Official Opposition and the leader of each respective opposition party to take advantage of all three supplementary questions following their initial line of questioning on the government, and occasionally we see backbench members following up on their original questions.

Adjournment Proceedings or The Late Show

In 1964, the procedures committee implemented a new practice each day called Adjournment Proceedings. Essentially, it became a half hour period at the end of each day initiated by a motion to adjourn the House for the day under Standing Order 37(3). The idea was that members who were not completely satisfied with answers on a given topic would have a chance to bring up the issue one more time at the end of the day. Since that time, three topics are given notice during the day to the Speaker that will be brought up during the Adjournment Proceedings– or Late Show. These topics are typically follow up items from issues that have arisen during the day or week. Ministers of the Crown typically do not attend the Late Show, however it is not uncommon for Parliamentary Secretaries to spar and follow-up with MPs on issues that arose during oral questions earlier in the day. This proceeding coupled with question period and the odd opposition day are essential the only periods of House business that the opposition can control away from the government. They are therefore even more important in majority government situations (such as the current parliament) as they give the opposition a forum to bring issues of the day to light. Most Canadians are not aware of the connection between Oral Questions and Adjournment Proceedings and almost every major media outlet does not give the Adjournment Proceedings the same level of attention and coverage as Oral Questions.

Answers During Oral Questions

The old parliamentary adage goes that oral questions are called “question period and not answer period for a reason.” And there is a lot of truth to this statement. When answering questions a Minister of the Crown has a handful of options available to them:

  • answer the question;
  • defer their answer;
  • take the question as notice;
  • make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
  • say nothing.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.

Most of the time the Minister chooses to answer the question, or if you were to ask the opposition, they chose to speak to the question, rather than give an answer. It has come up often times throughout any discussion on oral questions that there are virtually no mechanisms available to the Speaker to ensure that questions are answered. This was put on a fantastic show during the previous session of parliament when the Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Paul Calandra, refused to answer a direct question from the NDP and instead spoke about issues in the middle east. The NDP was out of line for pleading for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer the question at hand, and the Speaker was left powerless to watch the House devolve into a circus as a result of Calandra’s poor answers. In the end, he apologized to the House and all was made well but not before an attempt was made by the opposition to have the Speaker rule that answers should have substance. In his ruling, Speaker Scheer outlined the guidelines handed down since 1867 and explained to the House the limits that the Speaker had in holding the government to account in answering questions to the satisfaction of the opposition. And with that statement he hit the crux of the issue on the head; by what metric would a Speaker determine that a question has been adequately answered? If the opposition is the benchmark, in other words a question if answered only when the opposition is happy with it, than we are entering into the realm of political and the debate of facts, which is not the place of the Speaker to determine but of the whole House.

There is little in the way of guidance for answers however the following three principles have arisen out of Speaker’s Rulings on the subject:

  • no particular Minister is compelled to answer a particular question, even if that question was directed to a particular Minister in the statement,
  • no MP can insist on the answer and no point of order can be raised on the grounds that a question was not answered satisfactorily
  • the content of answers is considered a debate about facts and thus within the realm of the entire House and not the Speaker to rule when is in order and out of order

Questions and answers in the House of Commons are subject to all other Standing Orders and Speaker’s Rulings, meaning that language must always be parliamentary in nature (cannot call someone a liar, for example) and questions must be directed to the Speaker and not individual members. Additionally, the following guidelines on what questions should not be asked have been established over time based on existing Standing Orders and past Speaker’s Rulings:

  • be a statement, representation, argument, or an expression of opinion;
  • be hypothetical;
  • seek an opinion, either legal or otherwise;
  • seek information which is secretive in its nature, such as Cabinet proceedings or advice given to the Crown by law officers;
  • reflect on the character or conduct of Chair Occupants, members of the House and of the Senate or members of the judiciary;
  • reflect on the Governor General;
  • refer to proceedings in the Senate;
  • refer to public statements by Ministers on matters not directly related to their departmental duties;
  • address a Minister’s former portfolio or any other presumed functions, such as party or regional political responsibilities;
  • be on a matter that is sub judice;
  • deal with the subject matter of a question of privilege previously raised, on which the Speaker reserved his decision;
  • create disorder;
  • make a charge by way of a preamble to a question;
  • be a question from a constituent;
  • seek information from a Minister of a purely personal nature;
  • request a detailed response which could be dealt with more appropriately as a written question placed on the Order Paper; or
  • concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses.

Conclusion

The inspiration of this post came from comments made by a Liberal Minister concerning questions related to the Liberal cash for access scandal currently before the government. There were significant questions on the subject during question period, and the Minister was commenting on the fact that the way she understood the guidelines, such questions were not in line (see: concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses, above). It could be argued however that the questions concerned the conduct of government, and not the Liberal party specifically.

As mentioned earlier, question period is the most watched and most engaging aspect of the parliamentary day. It’s importance within the Canadian political culture cannot be understated, however given it’s importance it is alarming how little the average Canadian knows about the conduct of question period. Opposition leaders are often measured in their capability within the job against their performance in the House of Commons, Ministers of the Crown conversely are measured in their capability through their answering and performance during question period. It is an essential element of our democracy in Canada.

Bills C-1 and S-1

You may have already noticed that bill C-1 and S-1 are not located anywhere in the Status of Government Legislation posts featured on this blog. There is actually a good and very interesting reason for this. In this post we will examine the practical purpose of bills C-1 and S-1 in each session of Parliament and briefly review the historical perspectives of these bills.

Each session of Parliament begins with the formal opening of said Parliament with a Speech from the Throne delivered by the Governor-General on behalf of the reigning Monarch (monarchs have delivered this speech in Canada on various occasions) in the Senate Chamber. However, before the session begins, before all of the MPs make the trek from the House of Commons to the Senate and before all of the Senators and Justices of the Supreme Court take their seats before a filled regal chair in the Senate Chamber the entire Parliament is summoned by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The summoning of Parliament is a formal requirement in accordance with our constitution and established conventions on the opening of a session of parliament. The Summons itself is a Crown prerogative that on convention is exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister and is the literal formation of a particular Parliament by the Crown-in-Canada. This fact is important, the formation of our democratically elected House of Commons and appointed Senate into a particular Parliament with all of the powers, authorities and privileges required to conduct the democratic will of Canadians is rested upon the ordering of certain persons to Ottawa by the Crown. The glaring authority of the Crown in the formation of Parliament is made obvious in the direction the Crown gives to the Usher of the Black Rod to collect Members of Parliament from the House of Commons and summon them, on their feet before the Bar of the Senate, to listen to the Crown’s priorities and objectives for the government and the upcoming parliamentary session.

The Prime Minister proposed bill C-1 in the House of Commons. CBC News.
The Prime Minister proposes bill C-1 in the House of Commons following the Speech from the Throne. CBC News.

At the end of the Speech from the Throne, MPs return to the House of Commons and Senators continue business in the Senate. In the House of Commons bill C-1 is normally proposed by the Prime Minister and is titled An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office. In the Senate, bill S-1 is proposed by the Senator representing the Government and is titled An Act relating to Railways. Each bill is considered to be pro forma, in that their mere form represents the historical purpose of the proposed legislation. Each is given a first reading and then is never moved again. And each bill has nothing to do with the title, in fact in recent times the bill itself it not even printed or published. But they are arguably the most important pieces of legislation in each session of parliament. These bills represent the automous nature of Parliament and specifically of each House of parliament. Regardless of what reason the Crown gives in the Senate during the Speech from the Throne for why the Parliament has been summoned and regardless of what priorities the Crown has established for the Government, both Houses assert their independence and ability to set their own business. Without these bills, the Houses may be compelled to conduct only business strictly related to that outlined in the Speech from the Throne, or at least historically that would have been the case.

Each bill is a carry over practice from the British Parliament. In the UK, each session of Parliament begins with the presentation of the Speech from the Throne (albeit with the actual reigning Monarch) and when MPs return to the House of Commons, the government presents C-1, the Outlawries Bill. Like our own C-1 and S-1, the bill is read a first time and then never again dispensed with during the session. Rarely is the bill printed today. And just like the Canadian custom, the bill signifies the independence of Parliament from the Crown. During a review of House of Commons practice in 2002, the Procedure Committee reviewed the practice and determined that it had historical significance with little impact on other business and therefore had no reason to be removed from practice.

You will not see bill C-1 and bill S-1 on the Status of Government Legislation series on this blog because there is little reason to list it constantly in Second Reading in the House of Commons and the Senate respectively. However, that does not undermine their importance. Bills C-1 and S-1 are a constant reminder of the independence of parliament and the democratic authority that we mandate to our elected representatives in Ottawa. Their importance in a free and democratic society cannot be overstated.

http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/ap/a/a033986.jpg

Canadian Icons in Parliament

Parliament Hill is one of the most beautiful seats of government in the world. The transformation of Ottawa from a back-water logging town, miles away from anything of any importance in early Canada, has been carefully crafted to create a city that reflects the diverse and unique culture and history of Canada. In particular, icons in and around the Parliament Buildings, including within the House of Commons and Senate chambers, present to Canadians a stunning visual history of their roots and aspirations in the formation of a country forged out of distant New World colonies and vast wilderness. In this post we will explore Parliament Hill and learn about the history and intent of icons which have been crafted around the Parliament Buildings.

Parliament Hill

http://www.sending-postcards.com/2012_08_01_archive.html
The Centennial Flame was lit 1 Jan 1967 to commemorate the start of celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation in Canada.

The Centennial Flame was lit on 1 January 1967 to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation at the start of the year. It was lit in the presence of then Prime Minister Leaster B. Pearson. The monument is in the form of a flame that burns above a fountain that is lined with the coat of arms of all 10 provinces in Canada. It was envisioned by the federal government and contracted as a joint venture with the provinces in order to honour the provinces uniquely during the centennial celebrations. It has become tradition in Canada for Canadians visiting Parliament Hill to toss coin change into the fountain for good luck. The money collected through this is deposited in a government account and funds the Centennial Flame Research Award which is given “to a person with a disability to enable him or her to conduct research and prepare a report on the contributions of one or more Canadians with disabilities to the public life of Canada or the activities of Parliament.” The Centennial Flame is often mistakenly called the eternal flame. The flame however is not eternal and is often extinguished in bad weather (common in Ottawa) or for routine maintenance– interestingly, however, the fountain does not freeze during winter because of the heating from the flame slightly above the waterline.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_Tower
The Peace Tower was build in remembrance of Canadians who gave their lives during the First World War and has extended to all Canadians who have died serving their country.

The Peace Tower that dominates Centre Block is probably one of the most recognizable features of Parliament Hill and Ottawa as a whole. The tower is 92.2 m tall and features approximately 370 gargoylesgrotesques, and friezes which are common in the Victorian High Gothic style of the Parliamentary precent. After the fire that took the original Centre Block in 1916, the creation of a memorial at the end of World War I coincided, and a tower for the facade of the new Centre Block was conceived. It was officially unveiled in 1922. Within the tower, above the porte-cochere, there is a memorial to all who died during the First World War called the Memorial Chamber. It is a valued 7.3 by 7.3 metre space with tall stained glass windows and the floor is made up of brass plates from shells used during the war. Near the peak of the Peace Tower is a 53-bell carillon that was dedicated to the commemoration of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I and was inaugurated on 1 July 1927, the 60th anniversary of Confederation. The Peace Tower was the first location that the new maple leaf Canadian Flag was flown above Parliament Hill on 15 February 1965.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Parliament
The Library of Parliament is the oldest part of Centre Block and extends its institutional history to the 1870s.

The Library of Parliament is the oldest part of the Centre Block as a result of a quick thinking clerk closing the giant bronze doors that separate it from the rest of the building during the fire in 1916. The design of the library was inspired by the British Museum Reading Room and is formed circular in the form of a chapter house. It is separated from Centre Block via the Hall of Honour. The roots of the Library go back to the 1790s when the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada established libraries along the lines of the UK parliament. With the uniting of the two regions under the United Province of Canada the libraries were merged and continued through Confederation in 1867. The Library features Hansard records from almost every legislative assembly in Canada, periodicals for MPs and Senators and significant state reports and publications. Since 1870 there have been only eight Parliamentary Librarians.

Centre Block

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The entire Centre Block is organized around Confederation Hall.

When entering Centre Block from the main entrance and walking through the porte-cochere of the Peace Tower one immediately enters Confederation Hall. The entire Centre Block is arranged symmetrically around Confederation Hall and the columns and stone work that dominates the walls and vaulted ceiling present a bold and confident entrance for the seat of government. The arcaded arches are topped by gables sculpted to commemorate the confederated nature of Canada and they support one side of the hall’s fan vaulted ceiling with carved bosses, while the other side rests on a single column in the centre of the room. This column is borne on a stone carved with an image of Neptune amongst sea lions and fish in a mythical sea. It was placed at noon on 2 July 1917, to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation, and above it was carved the words:

1867 JULY 1917 ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CONFEDERATION OF BRITISH COLONIES IN NORTH AMERICA AS THE DOMINION OF CANADA THE PARLIAMENT AND PEOPLE DEDICATE THIS BUILDING IN PROCESS OF RECONSTRUCTION AFTER DAMAGE BY FIRE AS A MEMORIAL OF THE DEEDS OF THEIR FOREFATHERS AND OF THE VALOUR OF THOSE CANADIANS WHO IN THE GREAT WAR FOUGHT FOR THE LIBERTIES OF CANADA, OF THE EMPIRE AND OF HUMANITY.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f2/Hall_of_Honour-Centre_Block-Ottawa.jpg/1920px-Hall_of_Honour-Centre_Block-Ottawa.jpg
The Hall of Honour lies along a north-south axis from the Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament.

Running along a north-south axis from Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament is the Hall of Honour. This passageway serves as the corridors where the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament traverse during the Opening of Parliament and the start of each new sitting of Parliament. It is also the location of laying persons receiving state honours for funerals. The hall is bisected by small, vaulted corridors, the east one leading to a committee room, and the west to the old reading room; the latter is known as the Correspondents’ Entrance, as it is lined with bosses and label stops sculpted by Cléophas Soucy between 1949 and 1950 into the visages of ten notable parliamentary correspondents: Charles Bishop, Henri BourassaJohn Wesley DafoeJoseph HoweGrattan O’LearyFrank OliverJohn Ross RobertsonPhilip Dansken RossJoseph Israël Tarte, and Robert S. White. he Hall of Honour was intended to be a gallery where statues of notable Canadians would be arranged in the niches along each side. That plan was later abandoned in favour of a more general purpose of commemorating the 1916 fire, as well as honouring those who participated in the Great War. The sculptures remain incomplete; only the north end, closest to the Library of Parliament, has completed carvings.

House of Commons

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_Block#/media/File:Commons-doorway.jpg
The entrance of the House of Commons as seen from the foyer of the House of Commons.

Centre Block houses both Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons is located in the west side of the building and the Senate is located in the east. The foyer of the House of Commons is accessed via the South Corridor of Confederation Hall. The threshold of the House of Commons features a large ornately carved wooden double door. This is one of the most public spaces within parliament (aside from the House of Commons chamber itself) and is a common feature of news broadcasts across Canada during scrums following significant events within the Commons chamber. It was also a personal favourite location for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to conduct official government announcements. On either side of the entrance are wooden coat lockers for Members of Parliament.

The building’s western wing contains the House of Commons chamber, along with its antechamber and lobbies for the government and opposition, on the east and west sides of the main commons space. The doors to all are of white oak trimmed with hand-wrought iron.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_Block#/media/File:Parliament2.jpg
The Chamber of the House of Commons is adorned in green similar to that of the UK Parliament.

The chamber is 21 metres long, 16 metres wide, and has seats for 320 members of parliament and 580 persons in the upper gallery that runs around the room’s second level. The overall colour scheme is in green—visible in the carpeting, bench upholstery, draperies, paint within the gilded honeycomb cork plaster work of the cove, and the stretched linen canvas over the ceiling—and is reflective of the colour used in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom since at least 1663. That canvas, sitting 14.7 m above the commons floor and designed in 1920 by the New York decorating firm Mack, Jenney and Tyler, is painted with the heraldic symbols of the Canadian, provincial, and territorial coats of arms, with medallions at the intersections of diagonal stencilled bands in an argyle pattern. Running below this, and above the cove, is a continuous gold leaf cornicecreated in 1919 by Ferdinand Anthony Leonard Cerracchio (1888-1964), which displays a row of gilt figures, broken at the peak of each pointed arch by cherubs holding a cartouche, and behind all of which runs a painted grapevine with Tudor roses.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_Block#/media/File:Parliament2.jpg
The ceiling of the House of Commons Chamber is decorated with a magnificent linen canvas, richly painted. The design includes heraldic symbols from the Canadian, provincial and territorial coats of arms, inserted in medallions at the intersections of diagonal stencilled bands.

On the floor, the opposing members’ benches are spaced 3.96 m apart on either side of the room, a measurement said to be equivalent to two swords’ length, harkening back to when English members of parliament carried swords into the chamber. Directly between, directly opposite the main door, on the chamber’s axis, is the speaker‘s chair, made in 1921 by the English firm of Harry Hems as an exact replica of that in the British House of Commons. It is topped by a carved wood canopy bearing a rendition of the royal coat of arms of Canada sculpted in wood from the roof of the Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397; the whole was a gift from the British branch of what is today the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The chair has since been augmented with a hydraulic lift, lighting, writing surfaces, and, at the foot of the chair, a television screen and computer screen to aid the speaker in monitoring the process of the house. Behind the chair is a door that gives the speaker access to the speaker’s corridor, which links the commons chamber to the speaker’s chambers, and which is lined with portraits of past speakers of the House of Commons.

In the commons chamber’s east and west walls are 12 windows topped by pointed arches with hood moulds terminated by pendant drops. The glazing within is stained glass, commissioned as a Centennial Project in 1967 by then Speaker of the House of Commons Lucien Lamoureux. Each window contains approximately 2,000 pieces of hand-blown glass—created in Ottawa by Russell C. Goodman using medieval techniques—arranged in a Decorated Gothic style pattern designed by R. Eleanor Milne. Divided into four sections by stone mullions, the upper parts contain geometrical tracery and provincial and territorial floral emblems amongst ferns; in the tracery at the head of the windows are symbols extracted from the coats of arms of the provinces and territories.

http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/Collections/heritage_spaces/chamber/stone/bna-e.htm
The British North America Act series: a work in progress at the Sculpture shop, Plouffe Park, 1980.

As with other areas of the Centre Block, the commons walls are enriched with shafts, blind tracery, friezes, and a sculpture programme. The room was the last space in the building to be carved, with sculptural work only beginning in the late 1950s and continuing intermittently for the following two decades; approximately 225 blocks of varying sizes still remain uncarved. Amongst the work done are three series of stone works: The British North America Act, a set of 12 high reliefs on the east and west walls of the chamber, carved between 1978 and 1985, and illustrating through symbols and narrative themes associated with the federal and provincial responsibilities laid out in the British North America ActEvolution of Life, a series of 14 sculptures within the spandrels of the pier-arches at the north and south ends of the House of Commons, depicting Canada’s palaeontological past and the evolution of humanity through philosophy, science, and the imagination; and Speakers and Clerks, comprising four heads carved on the jambs of the two doors on either side of the Speaker’s chair, depicting the speakers and clerks of the House of Commons at the time of the opening of both parliament buildings in 1867 and 1920, respectively.

Senate

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The Diamond Jubilee Window in the Senate Foyer.

To the Senate’s immediate south is the Senate foyer, a double height space surrounded by a double layered colonnade, the inside ring of attached shaft columns rising to the ceiling and the outside ring of rose coloured limestone columns supporting a second floor gallery. Within the stonework are sculpted depictions of important figures in pre-Confederation Canada, as well as self-portraits of the sculptors who fashioned the stone. A number are dedicated as the Sovereigns’ Arches, with corbels sculpted into depictions of Canada’s monarchs; the latest addition being that of Queen Elizabeth II, unveiled on 9 December 2010. The entire ceiling is of a Tudor style stone tracery filled with stained glass depicting royal emblems, such as provincial coats of arms, as well as symbols of First Nations and the names of all the speakers of the Senate up until the ceiling’s installation in 1920. Above the exterior entrance into the foyer is a stained glass window commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Designed by Christopher Goodman and Angela Zissoff of KelownaBritish Columbia, with input from the Speaker of the SenateNoël A. Kinsella, and the Canadian Secretary to the Queen and Usher of the Black Rod, Kevin MacLeod, and approved by the Queen, the window shows Elizabeth and Queen Victoria with their respective royal cyphers and renditions of the Centre Block during the reign of each monarch. A gift to the monarch from the Senate, it was constructed over six weeks from 500 pieces of machine made and mouth-blown glass from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. The Queen unveiled a model at Rideau Hall on 30 June 2011 and, after the finished piece’s installation, the window was dedicated by Governor General David Johnston on 7 February 2012.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_Block#/media/File:Canadian_Senate_Chamber.jpeg
The Senate Chamber is adorned in red similar to the House of Lords in the UK Parliament.

In Centre Block’s east wing is the Senate chamber, in which are the thrones for the Canadian monarch and her consort, or for the federal viceroy and his or her consort, and from which the sovereign or the governor general gives the Speech from the Throne and grants Royal Assent to bills passed by parliament. The senators in the chamber who belong to the governing party sit to the Speaker of the Senate‘s right and the opposition sit to the speaker’s left.

The Senate chamber’s overall colour is red, seen in the upholstery, carpeting, and draperies, and reflecting the colour scheme of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom; red was a more royal colour, associated with the Crown and hereditary peers. Capping the room is a gilt ceiling with deep octagonal coffers, each filled with heraldic symbols, including maple leaves, fleurs-de-lis, lions rampantclàrsachWelsh Dragons, and lions passant. This plane rests on six pairs and four single pilasters, each of which is capped by a caryatid, and between which are clerestory windows. Below the windows is a continuous architrave, broken only by baldachins at the base of each of the above pilasters.

On the chamber’s east and west walls are eight murals depicting scenes from the First World War. Painted in between 1916 and 1920, they were originally part of the more than 1,000 piece Canadian War Memorials Fund, founded by the Lord Beaverbrook, and were intended to hang in a specific memorial structure. But the project was never completed, and the works were stored at the National Gallery of Canada until, in 1921, parliament requested some of the collection’s oil paintings on loan for display in the Centre Block. The murals have remained in the Senate chamber ever since.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_Block#/media/File:Senate_ceiling.jpg
Gold leaf and painted coffers of the Senate chamber ceiling.

Edgar Bundy‘s Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, depicts the first landing of Canadian troops in France, at Saint-Nazaire, led off the Novian by the pipe band of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, and watched by officers, troops, and townspeople. Algernon Talmage painted A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France, showing a scene on the Cambrai front, where a Canadian Mobile Veterinary Unit is taking wounded horses to an evacuating station. Railway Construction in France was painted by Leonard Richmond to show the construction of a railway by the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps, in the deepest trench in France. James Kerr-Lawson was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to create both Arras, the Dead City—which depicts the ruins of Arras Cathedral as they were in 1917—and The Cloth Hall, Ypres, a painting of the destroyed, 600-year-old Cloth Hall in YpresClaire Atwood‘s On Leave documents (as battlefield scenes were thought inappropriate subject matter for female artists) the home front activities of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at a YMCA canteen in one of London‘s train stations as they await their train to the battlefrontThe Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase) was painted by Sir William Rothenstein to symbolically represent the defeat of Germany, with a British howitzer facing across the Rhine, and old and new Germany embodied in the ancient hills and factory chimney. And Sir George Clausen‘s Returning to the Reconquered Land was painted to illustrate agricultural land behind the front lines in France and shows people returning to their destroyed homes following the armistice.

From Wikipedia.

Constitutional Conventions

The recent nomination of Justice Rowe and the new approach that the Liberal government has taken to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court of Canada has invoked a lot of discussion around constitutional conventions. In this post we are going to examine the nature and usage of constitutional conventions in Canada with an eye toward their historical development.

Our Constitution: Written and Unwritten

From a legal perspective, the constitution of Canada does not encompass any one or two documents but a host of documents spanning from the Royal Proclamation, 1762 to the Canada Act, 1982 (the latter of which repatriated our constitution from the United Kingdom and established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). The Constitution Act, 1982 provides for a list of documents to be considered as “constitutional documents” including the Canada Act, 1982 and the Constitution Act, 1867. However, the Supreme Court has maintained that several pre-Confederation acts (include the Quebec Act, 1774) and other acts (provisions of the Elections Canada Act, for example) ought to be considered with similar weight as specifically listed documents in the schedule of the Constitution Act, 1982. It is worth noting that even in the application and understanding of what documents ought to be considered of a constitutional nature and what documents should not includes forces from both the written and unwritten (or blended) parts of our state structure.

The preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867 calls for a parliament similar in nature to that of the United Kingdom. Ironically, writing down such a provision within a document to be considered the new country’s constitution was actually a departure from British parliamentary tradition. In the United Kingdom, the constitution is entirely unwritten and only recently have written documents such as provisions for the devolvement of state powers within the realm been given the weight of the unwritten provisions of the constitution (similar to how we have arranged ourselves in Canada). At any rate, however, the Dominion of Canada was founded on the premise that the state and the government within parliament be executed in similar fashion to that of the Mother Parliament. For this reason, unwritten provisions of our constitutional fabric were adopted from the United Kingdom. Provisions such as the formation of government visa a vise a Prime Minister and cabinet and the inherent privilege of Members of Parliament, including Senators, in order to properly execute their functions as representatives of Canadians. None of these provisions are mentioned in any constitutional documents, and they did and do not have to be because Canada does function in similar nature to that of the United Kingdom and our early leaders understood how the government of the UK functioned (and if they slipped, the Queen’s Privy Council was not very far). This is markedly different from the positive law of the United States or, even more so, that of Germany. In those systems, it would be impossible to enforce unwritten rules because the entire structure of law is based on the premise that the law must be made clear for citizens. Which begs the question, why do we still have unwritten portions of our constitution?

Conventions: Constitutional Mortar

Lawyer Aziz Alani points out that the gov't is avoiding acknowledging the relevance of the convention concerning SCC appointments.
Lawyer Aziz Alani points out that the gov’t is avoiding acknowledging the relevance of the convention concerning SCC appointments.

There are serious advantages to having constitutional conventions and it can even be argued that no state truly functions without at least some unwritten portions of their governing documents. There are significant conventions which dictate the democratic nature of our government, such as the convention of responsible government which is executed when the Governor-General invites the leader with the plurality of seats in the House of Commons to form government and for the executive to be drawn from the ranks of parliamentarians (primarily the House of Commons). There are mundane conventions that keep the government running smoothly and, most importantly, predictably in the interest of Canadians. An easy way to understand the importance of conventions is to think of an agreement that you have made between you and a friend over a repayment of some money. You agree to pay your friend five dollars each week until your twenty dollar owed balanced in paid in full. You write down this agreement clearly and you both sign the document. What you did not include in the document was that weeks consider to start on Monday, you get paid on Thursdays so you expected to provide payment each Thursday and if you did not pay you would have to renegotiate a new agreement or your friend could ask for the full money back immediately. These unwritten understandings between you and your friend are similar to that of conventions within the formation of the state. They have a strong benefit in that they can be changed without having to reopen the original agreement (say, for example your employer starts to pay you on Monday rather than Thursday half way through the payment period). This is important in a national sense, especially in a federation, because grand agreements of the state (i.e. the constitutional documents) are usually agreed upon at a certain time and place and it would represent near-chaos to reopen discussion on amendments at a particular time (this is especially true in Canada given the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords).

Constitutional conventions, interestingly enough, are not enforceable in the courts (although they will acknowledge their existence and function in our governing system). This is important. A key element of constitutional conventions is that they exist so long as the parties involved believe them to be relevant and applicable. Who these “parties” are can vary but will almost always include the government and the official opposition. Canada would be outraged if the Governor-General refused to invite the duly elected leader of the party with a plurality of seats in the House of Commons to form government. And this would not change the convention regardless of the fact that the Governor-General, by written law, has the right to appoint who-ever they wish to form government, it would incite a constitutional crisis on the merits of the violation of the convention. However, take for example the recent announcement of the Trudeau government to look beyond the regional convention pertaining to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court. This is a convention that the government claims is weak and has no relevance in Canada because it ought to be the most qualified (albeit and apparently functionally bilingual) candidate who should be selected. The convention could very well be changing before us, and this is how they do change, especially when the general public does not raise a stink about the issue being changed (and in this case they actually seem to strongly support the Trudeau government position in the Supreme Court matter).

The Inevitable Unwritten

An appropriate closing is the reflection and observation that it is impossible to truly have a pure written constitution with all functions of the government being entrenched in mandated law. There will always be agreements or what some might call “common sense” and “obvious” functions of the state and government that will go beyond what is written but will not violate it. Additionally, each provision of the constitution calling on a particular state actor to act would require unwritten elements regardless the nature of the conduct of this act. It would certainly be burdensome and inappropriate to list each and every aspect of a certain function of state within the constitution documents.

Photo credit.

Electoral Reform and Electoral Systems

The Library of Parliament has published a wonderful primer on electoral reform in Canada and around the world that scratches the surface of the various options before Canadians. I’ve decided to cut some snippets from the publication to share here with links to the original document so that you may follow-up on your own.

You can access the document here or a PDF copy here.

Plurality or Majority Systems

Description: In plurality or majority electoral systems, the winning candidate is the individual who garners the most votes in an electoral district. Depending on the particular rules of the system, the winner may need to receive a plurality (or more votes than the other candidates) or a majority (over 50% of the votes cast).

First Past the Post (FPTP): Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides. Candidates must gain a plurality of votes to be elected.

Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides.
Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides.

Alternative Vote (AV): Also used to elect a single candidate per electoral district, this system is often called preferential voting. On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast. Should no candidate garner a majority on the first count, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority.

Two-Round: Also known as the run-off system, the two-round system has elections with not one but two election days, generally weeks apart. The system used for the first round of voting is largely similar to FPTP, except to win, a candidate must take a majority of the votes cast and not simply a plurality. Should no candidate garner a majority after the first round of voting, a second election is held with only the top two candidates from the first election results. The candidate with the higher number of votes in the second round is elected.

Block Vote: In essence, this system is FPTP but with multi-member constituencies. In each electoral district, voters may cast as many votes as there are seats. For example, if three seats are available in an electoral district, the three candidates with the most votes will be awarded seats.

On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.
On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.

Origins: Plurality or majority systems can be traced back to historical British parliamentary practice. FPTP continues to be employed to elect members to the United Kingdom (U.K.) House of Commons, and is also the system used today in most countries that were once part of the British Empire or have historical connections to England.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Plurality or majority systems are easy to use and understand, favour the formation of stable majority governments, maintain a geographic link between constituents and members, and encourage broad-based parties. Critiques of plurality or majority systems include that the seat allocation is disproportionate to the popular vote, and the system exaggerates regionalism and wastes votes. Further critiques of the two-round system are that it is the most expensive electoral system, and voter turnout may decrease between the first and second rounds.

Current Use: Australia – Lower house (AV), Canada (FPTP), France (Two-Round), U.K. (FPTP) and the United States (FPTP).

Proportional Representation Systems

Description: As the name suggests, proportional representation (PR) systems seek to closely match a political party’s vote share with its seat allocation in the legislature. Unlike in most plurality systems, in PR systems, voters elect more than one representative per constituency or geographic area. PR tends to be varied and flexible, and the method for calculating seat distribution can be quite complex, with some systems requiring that a minimum threshold of vote share be earned in order for any seats to be allocated. Citizens generally vote for several candidates, or a party, and the results determine which individual members will sit in the legislature, as well as the overall distribution of seats belonging to each party.

List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.
List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.

List Proportional Representation (List PR): There are two main forms of List PR: closed-list and open-list. Both forms use a regional or national list of candidates in each constituency drawn up by each party before election day.

In closed-list PR, the party ranks the names on the list, and citizens vote for a party, not a specific candidate. Once all votes have been counted, each party is awarded seats in proportion to its share of the national vote. Individual seats are then allocated to candidates of each party in the order in which they are ranked on the party list.

In open-list PR, voters choose a preferred candidate (or candidates) from the list of the party for which they wish to vote. This means that voters effectively determine the order in which the candidates on the list will be awarded seats.

List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.

Single Transferable Vote (STV): Citizens in multi-member electoral districts rank candidates on the ballot. They may rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.

In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.
In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.

In most variations of this system, winners are declared by first determining the total number of valid votes cast, and then establishing a minimum number of votes that must be garnered based on the number of seats to be filled (the “vote quota”). Candidates who receive the number of first-preference votes needed to reach the quota are elected.

If there are still seats to be filled, a two-step count occurs. In the first step, any votes in excess of the quota for elected candidates are redistributed to the second choices indicated on the ballots of the elected candidates, using a weighted formula (this is called “excess transfer”). Candidates who then reach the quota are elected.

If no candidates reach the quota in this way, a second step takes place in which the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates.

Such extra counts continue until enough candidates reach the quota to fill all available seats.

Some variations do not involve excess transfer, but only the elimination of the lowest-ranked candidate and the reassigning of the second preferences on the ballots for that candidate. Nonetheless, the counting process still fits the definition of a single, transferable vote.

Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV): In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected. For example, in a constituency where 20 candidates are vying for five available seats, the five candidates with the most votes will all be elected.

Compared to FPTP or block vote, SNTV can facilitate the representation of minority parties and independents, because the minimum number of votes needed to be elected decreases as the number of seats in the constituency increases, giving parties that normally receive a lower percentage of votes a better chance of electing a candidate.

Origins: Discussion of proportional representation can be traced back to the late 1700s. Its first public use was in 1840 during an election held in Adelaide, Australia.16 Some observers have suggested that the implementation of PR systems, especially throughout Europe, was a response to unrepresentative electoral results, with others suggesting economic transformations and the growth of social democratic parties were driving forces.

Advantages and Disadvantages: PR systems produce results most closely matching the actual proportion of votes garnered by parties, permit greater representation of smaller parties, provide for greater choice, and can encourage power-sharing within a Parliament. Critiques of PR systems include that they can be difficult to understand, they tend to create coalition governments, the geographic link between constituent and member is less prominent, they increase the possibility of electing parties with extreme views, the ballots can be long and complicated, and the counting of results time consuming.

Current Use: Australia – Upper House (STV), Austria (Modified Closed-List PR), Belgium (Modified Closed-List PR), Denmark (Open-List PR), Finland (Open-List PR), Ireland (STV), Netherlands (Modified Closed-List PR), Norway (Modified Closed-List PR), Russia (Closed-List PR), South Africa (Closed-List PR), Sweden (Modified Closed-List PR) and Switzerland (Open-List PR).

The modified closed-list PR systems listed above essentially give electors some ability to influence which candidates on party lists are elected by stating preferences on the ballot. The countries use different methods and set different thresholds of vote share needed for election.

Mixed Electoral Systems

Description: Mixed electoral systems combine elements of a plurality or majority system with proportional representation. Citizens in a constituency cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.

Mixed Member Majority (MMM): Citizens in single-member electoral districts cast two votes: one for a candidate to represent their constituency according to the FPTP system, and one for a party. Each party presents a previously established list of candidates, similar to the List PR system. A predetermined portion of the legislature’s seats are filled using the plurality vote, while the remaining seats are filled by the party list vote.

The two votes under MMM are fully independent of one another; the party seats will not compensate for any disproportionate result in the constituency elections.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP): This system operates in the same way as MMM, except that a citizen’s second vote, which allocates seats to parties according to List PR, is used to attempt to compensate for any disproportionate results in the FPTP constituency part of the election.

There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.
There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.

Additional seats are awarded to qualifying parties18 where the number of constituency seats that they won fails to reflect voter support shown in both components of the election.

There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.

Origins: Mixed electoral systems can be traced back to Germany’s adoption of an MMP system following the Second World War. Observers have noted that the system represents a compromise, or third way, between plurality or majority systems, and proportional representation.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Mixed electoral systems provide for fairly proportional outcomes, maintain the geographic link between constituents and members, provide for greater choice, and allow the opportunity for smaller parties to be represented in Parliament. Critiques of mixed electoral systems include that they may be difficult to use and understand, and they create two classes of members (electoral district versus list).

Current Use: Germany (MMP), Japan (MMM), Mexico (MMP), New Zealand (MMP), Philippines (MMM), Scotland (MMP), South Korea (MMM) and Wales (MMP).

Order Paper and Notice Paper

The Order Paper and Notice Paper is the most important published document from a legislative standpoint (see the first image). Both the Senate and the House of Commons produce the Order Paper and Notice Paper daily (we are just going to focus on the House of Commons right now). You can find the Order Paper and Notice Paper for the House of Commons here. This document contains two sections; the Order Paper and the Notice Paper. The Order Paper concerns the order in which the House will hear business (all per the Standing Orders, unless otherwise ordered) and presents an outline for business which the government intends to introduce (under the headings Business of Supply, Ways and Means, Government Bills (House and Senate) and Government Business (the specific of these headings are not important yet, we will deal with that in a later post). The Notice Paper is the bulk of the document as it contains the order in which Private Members’ Business, motions, written questions and government bills are presented (basically how the House decides what is going to be debated).

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Let’s take a look at Order Paper and Notice Paper No. 3 for the 1st Session of the 42nd Parliament of Canada. From this document we see that the House of Commons will be sitting a normal Monday routine. Further on in the document under Order of the Day we see that the government intends to debate the Reply In Address to the Speech from the Throne. We also get a little piece of information in that the Standing Orders grant six days of debate on this particular piece of business. You can also see a projection for the remainder of the week regarding the debate on this business. Government Orders has an interesting notice for the opposition concerning a Supply Day (otherwise known as an Opposition Day). The Standing Orders allocate a certain number of days broken down into three periods of the year for the opposition to present motions and control the flow of business in the House of Commons (see Standing Order 81). Because parliament has not been sitting for the full period ending 10 Dec 15, the President of the Treasury Board is indicating that the opposition will have one day this period (as per the Standing Orders) and it will be on 10 Dec 15, meaning we can expect an opposition motion of some sort on that day (or whatever else the opposition would like to focus the attention of the House on for that short period of time).

Cross-posted from Consumervoter.ca.

Committees of the Whole

During consideration on a particular bill or motion, it may be prudent for the House of Commons to resolve itself into a committee composed of all of the members of the House. These committees are known as Committees of the Whole and they have a unique purpose in the body of parliamentary procedure. Each time the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, a new committee of that particular session is formed, thus, over the span of a session many ad hoc Committees of the Whole can be formed.

A Historical Perspective

Committees of the Whole were borne out of the British parliamentary tradition of grand committees that started prior to the reign of King James I. These committees considered legislation that was brought before the House and it became practice to allow any member who was in attendance of these meetings to speak and be heard. It was during the reign of James I and Charles I in the mid-1600s that these grand committees became known as Committees of the Whole and procedures similar to what we have today in Canada were formalized in our parliamentary tradition. In their early days, Committees of the Whole were forums that were struck to debate bills of great interest. By forming a committee outside of the sitting of the House of Commons itself, ordinary members were afforded a greater chance of getting their questions heard and answered. More importantly, the removal of the Speaker and all officers of parliament who were viewed to have the interest of the King at heart, meant that members were given more latitude to discuss controversial subjects.

There is as little sense of reality in appointing a committee of sixty members as there is in having a Committee of the Whole of 265: it is hopeless to expect a committee of such size to accomplish any useful work. (W.F. Dawson, Procedure in the Canadian House of Commons, p. 209)

In Canada the colonies adopted the practices of the British House of Commons and thus Committees of the Whole were brought over. In Lower Canada, four grand committees were struck at the start of each session that covered four broad but important areas of government. Addresses to the Crown were often first proposed and debated in the Committee of the Whole. At Confederation, the Parliament of Canada adopted the procedures of the former Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada which required that issues of taxation, trade or public revenue had to be first considered by a Committee of the Whole before any resolution or bill could be passed by the House of Commons.

From 1867 to 1968 there were three main committees of the whole House of Commons; the Committee of Supply, the Committee of Ways and Means and Committees of the Whole House. The House of Commons often resolved into the Committee of Supply to consider budgetary matters and supply estimates provided to the House by the government. In 1968 after a special committee was struck to review and revise the rules of the House of Commons, changes were made to the committee structure. Standing Committees would be formed at the start of each session with membership limited to a certain number of members and partisan representation being based on the composition of the House as a whole. The process of resolving into a Committee of the Whole for matters of routine legislation, which financial matters were increasingly being viewed as, was seen as too cumbersome and complex for the entire House. The new streamlined process saw most Committees of the Whole in Canada fall by the wayside. And by 1975, the only remaining committee composed of all members of the House of Commons is the Committee of the Whole itself.

Special Rules and Procedures

When the House resolves into a Committee of the Whole there are significant changes to the rules and procedures which govern that particular body. While Standing Order 101 clearly states that all rules and procedures of the House of Commons shall remain in force while the House is resolved into a Committee of the Whole, it goes on to further add that rules pertaining to the seconding of motions and the length of speeches do not apply while in a Committee of the Whole. In fact, one of the most attractive aspects about Committees of the Whole is that members are permitted to speak more than once and may speak for up to 20 minutes on a particular topic, provided it is relevant to the bill or motion at hand. The general decorum while in a Committee of the Whole is much less formal that when the House itself is in session. The Speaker, for example, is not present in the Chair and actually leaves the Chamber entirely while the committee is meeting. The Mace is moved from the Table to the bracket just below out of sight. Members are not required to stand in their place to speak (they may sit anywhere they like in the House) and often civil servants are brought to the floor of the House to assist Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries during deliberations.

On 11 June 2008, Stephen Harper issued an apology to aboriginal Canadians for the role of the federal government in the residential school system. During this apology, the House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole which allowed aboriginal leaders to be on the floor of the Chamber during the speech and as well to address members present following the remarks from the Prime Minister. This is an example of the differences between the House of Commons being in session and being resolved into a Committee of the Whole.

Procedures for Resolving into Committee

The rules and procedures regarding how the House of Commons resolves into a Committee of the Whole have changed over time. Today, an order in placed on the Order Paper for the Speaker to vacate the Chair and the House to resolve into a Committee of the Whole is carried out without debate or objection. Once read in the House at the appropriate time, the Speaker simply gets up and leaves the Chair and the Chamber. The Sergeant-at-Arms will move the Mace from its place at the Table to the bracket just underneath the Table and all of the Officers of Parliament will vacate the Chamber. The Deputy Speaker, or more accurately, the Chair of the Committee of the Whole takes their place at the end of the Table (where the Clerk of the House of Commons typically sits) and the Speaker’s Chair is left vacant. The image of a vacant Speaker’s Chair and the Table will no Mace present is a sign that the House of Commons is no longer in formal session and has resolved into a Committee of the Whole. Individual members may also begin moving about the House at this time. It is not uncommon for the minister or parliamentary secretary relevant to the particular item being considered to take a seat along the front bench where government members normally sit. It is also not uncommon for civil servants to be escorted into and out of the Chamber during this time to assist ministers or parliamentary secretaries during the meeting of the committee.

When an Order of the Day is read for the House to go into a Committee of the Whole or when it is ordered that a bill be considered in a Committee of the Whole, the Speaker shall leave the Chair without question put. (House of Commons Standing Order 100)

A quorum of 20 members is required for the committee to sit. The quorum must be present when the House resolves itself into committee and during the entirety of the meeting. If at any time a member rises to draw to attention to a lack of quorum, the Chair will count members present and if a quorum is not met they will vacate the chair and report the status to the Speaker. The Speaker will take their chair and the Chair of the Committee of the Whole will report to the Speaker that a quorum is not present. If at this time the Speaker sees that there still is no quorum present than they will order the bells rung. If after 15 minutes of the bells ringing quorum has not been met than the House and committee will adjourn for the day and the proceedings will resume where they left off the following day.

Conduct of Debate

There are four unique characteristics of a Committee of the Whole in contrast to the rules and procedures in place when the House of Commons is in session. First, the rules of motions and the seconding of motions is different. No motion from the Committee of the Whole requires a seconder and motions may only be withdrawn by the mover or by unanimous consent of the committee. Second, members may speak more than once and, third, members may speak for up to 20 minutes with the exception of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition who have unlimited time to speak, if they wish. And lastly, members are not required to be in their place during the meeting of the committee and often move about the Chamber during the meeting.

(1) The Standing Orders of the House shall be observed in Committees of the Whole so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.

(2) Speeches in Committees of the Whole must be strictly relevant to the item or clause under consideration.

(3) No Member, except the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, shall speak for more than twenty minutes at a time in any Committee of the Whole. (House of Commons Standing Order 101)

When the Committee of the Whole is interrupted to permit the House of Commons to carry on with routine proceedings (for example, Oral Questions), the Chair will simply vacate their seat and the Speaker will resume the Chair. Once in place, the Chair reports the status of the committee to the Speaker and requests leave for further time to deliberate. The scheduling of Committees of the Whole is generally conducted by the Speaker in consultation with the House Leaders from each political party (with strong input from the majority leader). Once the Speaker takes the Chair and the Mace is moved back to the Table than the House of Commons resumes its sitting and carries on with proceedings.

If debate is required to be extended for any reason, members may not move such a motion without notice as in the House of Commons. Rather, notice must be given so that the Chair can make arrangements to report the status of the committee to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Any request for debate extension must go through the Speaker of the House of Commons who is responsible for committees of the House.

Voting within the Committee of the Whole is first done by voice. If the Chair hears no objection to a bill or motion than it is deemed passed without opposition. Any member may request a standing vote. The standing vote is done differently than in the House of Commons because a members name is not recorded in divisions. Members are not necessarily in their place, they simply rise where they stand on the division they wish and they are counted out-loud by the Chair. At the end of the count the matter is either affirmed or negatived and the committee moves on the next item of business. Typically the Chair does not vote in Committees of the Whole but may do so in order to break up a tie between the committee in the same fashion as the Speaker in the House of Commons (that is in such a way as to maintain the status quo).

Modern Application

Committees of the Whole are used in the modern Canadian parliament to debate matters of particular importance which may require input from members beyond what would be permitted in the Standing Committee model. The desire to resolve into a Committee of the Whole is generally started by the government or opposition House Leader and is added to the Order Paper as required. Committees of the Whole have also been used to allow the government to make an announcement and allow members of the public to address the Chamber. It is not uncommon to see orders for the House to resolve into a Committee of the Whole in the consideration of controversial legislation or main estimates or to conduct a less formal take-note debate on a particular subject.

Photo credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Committee of the Whole while aboriginal leaders listen on the floor of the House of Commons. Buzzfeed.