In Andrew Weaver a Politician is Born

An interesting thing happened during British Columbia’s 41st general election– a distinguished professor turned Green Party leader became a politician. Once pushed from the womb of academia and into the wild and wacky world of British Columbia politics, it did not take Andrew Weaver very long to get on his feet and undermine the government and the established parliamentary system while holding a meagre three seats in the legislature. This one is going to grow to be big and strong no doubt.

Let me be clear; I am not for one moment suggesting that a coalition, or as they call it, a supported-government, is undemocratic or unparliamentary. Quite the opposite, I would indeed be among the first to stand here and explain the intricacies and realities of our parliamentary system which permits such occurrences. And I believe in the parliamentary system and one that is sustained with a first past the post electoral system with ridings distrusted across the state according to relative population. And this is how we ended up with a result where the incumbent BC Liberals hold 43 seats (one seat shy of a majority sustainment), the BC NDP holds 41 and the BC Greens hold 3 (together enough to maintain the confidence of the legislature, if they worked together).

But besides permitting the BC NDP and BC Greens to work together in the legislature to form government and sustain confidence in the legislature, the parliamentary system has a host of other conventions that inform conduct in periods such as these. For example, the incumbency convention holds that no matter the results, the government in power gets first crack in the legislature to form government. This is why you see when a Prime Minister or Premier fail to garner a plurality of seats in the legislature they publicly resign from their office.  Otherwise, the GG or LG is compelled through the incumbency convention to allow the previous head of government first crack at getting confidence in the legislature. This is also why Premier Christy Clark is still the head of the BC government– and subsequently has the ability to deliver a Throne Speech regardless of the agreement came upon by the BC NDP and BC Greens.

When the results from the 41st general election in BC came down (and they took awhile to settle out and come down officially), it was clear that the BC Liberal Party did not have a majority of seats in the legislature, and thus would not be able to sustain their majority government. But they did have a plurality and because of the incumbency convention, they remained in power and Clark was invited to continue her ministry. Andrew Weaver proved his political stripes by undermining the incumbency convention and publicly siding with the BC NDP for four years. Without even hearing officially from the government via a Throne Speech in the legislature, Weaver and two of the Green Party MLAs decided that there was absolutely nothing the government could offer to gain their support. Andrew Weaver is now playing a political game, and very dangerous one at that. Tying himself to the NDP could surely prove to undermine an honest effort by the BC Greens to pitch themselves as not too extreme to form government, or in this case, at least hold the balance of power.

But what of backroom deals and talks? Dispense with them! They are not parliament and any idea that “ratifying” them by each caucus someone seals the deal is false, pure and simple. Those are not binding on the state, and rightfully so; parliament is the official forum of the electors. We saw that when Harper, Layton and Duceppe signed an agreement when they tried to undermine the Martin ministry– it meant nothing without parliamentary action to take down the government. And furthermore when Dion, Layton and Duceppe attempted to undermine the Harper ministry– it certainly did not withhold the authority of the PM to prorogue parliament to avoid actually sealing the deal. The NDP at least have the cover of their role as the Official Opposition to claim a reason to oppose the government at all turns– I concede that opposition is just as important as government in a parliamentary system. But the BC Greens ought to have sustained the Clark government, at least to the Throne Speech in order to sustain the incumbency convention and demonstrate their respect for parliament.

A true politician was born during this election. It will be interesting to see him fumble through his teenage years with his seemingly new best friend in John Horgan.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

The Legislative Process

Recent events within parliament surrounding bill C-14 have cast a light on the possibilities of the two houses of parliament stuck at a deadlock. In actuality, any theorizing was dubbed moot because the House of Commons rejected the proposals from the Senate on bill C-14 and the Senate duly accepted the rejection from the Lower Chamber. Democracy, as the pundit would say, was saved for the day. But there is something inherently wrong in claiming that having an Upper Chamber capable of overriding the Lower Chamber on legislative affairs is an outright offence of democracy and democratic values in Canada. It is certainly worth taking a closer look at the legislative process in Canada in comparison to the democratic process– most people, I wager, would be surprised to understand a difference between the two.

There is no question that if you are reading a blog such as this, and a post such as this, that you have a basic understanding of how laws are made within parliament in Canada. Bills are proposed as Acts of Parliament in either the House of Commons or the Senate. Some bills are “special” compared to others because they originate from the government (which resides in the House of Commons). The Senate is composed of Senators who are appointed by the elected Prime Minister of the day (or more technically by the Governor-General on advice from the Prime Minister of the day). Bills are read a certain number of times in each house and are sent to committee for a clause-by-clause review. Each reading stage of the legislative process (there are three in total within each house), have a specific purpose and scope of debate. At the end of the reading stages, each house puts the bill to question (that is to say, votes) and it is moved on the to next step in the process. The final step being Royal Assent, where the Governor-General signs the bill which thus becomes an Act of Parliament and the law-of-the-land. Where things get murky in the process, however, is when legislation in moved between the House of Commons and the Senate. Obviously, all government bills will originate in the House of Commons and be sent to the Senate for further review and eventual approval. But what happens if the Senate rejects a bill proposed by the House of Commons, and more specifically, generated by the government of the day?

Canadians saw this process somewhat unfold between the House of Commons and the Senate recently on bill C-14. The House of Commons passed the bill on Third Reading and sent it to the Senate for further review (never minding the deadline issue at this moment). The debate in the House of Commons on the bill was substantial and focused on the constitutional nature of the bill. In the Senate, the Senators heard testimony from constitutional experts that the bill would have violated Canadian law. The Senators proposed amendments similar to what was proposed by the opposition in the House of Commons in order to avoid a conflict with the Charter. Surely, however, the Senate would be out of line for proposing such amendments over the government and the House of Commons because unlike the Lower Chamber, they are unelected! This is where the debate gets sidetracked by the introduction of the democratic process. The problem is that both processes are separate from one another, and should not mix as closely as it being attempted in this sort of debate.

The democratic process in Canada serves one purpose: the composition of the House of Commons. About every four years (a maximum of five as mandated in the constitution), Canadians participate in a general federal election. Which more accurately should be called federal general elections, because in reality there are over three hundred elections happening across the country. The purpose of the election is to select an individual Member of Parliament to serve in Ottawa on behalf of a geographical boundary drawn up based on population (and mandated representation requirements). Once the MPs are selected across the country, they are sent to Ottawa and a government is formed from among their ranks by appointed of the Governor-General. Note, that Canadians play no part in the formation of their government aside from the indirect manner of electing Members of Parliament. A key component of responsible government is that members of the cabinet, the executive body, are appointed from among a pool of elected MPs. This is exactly where the democratic process ends and the legislative process begins. Once a parliament is formed, and more specifically once the House of Commons is formed, the democratic process ends and the legislative process kicks in to full swing. From the basis of responsible government, which sustains a particular ministry through the maintenance of the confidence of the entire House of Commons, the government can participate and dominate the legislative process. This dominance is scalable based on the size of their influence within the House of Commons (the formation of majority or minority governments, for example). The continuance of responsible government permits the appointment of agents of the state such as Senators, who are empowered through the constitution to participate in the legislative process alongside the duly elected government. And while mandates will shift between ministries, generally those agents of state remain empowered within the legislative process, intentionally made to be immune from the democratic process. This is an essential balance between the elite and the populist, and is a key feature of any Westminster parliamentary system.

It is therefore not undemocratic for the Senate to reject any piece of legislation coming from the House of Commons, especially legislation coming from the government benches, because there is nothing that should permit the democratic process from interfering with the legislative process. While principles of democracy are inherent in the system (MPs for example vote by majority, as do Senators), the process itself, the democracy-in-Canada (to fancy a label on it), is not a part of the legislative process. That process exists when the people elect their individual Member of Parliament. The rest is the entire system working as it ought to and churning out lawful decisions of the state.

Image credit.

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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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The Speaker of the House of Commons

The historical origins of the office of the Speaker of the House of Commons go back almost 600 years. The importance of the office is highlighted in the opening of the relevant chapter in the House of Common Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, “no other office or position is more closely linked to the history of the House of Commons than that of the Speaker.” The Speaker in Canada exists as a result of its development within the United Kingdom, however the roles and functions of the Speaker today in Canada are markedly different than the United Kingdom. As well, as the result of reforms in the 1960s, the office of the Speaker has taken on more authority within the House of Commons and its proceedings. In this post, we will explore the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons and briefly highlight how they have developed over time since 1867.

When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867 the British North America Act clearly defined the existence, election and function of the Speaker of the House of Commons. By 1867, most constitutional issues related to the office had been resolved in the UK, and thus the Canadian Speaker has never been subjected to the same degree of constitutional development as their UK counterpart (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed). However, that does not mean that the interpretation of the function of the office as defined in the constitution and the practice of enforcement of these functions has not changed over time, specifically through changes within the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

Regarding the election and partisanship of the Speaker, the House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed states:

The Speaker has almost always been elected from among the Members of the governing party, and although the Speaker eschews partisan political activity, he or she does not make a complete break. When running for re-election, incumbent Speakers are usually careful to avoid partisan statements that might prejudice their perceived impartiality in the future. Only one Speaker has chosen to sever himself from all party affiliations and to present himself as an independent candidate in general elections. Speaker Lamoureux (1966‑74) resigned from the Liberal Party and, as an independent candidate, ran and won in the general elections of 1968 and 1972. In 1968, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party refrained from nominating candidates to oppose him; the New Democratic Party had already nominated a candidate prior to his decision to run as an independent.

The roles and functions of the Speaker of the House of Commons can be broadly broken into two categories; ceremonial and administration. In their ceremonial role, the Speaker is the representative of all of the House of Commons and is their official spokesperson. This role is evident during the opening of parliament when the Speaker speaks in the Senate of Canada to the Governor-General on behalf of the entire elected assembly. In their administrative roles, the Speaker is the chair of the House committee that oversees the spending and function of parliament, its employees and services. The Speaker also chairs all sessions of parliament sometimes with the exception of Committees of the Whole.

One of the most important aspects of the Speakers’ role in the House of Commons is the enforcement of the rules including the Standing Orders. This role has changed over time within the House, with the Speaker having varying degrees of power to punish members who were ruled out of line and the ability to rule on breaches to the rules in the regular conduct of House business. We can explore how both functions have changed over time.

The Speaker of the House of Commons has not always had final say on whether a point of order was ruled out of line. Prior to changes made to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons in 1965, the House of Commons could overrule the ruling of the Speaker. Up until the turn of the 20th century, overruling the Speaker was rarely done by the House of Commons, however with the employment of a more active opposition in the House, it became common practice for members to follow-up a ruling from the Speaker with a motion seeking support/taking issue from the entire House of Commons. The most striking of these occurred during the infamous “pipeline” debate in the spring of 1956. The House of Commons overruled the Speaker on a judgement concerning the nature of debate on a pipeline project which lead to widespread dissension among Members of Parliament. In 1965 changes were made the Standing Orders and a “no-appeal” clause was entered into the section dealing with the powers of the Speaker regarding rulings in the House of Commons. MPs now have no other recourse in parliament but the Chair of the Speaker and the Speakers’ ruling remains final.

The Speaker has a range of powers at their disposal to deal with unruly Members in the House of Commons. The first of these powers remain in the fact that the Speaker chairs each sitting of the House. This means that at any time the Speaker can rise in their chair and end debate. Now, there are specific reasons for why the Chair would rise (it would not be in line with their duty to progress debate for the Speaker to hinder debate by needlessly rising in their chair). You see this happen often during the most watched portion of proceedings in the House of Commons, Oral Questions. The Speaker often cuts cheering/heckling short by rising in their chair and calling “Order, order” to get members to be silent and carry on with Oral Questions. This intervention is a common occurrence through-out each proceeding of the House. It is also used to move the House from one proceeding to another in Routine Business. For example, the House has a specific time for shifting from debate to Members’ Statements and then into Oral Question. During most days, Members’ Statements starts at 2 pm and lasts for 15 minutes. Regardless of where debate is at 2 pm, the Speaker rises in their chair and shifts the attention of the House to Members’ Statements. As each statement is read until 2:15 pm, the Chair will keep the focus of the House on the statements being read and then will rise in their chair and shift the attention of the House to Question Period. If you have ever watched a clip of Oral Questions from the start, you might have seen this portion when the Speaker rises and states, “Oral Questions, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition…” (for example).

The Speaker also has a very specific power in naming a Member of Parliament. Naming is an old mechanism dating back to the early days of the UK parliament, when the Chair would call by name a person in the assembly who was acting out of line. The act of naming is in stark contrast to parliamentary decorum which dictates that a member is referred to in the House by their riding or position. Naming a member is a lot like a parent using a child’s full name when they are in trouble. The Speaker gets the attention of the Member and of the entire House by calling the member’s name and specifically stating that they have been named. The Speaker may provide a reason, or may not, and the member must leave the chamber of the remainder of the sitting. Because the House of Commons is broken along partisan lines, it is not uncommon for the House Leader of the party for the respective member to rise on a point of order at an appropriate time following the naming incident to put forward a plan to deal with the member in question. This could be the tabling of a written apology or the proposal for a set number of days for suspension. It might also be a request for the Speaker to rule on the matter which may have disagreement among other Members on how to move forward. For most points of order, members of the House from all sides have a say to influence the judgement of the Speaker. At the end of the day, it is a very adult way of punishing and dealing with one another.

In their ceremonial role, the Speaker represents the House of Commons as a whole in an unpartisan fashion. For this reason, it is the Speaker who official receives guests of parliament such as foreign heads of state/government, president and secretaries of important international bodies (such as the UN and NATO), official parliamentary delegations from other nations and distinguished Canadians. This is also why it is the Speaker who introduces any dignitaries who are present in the House of Commons (typically just before Oral Questions begins because this is when most people are watching the House of Commons).

In addition to the broad duties outlined in this post, House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed establishes the following specific duties of the Speaker:

Opening the sitting: It is the Speaker’s responsibility to open the sittings of the House once it has been determined that a quorum is present. When opening a sitting, the Speaker takes the Chair, calls the House to order, reads prayers, directs that the doors to the public galleries be opened, and then calls the first item of business. If, as sometimes happens, the Speaker is absent at the opening of a sitting, the House is so informed by the Clerk and the Deputy Speaker (or one of the other Chair Occupants) takes the Chair.

Reading motions, putting questions, announcing results of votes: Before debate begins on a matter, the Speaker proposes the question by reading the motion on which the House is to decide. When no Member rises to be recognized in debate, the Speaker asks if the House is “ready for the question”, thus ascertaining whether or not the debate has concluded. When debate on a question is closed, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to put the question, that is, to put the matter to the House for a decision, and afterwards to announce the result to the House.

Recognizing Members to speak in the House: No Member may speak in the House until called upon or recognized by the Speaker; any Member so recognized may speak during debate, questions and comments periods, Question Period, and other proceedings of the House. Various conventions and informal arrangements exist to encourage the participation of all parties in debate; nevertheless, the decision as to who may speak is ultimately the Speaker’s.

Deciding questions of order and questions of privilege: In presiding over the deliberations of the House, the Speaker is responsible for deciding questions of order and questions of privilege, and for ensuring that the rules and practices of the House are respected. The Speaker rules on questions of order and questions of privilege as they occur and not in anticipation. A question of order may be brought to the Speaker’s attention by a Member, or the Speaker may intervene when he or she observes an irregularity. In ruling on questions of order and questions of privilege, the Speaker cites the Standing Order or other applicable authority. At times, the Speaker may be called upon to deal with situations not provided for in the Standing Orders of the House; in such cases, the rules give authority to the Speaker to consider parliamentary tradition in jurisdictions outside the House of Commons of Canada “so far as they may be applicable”.

Decisions on motions: The Standing Orders confer on the Speaker certain responsibilities in connection with motions coming before the House for consideration. The Speaker has the responsibility to act, in the event that he or she judges a motion to be “contrary to the rules and privileges of Parliament”. In such a case, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to inform the House at the earliest opportunity, before the question is put, and to refer to the applicable rule or authority. This is to be distinguished from the Speaker’s general power to rule authoritatively on matters of procedure. While the Speaker is guardian of the rules and privileges of the House, he or she is its servant as well; the Members of the House retain collective control of their actions. Thus, if the Speaker were to inform the House that a proposed motion, though correct as to its form, runs counter to established parliamentary principles, customs or privileges, the House would then be in a position to take a decision on the matter, with the benefit of the information provided and the authorities cited by the Speaker. This rule was first adopted after Confederation and has never been invoked by the Speaker, although there have been attempts to persuade the Chair to invoke it.

Other rules of the House give the Speaker the power to select which report stage amendments will be considered by the House, and to group these for purposes of debate and division. In addition, in the event that notice of more than one opposition motion is given when a Supply day has been designated, the Speaker is responsible for selecting the one which will have precedence for consideration by the House.

Conduct of Private Members’ Business: It is the overall responsibility of the Speaker to make all the necessary arrangements to ensure the orderly conduct of the hour of each sitting day devoted to Private Members’ Business. This includes ensuring that the House has 24 hours’ notice of the item to be considered in each sitting, seeing to the arrangement of exchanges when a sponsoring Member is unable to be present when his or her item is scheduled for consideration, and refusing a notice of an item of Private Members’ Business which is deemed to be substantially the same as another.

Private bills: When private bills are to be brought before Parliament, persons wishing to act as parliamentary agents (i.e., employed in promoting or opposing a private bill) must be granted authority to do so by the Speaker. The Speaker also has the power to issue a temporary or absolute prohibition on an individual acting as a parliamentary agent, in cases where he or she has failed to act in accordance with parliamentary rules and practice.

Tabling of documents: Statutory provisions, as well as rules of the House, require the Speaker to receive and table certain reports and documents in the House. When the Speaker tables a document, he or she may do so during the sitting; alternatively, the document may be deposited with the Clerk of the House. In either case, the tabling is noted in the Journals and the item tabled is deemed permanently referred to the appropriate standing committee. The specific documents tabled by the Speaker are as follows:

  • As Chair of the Board of Internal Economy (the body responsible for all financial and administrative matters affecting the House of Commons) the Speaker is responsible for tabling reports of the Board’s proceedings. The reports consist of minutes of the Board’s meetings, which are tabled as they are approved by the Board. The Speaker is also responsible for tabling the annual reports of the Board’s decisions respecting the budgets of parliamentary committees. In addition, the Parliament of Canada Act requires the Speaker to table any by‑laws made by the Board within 30 days of their making; typically, these are deposited with the Clerk.
  • The Speaker is required after consultation with the House Leaders to table annually, before September 30, a calendar of sitting and non‑sitting weeks for the following year.
  • Statutory requirements exist whereby designated officers of Parliament and the Canadian Human Rights Commission transmit their annual reports and any special or investigatory reports to the Speaker, who then tables them in the House.
  • In the decennial process to readjust electoral boundaries, reports of the provincial and territorial electoral boundaries commissions are transmitted by the Chief Electoral Officer to the Speaker, who tables them when the House is sitting.
  • When election results are contested or appealed under the Canada Elections Act, reports of court decisions are made to the Speaker, who then informs the House.

Emergency debates: When a Member has made a request to move the adjournment of the House in order to debate a matter requiring urgent consideration (an emergency debate), the Speaker is responsible for deciding whether or not the request will be granted. When the Speaker has granted an application for an emergency debate, the rules provide for it to take place the same day, but the Speaker may also exercise a discretionary power to defer the debate to a specific time on the next sitting day. An emergency debate ends at the times specified in the Standing Orders, but again, the Speaker has discretion to declare the motion carried and to adjourn the House to the next sitting day if, in his or her opinion, debate has concluded before those times. Once it is underway, an emergency debate takes precedence over all other business; in the event of conflict or incompatibility with regard to other rules or other business of the House, the Speaker has complete discretion in reconciling the difficulty.

Recall of the House: When the House stands adjourned during a session, the Speaker has the power to recall the House to meet prior to the date on which it is scheduled to reconvene. The request to recall the House is always initiated by a Minister (usually the Government House Leader), and the Speaker has no authority to consider such a request from any other Member. In these circumstances (or while Parliament stands prorogued, or prior to the first session of a new Parliament), upon receipt of a written request from the government, the Speaker will cause to be published a Special Order Paper which informs the House of any measure the government wishes the House to consider immediately. A notice for recall of the House is not usually withdrawn; but on one occasion, after receiving a request from all the recognized parties in the House, the Speaker issued a formal statement cancelling an earlier notice for recall.

Parliamentary publications: The official publications of the House of Commons are published under the authority of the Speaker. These include, among others, the Journals, the Debates, the Order Paper and Notice Paper, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, bills and the minutes and reports of House of Commons committees.

Chairs of legislative committees: The Speaker also has responsibilities with regard to Chairs of legislative committees. It is the Speaker’s duty at the start of each session, and thereafter as necessary, to select Members to form a Panel of Chairs. The Speaker exercises a certain amount of discretion in the choice of Members; the rules specify only that a proportionate number of Members be appointed from the government and opposition parties and that the other Presiding Officers of the House be on the Panel ex officio. Whenever the House decides to proceed with the appointment of a legislative committee, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to select from the Panel of Chairs a Member to chair that committee.

Take-note debates: The Speaker may, further to the adoption of a motion proposed by a Minister of the Crown, preside over a take-note debate conducted in a Committee of the Whole.

The function of the Speaker is the most important in the House of Commons and all of parliament. The paramount role of the Speaker in each parliament and each session is captured well in the words spoken by the Speaker to each monarch since the early days of parliament:

May it please Your Excellency,

The House of Commons has elected me their Speaker, though I am but little able to fulfil the important duties thus assigned to me. If, in the performance of those duties, I should at any time fall into error, I pray that the fault may be imputed to me, and not to the Commons, whose servant I am, and who, through me, the better to enable them to discharge their duty to their Queen and Country, humbly claim all their undoubted rights and privileges, especially that they may have freedom of speech in their debates, access to Your Excellency’s person at all seasonable times, and that their proceedings may receive from Your Excellency the most favourable construction.

Photo credit: House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer who was speak from 2011 – 2015. Canadian Press via Huffington Post.

Oath of Allegiance: An Historical Perspective

The Oath of Allegiance in Canada has a colourful history. Tracing its origins from the United Kingdom, the young British colonies that would eventually become Canada inherited deep European religious and social tensions that were reflected within the statutory oath of the particular time. In this post we will briefly explore the British roots of the oath of alligiance in Canada and we will trace the historical development of the modern oath.

A Snapshot of the Times: The Victorian Era British Oath

The first British North American colony to gain an elected assembly in what would become Canada was Nova Scotia. This historical body met for the first time in 1758 and, as a result of the fact that a Canadian law had not yet diverged from British statutory and common law, members swore the same oathes of office as MPs of the British parliament in London, England. At that time there were three oaths required of members who had gained elected office; “the oath of allegiance to the King, the oath of supremacy denouncing Catholicism and papal authority, and the oath of abjuration, repudiating all rights of James II and his descendants to the English Throne” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009). Naturally, these oaths prevented Catholics and Jews from seeking elected office in the legislative assemblies of the British colonies. The cause of existence of each oath lay in a paranoid monarchy attempting to galvanize the Church of England against Papal authority. To some extent, these fears came with European settlers into the New World (even dipping toward modern times, for example the Kennedy campaign had to address his Catholic faith) but it is safe to conclude that the importance of personal religious faith was low to most British North American settlers. However, the English statutory requirement for the oaths remained and hence their introduction in immature legislative assemblies of British North America.

Prior to the establishment of elected legislative assemblies in North America, London passed the Popish Recusants Act of 1605 which established a new oath of allegiance establishing the spiritual authority of the English Crown. It read:

I, A.B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge, that our sovereign lord, King James, is lawful and rightful King and that the pope neither of himself nor by any authority of Church or See of Rome, or by any other means with any other, has any power to depose the king etc, or to authorize any foreign prince to invade him, or to give licence to any to bear arms, raise tumults, etc. Also I do swear that notwithstanding any sentence of excommunication or deprivation I will bear allegiance and true faith to his Majesty. And I do further swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position,–that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever. And I do believe that the pope has no power to absolve me from this oath. I do swear according to the plain and common sense, and understanding of the same words. (King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom, 2000)

In addition to the oath of allegiance, elected members were required to swear the oath of supremacy (preventing Catholics from seeking office):

I, A. B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience that the Queen’s Highness is the only supreme governor of this realm, and of all other her Highness’s dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes, as temporal, and that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm; and therefore I do utterly renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities and authorities, and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true allegiance to the Queen’s Highness, her heirs and lawful successors, and to my power shall assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences, privileges and authorities granted or belonging to the Queen’s Highness, her heirs or successors, or united or annexed to the imperial crown of this realm. So help me God, and by the contents of this Book [the Bible]. (Life in Elizabethan England)

A third, and final, oath was required, the oath of abjuration (preventing Jews from seeking office):

I ..; Do abjure and renounce the Pope’s Supremacy and Authority over the Catholic Church in General, and over my self in Particular; And I do believe that there is not any Transubstantiation in the Sacrament of the Lords Supper, or in the Elements of Bread and Wine after Consecration thereof, by any Person whatsoever; And I do also believe, that there is not any Purgatory, Or that the consecrated Host, Crucifixes, or Images, ought to be worshipped, or that any worship is due unto any of them; And I also believe that Salvation cannot be Merited by Works, and all Doctrines in affirmation of the said Points; I do abjure and renounce, without any Equivocation, Mental Reservation, or secret Evasion whatsoever, taking the words by me spoken, according to the common and usual meaning of them. So help me God. (British History Online)

The Canadian Model: Nova Scotia and the Oaths of Office

When the first legislative assembly met, it had conducted business in similar fashion to that of the Mother Parliament, and thus the three oaths of office were a requirement in order for elected members to take their seats. The result was that Catholics and Jews who were unwilling to take the public oath (and most were) did not take their elected seats or otherwise did not bother with standing for election. At any rate, until 1789 Catholics and Jews were not permitted to vote in the British colonies and “Catholics were not permitted to sit in the Assembly without first taking the declaration against transubstantiation; Jews were also barred from sitting in the Assembly because of the oath of abjuration” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009). All of the British colonies at one point had a policy which prevented Catholics and Jews from seeking officer and/or voting in the legislative assembly as a result of the oaths of office.

It was not until the capture of Quebec City that the British Crown began to review the requirement for the oaths of office and offered a concession to the Catholic majority in the former French colony. In 1774, “the Quebec Act provided, among other matters, that Roman Catholics no longer had to take the oath of supremacy, substituting an oath of allegiance, should they wish to assume public office. The oath of abjuration still prevented Jews from assuming public office” (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009).

In 1832, Lower Canada passed a law which gave Jews the same rights and privileges as other citizens, the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do so. When the United Province of Canada was established, the provisions of the Constitutional Act, 1791 regarding the oath of allegiance were carried over into the Union Act, 1840. At Confederation, the requirement for members of the Senate, House of Commons and provincial legislative assemblies to swear an oath of allegiance was included in the Constitution Act, 1867. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, 2009)

The Modern Era: Canadian House of Commons

Regardless of the colourful past of the oaths of office in Canada which were inherited from our European parents, the Canadian House of Commons never had a discriminatory oath for Catholics or Jews. By 1867, and the passage of the British North America Act which established the Dominion of Canada among Upper Canada, Lower Canada and a handful of maritime colonies, the English parliament had departed from the practice of barring Catholics from office in North America. The legislative assemblies in turn broke down restrictions placed on people of the Jewish faith. A year after Confederation, the British parliament passed Promissory Oaths Act, 1868 which established a simple oath, void of references to religious faith. The oath read as follows:

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will well and truly serve Her Majesty Queen Victoria in the office of (Insert office of). So help me God. (Promissory Oaths Act, 1868)

Conclusion: Why Have an Oath?

It would seem odd that we even have an oath of office given the struggle for human rights when looking in the past. But the reason for the oath is simple and it is contained within a clause of the Magna Carta:

Once the terms had been finalised on 19 June, the rebels again swore allegiance to King John. The later Bill of Rights (1689) included the Oath of Allegiance to the crown, which was required by Magna Carta to be taken by all crown servants and members of the judiciary. (British Library)