The 308 members of the House (called Members of Parliament, or MPs) are elected in single-member constituency ELECTIONS or by-elections. Under the CONSTITUTION ACT 1867, the Queen and the GOVERNOR GENERAL and the Queen's ministers and other public servants, not the House of Commons, govern Canada. The House, often incorrectly referred to as Parliament, is important constitutionally because no new statutes of any kind may be made except in response to bills that have been passed by it, and politically because, unlike the SENATE, it is an independent, elected body. Ministers are responsible to the House, not to the Senate.
Nonfinancial bills may be introduced in the Senate as well as in the House, but under the Constitution Act, 1867, both taxation bills and appropriation bills must have passed the House before going to the Senate. Although private members may introduce taxation bills, under the Act (s54), only the CROWN may initiate spending (supply) business; if the House could decide on its own to vote money for new purposes or to increase the amounts requested by the Crown, it would be well on the way to becoming the government.
The House has important functions deriving from the government's dependence on its co-operative support. Its constitutional function is to maintain a government for a reasonable time; to defeat one ministry after another in rapid succession would be anarchistic, a point which becomes highly relevant when no party wins a majority, as happened in six of the nine elections between 1957 and 1979, and again in the successive elections of 2004 and 2006. The political function of the House is to foster government acceptable to the people, and it has the power to insist ministers account for their conduct and their bills and policies in their present portfolios.
Some questions may be written down and placed on the Order Paper to receive a printed reply but during oral question period (45 minutes daily) ministers may be questioned directly (see PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURES). Usually, leading Opposition speakers and selected backbenchers on the Opposition side of the House ask the questions. Dissatisfied questioners may indicate they will raise a matter on adjournment later in the day.
"Responsible" means both accountable and reasonable, conscientious or justifiable. Responsibility in the first sense helps ensure that ministers act responsibly in the second sense. The House could bring down a government by refusing to vote it money, but if the system is working well this should rarely, if ever, happen. Elections were brought on by defeats in the House of minority governments in 1963, 1974, 1979 and 2005. In recent years the controversy over ministerial responsibility and growth of executive power (sometimes referred to as "Cabinet dictatorship" or, more tellingly, "concentration of power in the hands of the PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE") has generated considerable debate over the role and function of the House. The extent to which individual ministers should be held accountable for actions of civil servants in their departments is also a subject of much debate in the highly partisan atmosphere that pervades the House of Commons.
In Canada, Parliament is expected to serve as an auditor of executive government, examining their bills, policies and conduct. House COMMITTEES have become increasingly useful for these purposes. The basic difficulty yet to be resolved is how to improve the House's effectiveness as auditor and critic without abandoning the principle that the government is responsible for policy.
In a sense the House is part of a permanent election, so the role of the media in transmitting parliamentary debate and generating public opinion is of critical importance. The decision of the House to publish its debates in the form of a bilingual HANSARD and, more recently, to allow continuous television coverage of the House when in session (on publicly supported specialty channel CPAC) were prompted in part by dissatisfaction with the news media.
The House is divided into the ministers and their supporters and those opposed to the government. Since 1921 there always has been at least one third party on the field, and occasionally 2 or more third parties. To qualify as a "recognized" party in the House, a party must have 12 or more Members of Parliament. Such recognition entitles the party to committee assignments, research support and being called upon by the Speaker more frequently than would otherwise be the case to ask questions of the government in question time. Since 1974 the election ballots have shown the candidates' party allegiances, if any. Independents usually are not successful. Members do leave their parties in the House in protest to sit as Independents, but rarely.
The Opposition is allotted up to 25 days in 3 supply periods to determine the subject of debate. Supply periods occur when the government is seeking passage of appropriation bills (see BUDGETARY PROCESS). The Opposition may also move adjournment of the House to discuss an urgent, unexpected matter. The SPEAKER may hold over such motions until the evening. The debate on the SPEECH FROM THE THRONE and the debate on the budget are general debates.
At the beginning of each Parliament the privileges of the House of Commons are confirmed by the governor general. At Westminster it was found that if the House was to participate effectively in parliaments it had to have certain privileges, certain exemptions from the ordinary law that were and are the special rights, not of individual members, but of the House. For a long time one of the foremost privileges at Westminster was that its members could not be imprisoned for debt. The foremost privilege of the Canadian House is the right of its members to speak freely - without being liable to prosecution in the courts - in proceedings of the House and its committees. This does not mean members can say anything they please; the privilege appertains to the House, which has a responsibility to control its members, to protect ordinary citizens from vilification.
The House can forbid the publication of its debates and control the taking of pictures and the making of notes in the galleries. The content of parliamentary papers such as Hansard is privileged, but the decision of whether or not to broadcast proceedings has created difficulties. For example, does the freedom from legal penalties extend to broadcasters using the official tape? If so, might not the protection of ordinary citizens against libel be abridged?
MPs may be accused of contempt (which embraces breach of privilege and disrespect for the honour and dignity of the House) and of misleading the House not only in statements about their own conduct but possibly in ministerial answers to questions, eg, in 1982 the Speaker took under consideration a breach-of-privilege complaint against the minister of justice. A member of the public may be accused of contempt for publishing an attack on the Speaker, a charge against a member outside legal process, or a false or ridiculing account of proceedings in the House or in a committee. When a matter of privilege or contempt is raised in the House, the Speaker decides if there is a prima facie case; if so, the case is normally sent by the House to the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections for investigation. The committee has the great power to send for persons and papers and may take sworn evidence.
The House may admonish or censure offenders and is empowered to imprison them for the balance of the session. Genuine questions of privilege and contempt are serious but very rare; however, many of the members use points of privilege, which take precedence over most other business, to get the floor merely to voice complaints or to make corrections.
All speeches in the House are addressed formally to the Speaker, although direct exchanges often break out in the heat of debate. Private members are referred to by the name of their constituencies (eg, "the Honourable Member for Peace River") and ministers by office (eg, "the Honourable the Minister of Finance"). The terms "the Prime Minister" and "the Leader of the Opposition" are in order. The House does not permit members to use unparliamentary language because it fosters bitterness and reflects on the honour of the House. Some expressions ruled unparliamentary in recent years include "sick animal,""pompous ass,""has not got the guts,""lies,""nazi" and "stinker."
The Speaker is the chief officer of the House. His or her election is the prime order of business when the House reassembles after a general election. The Speaker, although usually a government MP, is responsible not to the government but to the House. The Speaker presides - deciding who is to have the floor, applying the rules of procedure, making rulings, putting the questions and managing the administration of the House and its permanent employees. There have been attempts to make the position permanent - as it is at Westminster. So far they have met with no success. The Deputy Speaker (House-elected) is usually proficient in the official language that is not the Speaker's first language. The Deputy Speaker occupies the Speaker's chair if he or she is absent and chairs the committee of the whole.
The Clerk, or Secretary of the House, who holds a deputy minister's rank, is not an MP but is appointed by the governor-in-council. He and one or more of the table officers are expert parliamentarians (procedure experts) and supply the Speaker with advice and information. The Clerk is also the Speaker's chief executive officer in staffing and servicing the House and is responsible to the Speaker for all the papers and the debates (Hansard), but is assisted in this work by expert branch officials.
When the first parliaments were held at Westminster, the king sent a royal sergeant-at-arms, bearing a royal mace, to attend upon the House of Commons, showing that the House was under the king's protection and was not to be threatened or molested. The sergeant-at-arms, who is appointed by the Crown, occupies a special chair in the centre aisle just inside the Bar; he leads the procession when the Speaker enters the chamber or proceeds to the Senate chamber for speeches from the throne, royal assents and prorogations. When the Speaker appears, representing the House, the mace (symbol of the authority of the House vested in the Speaker), borne by the sergeant-at-arms, is at his side.
The House of Commons normally meets in the Commons chamber at the west end of the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings. At Ottawa, unlike Westminster, every member has an assigned place in the chamber and must be in his place to speak and vote in the House (but not in committees of the whole House). There are five rows of desks down each of the long sides of the room; these two banks of desks face each other across a wide centre aisle. The Speaker's Chair is at the north end of the centre aisle. This arrangement, far different from that in Paris or Washington, supposedly originated in the days when the English House met in St Stephen's Chapel, and it well suits the adversarial nature of our responsible government system.
The main doors are at the south end of the centre aisle; on these the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod raps when he comes to summon the Commons to the Senate chamber. There is a telescoping brass rail known as the Bar at the foot of the centre aisle, just inside the main doors, which can be extended across the aisle. One of its original functions at Westminster was to keep strangers from mingling and perhaps voting with the members. Occasionally, strangers have been summoned to appear at the Bar of the House to be questioned or censured.
The ministers and parliamentary secretaries are the only members of the government in the House; they receive salaries from the Crown in addition to their indemnities as members from the House. The government and its backbench supporters sit on the Speaker's right, facing east. The leader of one of the Opposition parties - normally the largest - has the official role of leader of the Opposition, and in addition to his indemnity as a member receives a salary and various other benefits - including a residence, STORNOWAY. The Opposition leader generally assigns particular topics - finance, external affairs, transport, etc - to members of his or her team (the shadow Cabinet), but it cannot be presumed that the assignments would be the same if he or she became prime minister.
The prime minister occupies the 13th place in the front row on the west side; the leader of the Opposition sits directly opposite. The other ministers are grouped in a block of seats around the prime minister; the leader of the Opposition has key followers around him or her. Former ministers - styled "the Honourable" as members of the Privy Council, a title they retain for life - are given seats in the front rows, at either the north or south end. The leader of each party, through the PARTY WHIP, fixes the party seating plan - invariably by class (year of first election) and alphabetically within classes. After each election, survivors from the previous House move closer to the centre aisle. The chamber is just large enough to accommodate the 308 members. Third and minor parties as well as independents are placed down beyond the official Opposition.
Under the terms of standing orders of the House, the Commons convenes Monday through Friday at 10:30 am, except for Wednesdays when it meets at 2 pm following the regular caucus meetings of all parties. The House adjourns at 6:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 2:30 PM on Fridays. Normally a sitting takes no more than one day but may extend beyond midnight and usually does when there is an emergency debate. The sitting of 4 May 1982 continued until about 7:00 pm the following day on an Opposition adjournment motion relating to the cancellation of the Alsands Megaproject. In 1913, before there was a fixed time for adjournment, two sittings each extended throughout an entire week. A new record was set in 1982, during the "long-bell sitting," which began on March 2 and did not end until March 17. The issue was Opposition's concern with the Energy Security Bill proposed by the TRUDEAU government.
The Parliamentary Calendar specifies the time of the year that the House sits. Sessions of Parliament begin with a summons and end with prorogation. Both are formally issued by the governor general in response to the government's request. Minority parliaments recently have lasted only one or two sessions. Between 1867 and 1938 the annual sessions lasted only a few months; now they normally run a full year, with 3 long adjournments. The main purpose of prorogation is to wipe clean the Order Paper. All business unfinished at the end of a session - unanswered questions and all orders relating to bills and motions - die on the Order Paper. The House controls its own adjournments, but the CROWN (which in this instance is the cabinet) controls both the length of a session and the Parliament.
Author JOHN B. STEWART Rev: JOHN C. COURTNEY
David E. Smith, The People's House of Commons: Theories of Democracy in Contention (2007); C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada (1987); John C. Courtney, ed, The Canadian House of Commons: Essays in Honour of Norman Ward (1985); and John B. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform (1977).
Links to Other Sites
The official web site of Elections Canada. Just about everything you need to know about elections in Canada.
Parliament of Canada
The official source for current news and information about the Parliament of Canada. Also features online webcasts, Hansard, history notes and much more. Check out the useful "How Canadians Govern Themselves" paper from the Information and Documentation Branch.
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Senators and Members Parliament of Canada
An official information source about current senators and Members of Parliament in Ottawa. Includes brief biographies, notes about party affiliations and roles on committees, and other pertinent details regarding their work in Parliament. From the Parliament of Canada website.
First Women in Provincial and Territorial Legislatures
See biographies and related resources about distinguished women political pioneers in Canada. Produced in recognition of Women's History Month. From Library and Archives Canada.
Electoral Atlas of the Dominion of Canada (1895)
This website features an interactive map of the federal electoral boundaries in Canada as they existed in 1895. From Library and Archives Canada.
A profile of James Cockburn, first Speaker of the House of Commons. A Parliament of Canada website.
Speaker of the House of Commons
This collection of Speakers’ biographies since Confederation provides an insight into the duties and experiences of my predecessors. From the website for the Parliament of Canada.
Canadian Legal FAQs
See common questions and answers about criminal and civil law in Canada. From the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
The Hill Times
The website for the Canadian newsweekly "The Hill Times." Features news and opinion about Canadian federal politics.
CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel, provides a window on Parliament, politics, and public affairs in Canada.
The Canadian State: Documents & Dialogue
The Canadian State Web exhibition enables students to explore the various aspects of Canadian governance and to use a set of unique "real life" activities to create their own political party. The activities cover a wide variety of Social Science disciplines: History, Civics, Law, Language Arts, World Issues, Communications, and Canada in a North American Perspective. From Library and Archives Canada.
Glossary: Parliamentary Procedure
Glossary of terminology related to parliamentary procedure. From the Parliament of Canada.
$42M glass dome approved for Parliament
A CBC News story about a temporary glass dome that will serve as temporary quarters for the Commons.
The Speaker and Other Presiding Officers of the House
An overview of the role and responsibilities of the Speaker of the House of Commons. From the website for the Parliament of Canada.
Engineering Harmonics Inc.
A Canadian company that provides services related to the design of performance sound, video and communications systems for major architectural projects. Click through the website for interior views of private and public sector facilities they have worked on in Canada and the US.
Story of Hansard
See the surprising history of "Hansard," the edited verbatim report of proceedings in the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the UK Parlimaent. From the parliament.uk website.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...