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Bulletin

Primer on the Opening of Parliament

Fasken
Reading Time 10 minute read
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Overview

Political Law Bulletin

On Monday, November 22, Canada’s House of Commons will meet for the first time since the federal general election. Designed for businesses, organizations, and individuals with a stake in the functioning of our federal democratic institutions, this primer outlines the steps leading up to, and following, the resumption of parliamentary activity.

Background

The last sitting of the House of Commons was June 23. The Senate, which often sits later than the House of Commons to consider bills passed by the House, last met on June 29. Both chambers then adjourned until anticipated return dates during the third week of September.

On Sunday, August 15, Parliament was dissolved, and a general election – when Canadians would determine who represents them in the House of Commons – was fixed for September 20. When the results of the country’s 44th general election were tabulated, the Liberal Party of Canada, led by the Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, had won 160 seats. 

As our companion publication, Forming Government in Canada, explains, regardless of election results, a Prime Minister remains in office until resignation, death, or dismissal. Prime Minister Trudeau continues to serve, and will meet the new Parliament continuing to lead a minority government.

The Cabinet

Because Canadian Prime Ministers and Premiers have no fixed terms of office, they do not need to be sworn in again following successful general election campaigns. Sometimes a first minister may choose to re-take the Oath of Office, but this is purely for optical effect.

Executive authority is vested in the Crown and administered by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In order to carry out the business of government, the Prime Minister selects a number of individuals to run the federal departments, each of which is typically (but is not required to be) an elected Member of Parliament belonging to the governing party. Once sworn in to lead government departments and discharge other responsibilities, these Ministers collectively comprise the “Cabinet.” Cabinet develops policies, administers the bureaucracy, and effectively (in the name of the Governor General) creates a form of subordinate legislation known as Regulations.

It is traditional for an incumbent Prime Minister to shuffle the Cabinet following a general election. Prime Minister Trudeau did so October 26.

Not all Ministers are equal. Prior to 2015, it was common for junior Ministers, known at different points in history as Ministers of State or Secretaries of State, to be appointed to assist other Ministers and, in recognition of their subordinate roles, to be paid slightly less. Following the 2015 general election, the practice of appointing Ministers of State to assist more senior Ministers was privately continued, but publicly the term “Minister of State” was abandoned, and all Ministers were paid the same amount.[1] All five of the November 2015 junior ministers (i.e., Ministers of State) were women, three of whom were appointed to assist men in senior positions.[2]

The first Trudeau Cabinet, appointed in November 2015, consisted of 30 Ministers, in addition to the Prime Minister. By the time Parliament was dissolved in August 2021, the Cabinet had grown to 34 members plus the Prime Minister. As of October 26, Cabinet now consists of the Prime Minister and 38 additional members. Of these, six women and two men are technically Ministers of State[3] appointed to assist more senior Ministers (almost all of whom are men).[4] The federal Cabinet is gender-balanced only if one ignores the fact that Orders in Council assign a half dozen women Ministers of State to be helpers of men in the Cabinet.

Mandate Letters

It is now customary (though not a legal requirement) for the Prime Minister to give each Minister a “mandate letter” that sets out what is expected of the Minister, including policy objectives that should be met. Prime Minister Trudeau has followed the transparent practice of publishing the mandate letters that he issues. The mandate letters of his predecessor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were kept confidential. Mandate letters issued following the October 26 Cabinet shuffle are not yet public.

Swearing-in of the MPs

While Prime Ministers do not serve a fixed term, and therefore an incumbent first minister does not need to be re-sworn, all Members of the House of Commons must take an oath after each election.

As the election results are finalized, the Chief Electoral Officer provides notice to the Canada Gazette and ultimately sends a certified list of elected MPs to the Clerk of the House of Commons.

Before taking their seats in the House, the elected Members must swear or affirm the oath of allegiance to the Crown, the text of which is set out in the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution Act, 1867. Members all sign a book called the Test Roll, on which the same oath appears. The oath and signing may occur before the Clerk receives the certified list, and usually occur prior to the opening day of Parliament. As previously explained, the oath is taken every single time than an MP is elected or re-elected.

First Day of Parliament

The Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, decides the date on which Parliament will be summoned to first meet. In this case, Parliament has been summoned to meet on November 22. Before MPs and Senators can attend to other business, the House of Commons must first elect a Speaker, and then MPs and Senators will hear the ceremonial reading of the reasons for which Parliament has been summoned (Speech from the Throne).

Election of a Speaker of the House

Following long-standing tradition, the first day of a new Parliament begins with parliamentarians going through the motions of preparing to hear the Throne Speech. They go through the ceremonial motions, only for MPs to be told (pursuant to centuries-old custom) that they must first elect a Speaker before the Speech will be read.

The Usher of the Black Rod, on behalf of the Senate, attends at the House Chamber, is eventually admitted, and conveys an invitation to MPs to attend immediately in the Senate. When MPs, led by the Clerk of the House of Commons, arrive at the Senate Chamber, they find a Deputy of the Governor General present. The Deputy does not speak; the Speaker of the Senate addresses MPs on the Deputy’s behalf. The Speaker of the Senate informs MPs that the Governor General does not see fit to declare the causes of summoning the present Parliament until the Speaker of the House of Commons has been chosen according to law.

MPs return to the House of Commons where they elect a Speaker by secret ballot. The longest-serving backbench MP presides over the election.

Speech from the Throne

After the Speaker is elected, the Members return to Senate where the Governor General reads the Throne Speech. Usually this occurs the day following the Speaker’s election, but in 2019 it occurred later the same day. 

MPs are led to the Senate by the Usher of the Black Rod, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Speaker, and the Clerk. At the Bar of the Senate, the elected Speaker of the House stands on a small platform, removes the Speaker’s hat, and recites a short speech claiming the rights and privileges of the House. The Speaker of the Senate, on behalf of the Governor General, recites the reply. Following the exchange of these ritual statements, the Governor General formally opens the first session of the Parliament by reading the Speech from the Throne.

A Throne Speech opens each session of Parliament, not just the first session following a general election. It is normally delivered in the Senate in the presence of members of both Houses. The speech is written by the Government and the Prime Minister ultimately determines its content. It typically outlines the Government’s view of the condition of the country and provides an indication of the legislation it intends to bring forward.

The most recent Speech from the Throne was delivered on September 23, 2020, at the start of the Second Session of the 43rd Parliament. This speech outlined the Government’s top priorities, which included protecting Canadians from COVID-19, helping them through the pandemic, outlining a resiliency agenda for the middle class, reconciliation, addressing systemic racism, and Canada’s place in the world.

Committees

As part of Parliament’s functions, Parliamentary committees are created separately by the House of Commons and the Senate[5] to review bills and existing legislation in detail, to monitor the activities of the machinery of government by conducting reviews of and inquiries into specific programs and policies, to review past and planned expenditures, and to review non-judicial appointments.

It takes several sitting days – sometimes stretching over months – for House of Commons committees to be constituted and then begin to function.  The first committee to be appointed is the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs; it functions as a striking committee that develops membership lists for all other committees.

The House might appoint the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs the same day as the Throne Speech (as occurred in 2015), or it wait several sitting days (as it did in 2019, when the committee was appointed on the fifth sitting day). It might then take several more sitting days (for example, in 2019, six sitting days that stretched over seven weeks) before the committee holds its first meeting and elects a chair and vice-chairs. According to the Standing Orders, within ten sitting days of its appointment the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is supposed to report back to the House with committee membership lists. (The party whips submit names of committees’ members to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to include in its report.) Typically the House concurs in the report the very same day. While the ten-sitting day deadline is satisfied, the entire process takes time. During the 1st Session of the 42nd Parliament, the Throne Speech was read December 4, 2015, and committees were stuck on January 29, 2016. During the 1st Session of the 43rd Parliament, the Throne Speech was read December 5, 2019, and committees were stuck on February 5, 2020.

The first meeting of each committee must occur within 10 sitting days of the adoption of the striking committee’s (Procedure and House Affairs Committee’s) report, and typically is devoted to the election of the chair and vice-chairs. In 2015 and 2019, many committees did not get down to business until mid- or late-February. (It is, however, possible for the House of appoint a committee without waiting for the striking committee’s report.)

Under the Standing Orders of the House, committee size is ten members, but during the 43rd Parliament, to achieve proportionality, the House set committee sizes at 11 (committees chaired by Opposition MPs) and 12 (committees chaired by Liberal MPs). Party representation on committees is roughly proportional to the party standings in the House. The chair and vice-chairs of a committee are elected by its members, though the Standing Orders provide that the chairs of committees are to be drawn from the governing party, except for a small number of committees that must be chaired by MPs from the Official Opposition.


[1] See the following Orders in Council: P.C. 2015-1225, assigning the Hon. Kirsty Duncan, Minister of State, to assist the Minister of Industry; P.C. 2015-1226, assigning the Hon. Bardish Chagger, Minister of State, to assist the Minister of Industry; P.C. 2015-1227, assigning the Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of State, to assist the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Employment and Social Development; P.C. 2015-1228, assigning the Hon. Patricia Hajdu, Minister of State, to assist the Minister of Canadian Heritage; P.C. 2015-1229, assigning the Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of State, to assist the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

[2] One Minister was both appointed to hold a full portfolio and assigned as a Minister of State to assist another Minister.

[3] See: P.C. 2021-0915, assigning the Hon. Marci Ien, Minister of State (Youth), to assist the Minister of Employment and Social Development and the Minister of Canadian Heritage; P.C. 2021-0916, assigning the Hon. Kamal Khera, Minister of State (Seniors), to assist the Minister of Employment and Social Development; P.C. 2021-0917, assigning the Hon. Helena Jaczek, Minister of State (Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario), to assist the Minister of Industry; P.C. 2021-0918, assigning the Hon. Gudrid Hutchings, Minister of State (Rural Economic Development), to assist the Minister of Industry; P.C. 2021-0919, assigning the Hon. William Blair, Minister of State (Emergency Preparedness), to assist the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness; P.C. 2021-0920, assigning the Hon. Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of State (Official Languages), to assist the Minister of Canadian Heritage; P.C. 2021-0921, assigning the Hon. Karina Gould, Minister of State (Service Canada), to assist the Minister of Employment and Social Development; P.C. 2021-0922, assigning the Hon. Randy Boissonnault, Minister of State (Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance), to assist the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Finance.

[4] The current Ministers of State have been assigned to assist the Hon. Seamus O’Regan, the Hon. Pablo Rodríguez, the Hon. François-Philippe Champagne, the Hon. Marco Mendicino, and the Hon. Chrystia Freeland.

[5] There are also a few joint committees of both Houses.

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