Parliament is, strictly, according to the Constitution Act, 1982, the Queen, the House of Commons and the Senate. The Crown is represented in Canada by the Governor General. When Parliament is referred to in some formal usages, all 3 institutions are included. In common usage, however, the House of Commons alone is often equated with Parliament; this derives from a time when absolute monarchs summoned their legislature to legitimate their taxing and other measures up to a time when constitutional monarchs, with royal prerogatives "tamed" by a legislature, primarily acted only on the advice of ministers who were entitled to proffer advice only so long as they could maintain the support of the "commoners."

The bicameral nature of the Canadian Parliament was deemed a necessary inducement to bring provinces of varying size and power and with widely different regional concerns into the broader union that comprised Confederation. However necessary to the original union, the Senate, as a nonelective body, has been constantly subjected to cries for its abolition or reform, although as a committee of "sober second thought" or as a true institutional reflection of a federal Canada, it has many attractions.

The House of Commons has become the more important chamber, not least because the government of the day stands or falls on its support. The practical consequence of invoking the supremacy of Parliament is the legislature's capacity to act as the great debating, if not educational, forum for the nation. This capacity, joined with the historic right to have grievances settled by the Crown before approving money in support of the Crown's activities ("control of the purse"), vests in the legislature not only the formal responsibility for approving statutes but also a continuing critical overseeing of executive actions. To this end, according to constitutional requirement, Parliament (as well as each provincial legislature) shall meet at least once a year and no more than 5 years should elapse between elections for a new legislature - only a war, invasion or insurrection can interfere with this guarantee.

A normal parliamentary session (following rule changes in 1983) is now divided into semesters with provision for vacation adjournments. The proroguing of Parliament brings an end to a particular session and when reconvened the new session begins with a Speech from the Throne announcing the government's legislative program for the session. Dissolution, which marks the end of a Parliament, can occur any time within the 5-year period and is invoked by the governor general on the advice of the Prime Minister. Dissolution involves an election and the formation of a new Parliament.

Protections also exist to ensure that Parliament shall not only be unconstrained in what it can debate but that the individual legislators shall enjoy complete freedom of speech. The rules of Parliament (self-prescribed) guarantee the rights of opposition parties to criticize without fear of retribution by the governing party.

Much of the day-to-day work of both Senate and House of Commons takes place in standing or special committees. While the formal proceedings of Parliament receive full media attention, the valuable work in committees tends to go unreported, thereby fostering the public's perception of a parliament in decline. That perception is reinforced by the political party basis for organizing and conducting the business of the legislature. Elections are fought and successful candidates find their seats in the legislature on a party basis, and it is through parties that the House and its committees conduct business.

The capacity of Cabinet to exert leverage on party supporters guarantees that the government's business will be piloted through the reefs of opposition. Indeed, it is the Cabinet's power, through its control of the party, that is criticized for undermining the traditional capacity of Parliament to hold government responsible through the threat of a non-confidence vote. Party discipline enables the Cabinet to counter with the threat of dissolution to force members to toe the line or place their seats at risk in an ensuing election. This shift in the balance of power puts in doubt Parliament's capacity to fulfil its traditional task of holding the executive to account. While parliamentary prerogatives are considerable, as an institution it is usually perceived as functionally inferior to the Cabinet and senior public service.

Parliamentary Representation

Province/Territory House of Commons Senate Provincial Legislature
28 6 87
British Columbia
36 6 85
14 6 57
New Brunswick
10 10 55
Newfoundland and Labrador 7 6 48
Northwest Territories 1 1 19
Nova Scotia
11 10 51
1 1 22
106 24 107
Prince Edward Island 4 4 27
75 24 125
14 6 58
1 1 19