The House of Commons: Introduction to Canada's Premier Legislative Body

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Oct 22, 2010

While Canada has two legislatures at the federal level, the House of Commons constitutes the centre of political power. To hold power, the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet must maintain the support of a majority of the elected members in the House. The House also holds the government accountable through public debate, questioning, and review of government legislation and action. This feature provides an introduction to the functions, composition, and operation of the House of Commons.

Functions of the House of Commons

Responsible government, representation, and the legislative process

Composition of the House of Commons

Rules and distribution of seats in the House

Operation of the House of Commons

Parliamentary cycle, legislative process, and daily program

Key House of Commons Officials

Partisan and non-partisan officials in the House

Sources and Links to More Information

List of article sources and links to more on this topic


Functions of the House of Commons

Responsible government, representation, and the legislative process

Bicameral Legislature System

At the federal level, Canada has a bicameral system of government, meaning that the legislative branch is made up of two bodies or chambers. Bicameralism is common to many systems of government in the world. The United States, for example, has the House of Representatives and the Senate. The United Kingdom, which the Canadian model of government is largely modelled after, has the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The two Canadian legislative bodies are referred to as the House of Commons and the Senate. Under the Canadian Constitution, legislation must be approved by both chambers for it to become law. Nevertheless, the House and Senate are far from similar. Whereas members of the House (formally referred to as Members of Parliament or MPs) are elected, members of the Senate (or Senators) are appointed. As this feature illustrates, as time has passed the House has come to play a much more dominant role in Canadian government.

Responsible Government

In Canadian politics and policy-making the dominance of the House stems, in large part, from its role in responsible government. It is important to note that the concept of responsible government has a particular meaning in Canadian parliamentary democracy. At first glance, one might think it means it is about government being responsible or accountable to the people over whom it governs. In Canada's parliamentary system, however, it means ― more precisely ― that government is responsible to the elected representatives of the people.

In practice, the government, or specifically the Prime Minister and Cabinet, is answerable to the elected members of the House. To stay in power, the government must maintain the confidence of the House — that is, a majority of the House's elected members must support the Prime Minister and Cabinet. If the government fails to maintain this support, the Prime Minister must resign and a new government must be formed.

In contemporary Canadian politics, the role of the House in maintaining responsible government has been become strongly influenced by political parties. Most MPs belong to a particular political party, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet are usually chosen from the ranks of the party with the greatest number of elected members in the House. In Canada, it is common for a single party to have a majority of members in the House. Accordingly, maintaining the “confidence” of the House is integral. So too, is party discipline, when a party's political leadership uses its influence to ensure that individual MPs support their government on issues and legislation.

Whereas the government must maintain the confidence of the House to stay in power, this is not the case in the Senate of Canada. By contrast, there are many cases in Canada's history where the Senate has been controlled by a party other than the one in power. In such cases the Senate often opposes legislation introduced by the government, seeking to amend its content or stall its passage. This kind of opposition does not, however, lead to the resignation of the Prime Minister and/or the formation of a new government.

Representative Function

As already stated, the House is an elected body, meaning that its members are chosen by citizens through democratic voting procedures. Election to the House of Commons is based on geographical areas referred to as electoral districts or ridings. The country is divided into more than 300 of these electoral districts; one MP represents each riding in the House.

As an elected body, the members of the House are supposed to represent the interests of the citizens of Canada to the government. On a practical level, they may fulfill this objective in a number of different ways. An MP can: vote on legislation in the House; advocate for his/her constituents' interests in parliamentary debate; introduce Private Member' Bills (more on these types of bills later in this feature); participate in committee reviews of legislation; or attempt to influence the policies of their respective parties.

This notion of representation can be conceived in different forms. MPs, for example, can be viewed as delegates of their constituents. Under this model, MPs merely serve as mechanisms for aggregating and advancing the views of their constituents to the government.

The reality of Canada's electoral and parliamentary systems, however, places great constraints on this type of representation. One reason for this is the highly pluralistic nature of Canadian society and the difficulty this causes MPs in simply serving as delegates of the citizens who elected them. The districts from which MPs are elected are often very socially, economically or ethnically diverse. As such, MPs are faced with very different and often conflicting demands from their constituents that are often difficult to advance on an equal basis.

This is made even more problematic by the way in which MPs are elected, namely the first-past-the post method. A candidate in an electoral district does not need to win a majority of the votes to be elected, but simply must win more votes than any of his/her opponents. As a result, MPs are often elected with only 30 or 40 percent support. Accordingly, even if an MP then acts as a delegate for his/her supporters, he/she cannot be regarded as representing the views of all voters in his/her electoral district.

Furthermore, MPs must deal with multiple issues and concerns within relatively short periods of time ― be it voting on the many pieces of legislation introduced by the government or reviewing legislation in committees. It is impossible for MPs to return to their constituents for instruction or to hold plebiscites on every issue. Instead, MPs must act independently, making decisions that impact the residents of their electoral districts based on personal views, their perceptions of what their constituents might want, or the wishes of their respective political parties.

An alternate view of Members of Parliament involves viewing them as performing a trustee form of representation. Under this model, MPs do not simply aggregate and advance the demands of their constituents, but are viewed as trustees or custodians of the interests of those they represent. As trustees, MPs operate with significant autonomy to deliberate and act on their own accord, and may even oppose the views of their constituents if they believe it is for the greater good or national interest.

Whether MPs should act as delegates or trustees, both views of representation are constrained by another reality of Canada's parliamentary tradition: party politics and discipline. Most MPs are members of a political party and, as such, are required to follow the wishes of their party when deliberating and acting in the House. In Canada party discipline is much more acute than in other western democracies. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, representatives enjoy considerably more freedom from their parties. Canadian MPs, however, are expected to follow the direction set by their parties' leadership and caucus — even when that direction is in opposition to their views or the demands of their constituents.

Legislative Function

In addition to holding the government responsible and representing citizens, the House also plays a critical legislative function. As stated at the outset, all legislation must be passed by a majority of MPs in the House to become law. Beyond this formal approval, however, MPs generally play a largely indirect role in the legislative process.

It is primarily the government that initiates legislation. The Prime Minister and Cabinet set priorities for the government and, relying largely on the public service, formulate legislation to meet those objectives. The government then presents this legislation to the House for approval, using party discipline to ensure its own party members vote in support of the government's legislation.

As such, the MPs' role in the legislative process is largely limited to refining government legislation through indirect means. By participating in parliamentary committees, for example, MPs can scrutinize and criticize government legislation and spending in hopes of affecting change. MPs can also attempt to sway government action publicly through debates and Question Period in the House, and ― beyond the confines of the House chamber ― through the media, to build public opinion against government proposals. It is important to note, however, that public criticism of the government, be it in the House or the media, is a tactic usually employed by opposition MPs. The government will often use party discipline to prevent its own MPs from publicly criticizing its initiatives; that said, in very rare situations ― particularly around contentious issues ― a government MP may decide to “go public” with his or her criticisms of the government. Otherwise, government MPs typically make use of more private means of indirectly influencing the government; methods could include privately communicating with cabinet ministers and their staff, or vocalizing concerns in closed-door meetings of the party's caucus.

There are a few cases when MPs can play a more direct role in formulating legislation. Under Canadian parliamentary procedure, MPs are permitted to introduce their own legislation. Referred to as Private Members' Bills, these pieces of legislation may be independently developed by an MP, or a group of MPs, and submitted to the House for debate and a subsequent vote. Usually, however, Private Members' Bills require the support of government to be successfully passed.

Another important consideration occurs in the case of minority governments ― when the governing political party does not have a numerical majority in the House. Under such circumstances, the government may seek the input of MPs when developing and introducing legislation to ensure it will have adequate support in the House. In such instances the government may seek the views and input of its own MPs, but also those of opposition parties and their members.


Composition of the House of Commons

Rules and distribution of seats in the House

Number and Distribution of Seats in the House

The House of Commons is composed of elected representatives, formally referred to as Members of Parliament (MPs). Each MP holds a seat in the House of Commons that corresponds to a geographical area referred to as an electoral district or riding. The term “seat” simply refers to the idea that a Member of Parliament is entitled to sit in the House chambers and represent the interests of his/her constituents.

The number and distribution of seats in the House is determined by independent electoral boundaries' commissions following each decennial census (a complete count of population that occurs every 10 years). Two key factors determine the composition of the House. The first is representation by population, grounded in the belief that the views of every citizen should be equally represented in the House. In practice, this means that seats in the House should represent, as best possible, the same number of eligible voters. It should not be that one seat represents 100,000 voters while another represents only 5,000.

The second key factor is provincial/territorial representation. This is rooted in Canada's basic organization as a federation and the belief that the provinces and territories should have fair representation in federal or national institutions. In practice, this means each province and territory is entitled to a certain number of seats in the House that is roughly in proportion to its share of the national population.

The composition of the House changed dramatically since Confederation in 1867. Initially, representation was based on Quebec having the same number of seats it had in the Legislature of the Province of Canada (prior to Confederation), with the other provinces being granted representation in proportion to their relative population sizes. In Canada's first Parliament, there were 181 seats in the House: 82 for Ontario, 65 for Quebec, 19 for Nova Scotia, and 15 for New Brunswick. It bears noting that at that time, many of the provinces and territories that comprise modern-day Canada did not exist.

Over time, however, a complex formula for allocating seats in the House has been developed, with the latest version being implemented as part of the 1985 Representation Act. The basic steps of this formula are as follows (Parliament of Canada, 2000):

  • One seat each is allocated to each of the territories: the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon.
  • The total population of the 10 provinces is divided by 279 to obtain the electoral quotient.
  • The number of seats to be allocated to each province is calculated by dividing the total population of the province by the electoral quotient.
  • Adjustments are then made by applying the senatorial and grandfather clauses. The senatorial clause guarantees that no province has fewer MPs than it has Senators. The grandfather clause ensures that no province has fewer seats than it had in 1986 when this legislation came into force. 

As of July 2010, there were 308 seats in the House, with the following provincial/territorial representation:

Representation in House of Commons by Province, 2010

Province/Territory

Number of Members of Parliament

Ontario

106

Quebec

75

British Columbia

36

Alberta

28

Manitoba

14

Saskatchewan

14

Nova Scotia

11

New Brunswick

10

Newfoundland & Labrador

7

Prince Edward Island

4

Northwest Territories

1

Yukon

1

Nunavut

1

Total

308

(Source: Statistics Canada, 2009, http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/govt10a-eng.htm

Rules of Membership for the House

The qualifications to become a Member of Parliament are set out in various pieces of legislation: the Canada Elections Act, the Parliament of Canada Act, and the Constitution Act, 1982. Generally speaking, anyone qualified to vote in Canada is eligible to run for a seat in the House. An individual must be 18 years of age at the time of the election, be qualified as an elector, and have residency somewhere in Canada (though, not necessarily in the electoral riding in which s/he is seeking election).

Beyond this minimum threshold, there are several stipulations which disqualify an individual from holding office in the House (Parliament of Canada, 2005). Those who cannot run for office include:

  • Inmates of penal institutions serving sentences of two or more years.
  • A person found guilty of any corrupt or illegal electoral practice under the Canada Elections Act within the previous five years.
  • Certain officials who already hold office, such as sheriffs, clerks of the peace, county or judicial district crown attorneys, federally appointed judges, election officials, and senators.

Demographic Representation in the House

While eligibility to run for a seat in the House is open to almost all Canadians, generally speaking, members of certain demographic groups predominantly seek office and enjoy electoral success. This has been attributed to factors including socio-economic class and biases among voters towards candidates of certain gender, ethnic, racial or religious groups. This inequality has been criticized on the grounds that the House does not fully represent all groups or classes in society, but only the socially privileged classes to which most MPs belong.

For example, three of the top four all-time occupational backgrounds for MPs are lawyers, businesspersons, and merchants. Individuals in these occupations tend to enjoy financial and educational advantages that make it easier for them to run for office.

Top 10 Occupational Backgrounds of MPs, All-Time

Occupation

Occurrences

Lawyer

1009

Farmer

596

Businessperson

462

Merchant

461

Teacher

325

Physician

211

Manager

209

Professor

166

Journalist

151

Consultant

140

(Source: Parliament of Canada, 2009)

This inequality is further evident in terms of gender. While the ranks of female MPs have grown considerably in the latter part of the 20th century, men still dominate the office. That said, the 2008 federal election set records ― both in terms of the number of women elected to the House and the total percentage of women elected. Nevertheless, out of 308 seats in the House, this figure only tallied to 69 women, representing approximately 22 percent of all MPs (Heard, 2010).

Visible minorities also continue to have limited presence in the House of Commons. In the 2004 federal election, visible minorities comprised 7 percent of all elected MPs, 22 of 308 (Elections Canada, 2006). By contrast, visible minorities accounted for an estimated 15 percent of the Canadian population. This under-representation also filtered down to the candidate level, where visible minorities comprised only 9 percent of all candidates who ran in the 2004 election (Elections Canada, 2006).

One of the most dramatic instances of under-representation involves Aboriginal Canadians. Aboriginal people represent an important demographic, historical and political group in Canadian society. Since Confederation, however, only 28 Aboriginal MPs have been elected, primarily after 1970 (Parliament of Canada, 2010).


Operation of the House of Commons

Parliamentary cycle, legislative process, and daily program

The Parliamentary Cycle

The life of a Parliament is regulated by constitutional provisions and Standing Orders. The most important of these are the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, which set out several principles regarding the operation of the House.

Three periods are germane to the parliamentary cycle. First, a Parliament is a period of time during which the institution of Parliament (which includes the Sovereign or Monarch, the Senate, and the House of Commons) exercises its powers. The Canadian Constitution limits the lifespan of a Parliament to five years, after which Parliament must be formally ended by the Governor General (referred to as “dissolution”) and an election called. As of July 2010, there have been 40 Parliaments since Confederation.

It is important to note that a Parliament can end prior to this five-year limit. The Prime Minister has the discretion to request that the Governor General dissolve Parliament and call an election as he/she deems necessary. It may also be that a government is defeated on a vote of non-confidence in the House, which usually results in an immediate election. Since Confederation, approximately one-third of Canada's Parliaments have lasted between four and five years (Parliament of Canada, 2009), another third have lasted between three and four years, and the remaining Parliaments have lasted fewer than three years (with four lasting less than one year).

A session represents a period of time within a Parliament. There is no set length for a session, although there are usually a number of separate sessions in each Parliament. All sessions begin when Parliament is first summoned by the Governor General (usually coinciding with a Speech from the Throne); a session ends with the calling of a recess, a prorogation or the dissolution of Parliament. The following table provides a timeline of the 37th Parliament, including the number and duration of its sessions:\

Timeline of the 37th Parliament:
Liberal Party of Canada/Jean Chrétien; Paul Martin*

General Election

November 27, 2000

First Session

January 29, 2001 – September 16, 2002

Second Session

September 30, 2002 – November 12, 2003

Third Session

February 02, 2004 – May 23, 2004

General Election

June 28, 2004

*During the course of the 37th Parliament, Jean Chretien retired as prime minister and was replaced by Paul Martin.

Finally, a sitting is a meeting of the House within a given session. A sitting does not necessary consist of a single day. In some cases, a sitting can be very brief (a few hours), while in others it can extend into several days. An adjournment refers to the period between the end of one sitting and the beginning of the next. Adjournments can be a few hours, overnight, over the weekend, a week or longer. The Canadian Constitution requires that Parliament sit at least once every 12 months.

Legislative Process in the House

In understanding the legislative process in the House, it is first useful to discuss, generally, how a bill becomes law in Canada's parliamentary system. Most legislation originates with the government. Policy proposals are considered in Cabinet committees; recommendations are then made to Cabinet. If the proposal is approved by Cabinet, the responsible minister begins the process of drafting the actual legislation. Once Cabinet has approved the draft legislation (commonly referred to as a “bill”), it is ready to be introduced to Parliament. A bill may be introduced either in the House or Senate, though the government typically does so in the House.

Once a bill has been introduced in the House, it undergoes several stages of review and debate (see below), culminating in a final vote by all those Members of Parliament who are in the House of Commons chamber at the time of the vote. If a majority of MPs vote in support of the bill, it then goes to the Senate for review and approval. For a bill to become law it must be approved by both legislative chambers. Once this approval has been secured from both the House and the Senate the bill is presented to the Monarch's representative (the Governor General of Canada) for final approval and proclamation. In Canada's modern parliamentary system, this last step is merely a formality and referred to as Royal Assent.

Diagram: How a Government Bill Becomes Law

Step One: Step Two: Step Three:  Step Four:
Cabinet drafting and approval Review and approval by House and Senate Royal Assent by Governor General Law comes into force

Passage of a bill in the House is not a simple process. When a bill is first introduced in the House it goes through a process of readings. At First Reading, the bill is considered to be read in the House for the first time, so it is part of the official record, and is also printed in its draft form. At Second Reading, MPs are given an opportunity to debate and vote upon the basic principle or idea behind the bill. If a bill passes the vote at Second Reading, then it enters into what is known as the committee stage. The House has numerous permanent Parliamentary committees comprised of MPs for the purpose of reviewing legislation, government actions and policies. Committee members study the content of a bill carefully. In so doing, a committee may call government officials and experts to provide further information about the draft legislation. At the end of its study, the committee may propose changes to the bill.

Diagram: The Legislative Process in the House

Step One: Step Two: Step Three:  Step Four: Step Five
First Reading Second Reading Committee Stage Reporting Stage Third Reading

In the reporting stage, the committee forwards its findings and recommendations back to the House. MPs are then given another opportunity to debate. At this stage, MPs do not just contend the basic principle behind the bill, but specific details. MPs are also given an opportunity to put forth further amendments to the bill.

Finally, the bill proceeds to Third Reading. At this stage, MPs again debate the bill, this time taking into consideration all the amendments that have/have not been made through the committee and reporting stages. At the end of the debate, the House then votes on the bill one final time. If a majority of MPs vote in favour of the bill it receives passage in the House and is forwarded to the Senate, where a similar process is repeated.

Daily Program of the House

When the House of Commons is in session, a working day begins with a formal opening ceremony. The bells ring to call all MPs to the House, though all MPs are not mandated to be present in the chamber. The Sergeant-at-Arms marches into the House chamber carrying the Mace, followed by the Speaker of the House (see below for more on the Speaker). The Speaker takes his/her place at the raised chair at the far end of the chamber, after which he/she leads the House in a prayer. The House is then called to order, beginning the day. Following this formal opening the day is divided into different parts so MPs can discuss the day's business.

A typical day includes:

  • Statements by Members: Fifteen minutes are set aside each day so any MP who is not a cabinet minister can make a statement in the House. This statement may be on an issue the MP deems to be of national, regional or local importance. Statements are limited to a maximum of one minute in length.
  • Oral Questions: MPs are given 45 minutes to ask questions of the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers. Commonly referred to as Question Period or QP, this time tends to be dominated by opposition MPs who use their questions to attack government legislation, policies, actions or perceived inaction. In theory, QP is supposed to function as a mechanism of accountability, when the government must publicly defend itself (Question Period is televised nationally).
  • Government Orders: These include any business put forth by the government for the House's attention, such as government bills and motions.
  • Private Members' Business: The term “private members” refers to Members of Parliament who are not cabinet ministers. This includes MPs that belong to both government and opposition parties. For one hour each day these MPs are granted the opportunity to introduce bills and motions to the House, which are then debated and voted upon.

Key Officials of the House of Commons

Partisan and non-partisan officials in the House

Speaker and Other House Officers

The House of Commons has a number of officers who are responsible for overseeing its administration and day-to-day operations.

A key officer is the Speaker of the House. The Speaker presides over the House of Commons during its sittings, overseeing debate and ensuring that all members respect its rules and traditions. The Speaker is also responsible for the administration of the House and its staff and represents the House in dealings with the Senate and the Monarchy. It is important to note that the Speaker is an elected member of the House him/herself. After each election, all MPs cast a vote, by secret ballot, electing the speaker (from among themselves) by secret ballot. Even though the Speaker is an elected MP affiliated with a political party, he/she is expected both to be impartial and to apply the rules to all members equally at all times.

For more on the Speaker of the House:

The Clerk of the House is the chief executive of the House administration, reporting to the Speaker. In this role, the Clerk is responsible for a broad range of duties, including advising the Speaker and all MPs on the interpretation of Parliamentary rules, precedents and practices, maintaining records of House proceedings, and administering the oath of allegiance to all elected MPs. In addition, the Clerk acts as secretary to the House's Board of Internal Economy, which has responsibility over all financial and administrative matters respecting the House of Commons. The Clerk is appointed by the Governor General of Canada.

For more information on the Clerk of the House:

The Sergeant-at-Arms is responsible for the security and maintenance of the Parliament buildings, reporting to the Speaker of the House. In addition, the Sergeant-at-Arms performs important ceremonial duties in the House. When the first parliaments were held in Great Britain, the monarchy sent a royal sergeant-at-arms, bearing a royal mace, to attend upon the House of Commons. The presence of the Sergeant-at-Arms was to show that the House and its members were under the protection of the Crown. This tradition was continued in Canada, with its own parliamentary system. The Sergeant-at-Arms, with the royal mace, leads the procession into the House each day and sits in the chamber across from the Speaker.

Partisan Officials in the House

In addition to the House of Commons staff, several partisan officials perform important functions relating to the operation of political parties in the House. Of these, the most well-known is the Party Leader. Each political party will have selected an individual to lead the party, both inside and outside Parliament. The Party Leader is responsible for overseeing the policies, strategies and day-to-day administration of his/her respective party. In addition, party leaders preside over their parliamentary caucuses — the members of the House which belong to their party. In this context, the Party Leader may direct caucus members to vote a particular way in the House, or to raise an issue in House debates and questions.

It is important to note that party leaders can also play more significant roles in Parliamentary government. It is general practice for the leader of the largest party in the House to become Prime Minister and head of government. The leader of the second- largest party typically becomes the Leader of the Official Opposition, who has the responsibility of taking the lead in criticizing government legislation and actions.

In overseeing their parliamentary caucuses, party leaders are supported by a number of partisan staff. Each recognized political party appoints one member to be its House Leader (not to be confused with the Party Leader). The House Leader represents the party in its dealings with other parties regarding House business. House leaders will meet regularly to discuss the House's agenda and the length of debate on bills introduced in the House.

Each recognized party also has a Party Whip who assists the Party Leader in presiding over the Parliamentary caucus. The Whip will ensure that enough party members are in the House for debates and votes. The Whip will also determine which committees a party member will sit on, assign offices and seats in the House, and discipline members who break party ranks.


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