Opening of a Parliament and a Session

Summoning Parliament

Section 38 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides for the summoning of Parliament: “The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen’s Name, by Instrument under the Great Seal of Canada, summon and call together the House of Commons”.

The “Instrument” consists of a series of proclamations issued by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister16 and published in the Canada Gazette. On the day that Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, a proclamation is issued summoning Parliament to meet on a given day.17 It is issued at the end of the preceding session, in keeping with the principle of the continuity of Parliament, whereby a session ends with provision made for its next meeting. A second proclamation confirms or changes the date and may set the time for Parliament to meet for the “Dispatch of Business” (the date can later be advanced or deferred). A third proclamation is issued if the time for Parliament to meet was not announced in the second proclamation.18

Proceedings on Opening Day of a Parliament

The opening of a Parliament is also the opening of the first session of that Parliament. Two procedures—the swearing-in of Members and the election of the Speaker—distinguish it from the opening of subsequent sessions.

Members Sworn In

Following a general election, the Chief Electoral Officer sends the Clerk of the House the certificates of election for Members of the House as they become available.19 The Constitution Act, 1867 requires that Members first subscribe to an oath of allegiance before taking their seats in the House.20 As an alternative to swearing the oath, Members may make a solemn affirmation.21

The oath or affirmation is administered by the Clerk of the House or another designated Commissioner.22 The newly sworn-in Member then signs the Test Roll, a book whose pages are headed by the text of the oath or affirmation. The general practice now is for Members to be sworn in prior to opening day, after the Clerk has received the certificates of election from the Chief Electoral Officer.23

Election of the Speaker

Section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides for the election of a Speaker as the first item of business when Members assemble following a general election. The Standing Orders provide for the manner in which the Speaker is elected.24 On the day appointed by proclamation for the meeting of a new Parliament, the Members are summoned by the division bells to assemble in the Chamber, where they receive the Usher of the Black Rod,25 who reads a message requesting the immediate attendance of the House in the Senate Chamber.

The Clerk of the House leads the Members in a procession to the Senate. There, a Deputy of the Governor General26 is seated at the foot of the Throne, and the Speaker of the Senate addresses the Members on the Deputy’s behalf, informing them that “… His (Her) Excellency the Governor General does not see fit to declare the causes of his (her) summoning the present Parliament of Canada, until a Speaker of the House of Commons shall have been chosen, according to law …”.27 This means that the Speech from the Throne will not be read until a Speaker has been elected. The Members then return to the House and proceed to elect a Speaker.

Presentation of the Speaker to the Governor General

Following the election of the Speaker,28 at the time fixed for the purpose of appearing for the formal opening of Parliament with a Speech from the Throne,29 the House again receives the Usher of the Black Rod, who conveys the message of the Governor General requesting the presence of the House in the Senate.30 The procession is led by the Usher of the Black Rod, followed by the Sergeant-at-Arms (bearing the Mace), the Speaker, the Clerk and the Members. At the Bar of the Senate, the newly elected Speaker stands on a small platform, removes his or her hat and receives an acknowledgement from the Governor General, who is seated on the Throne.31 The Speaker addresses the Governor General by an established formula, as follows:

May it please Your Excellency,

The House of Commons has elected me their Speaker, though I am but little able to fulfill 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 (King) 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.32

The Speaker of the Senate makes the traditional reply on behalf of the Governor General:33

Mr. Speaker, I am commanded by His (Her) Excellency the Governor General to declare to you that he (she) freely confides in the duty and attachment of the House of Commons to Her Majesty’s Person and Government, and not doubting that their proceedings will be conducted with wisdom, temper and prudence, he (she) grants, and upon all occasions will recognize and allow, their constitutional privileges. I am commanded also to assure you that the Commons shall have ready access to His (Her) Excellency upon all seasonable occasions and that their proceedings, as well as your words and actions, will constantly receive from him (her) the most favourable construction.34

The claiming of privileges by the Speaker on behalf of the House occurs only at the opening of a Parliament and is not repeated in the event a Speaker is elected during the course of a Parliament.35 After the claiming of privileges, the session is formally opened by the reading of the Speech from the Throne.

Opening of a Session

As previously noted, the swearing-in of Members and the election of a Speaker are the distinguishing features of the summoning of a new Parliament for the opening of its first session; in subsequent sessions, there are no such preliminary proceedings in the House.36 The opening of a session, whether it is the first or a subsequent session, is marked by the reading of the Speech from the Throne. Each time a session is opened, the House assembles with the Speaker in the Chair, receives the Usher of the Black Rod and proceeds in due course to the Senate for the reading of the Speech from the Throne.

Opened by the Sovereign

When a session is opened by the Sovereign, as occurred in 1957 and 1977, the message communicated to the House by the Usher of the Black Rod is as follows: “Mr. (Madam) Speaker, The Queen (King) commands this Honourable House to attend Her (His) Majesty immediately in the chamber of the Honourable the Senate”.37

Opened by the Governor General

When, as in most cases, the Speech from the Throne is read by the Governor General,38 the Usher of the Black Rod delivers a message to the effect that His (or Her) Excellency the Governor General of Canada “desires” the immediate attendance of the House in the Senate.39

Opened by the Administrator

In the event of the death, incapacity, removal or absence from the country of the Governor General, the powers of the office devolve upon the Chief Justice of Canada. When acting in this capacity, the Chief Justice is known as the Administrator of the Government of Canada.40 The Speech from the Throne has been read on occasion by the Administrator.41 The message conveyed to the House by the Usher of the Black Rod in these cases is as follows: “His (Her) Excellency the Administrator desires the immediate attendance of this Honourable House in the Chamber of the Honourable the Senate”.42

Speech from the Throne and Subsequent Proceedings in the House

The Speech from the Throne imparts the causes of summoning Parliament, prior to which neither House can embark on any public business.43 It marks the first occasion after a general election or a prorogation that Parliament meets in an assembly of its three constituent parts: the House of Commons, the Senate and the Sovereign, or the Sovereign’s representative.

The Speech from the Throne usually sets forth in some detail the government’s view of the condition of the country and provides an indication of what legislation it intends to bring forward. After hearing the Speech, the Speaker and Members return to the House. If the session is the first of a new Parliament, the newly elected Speaker will have made the traditional statement claiming for the House all its “undoubted rights and privileges”. This is reported by the Speaker to the House on returning from the Senate.44 The business for the day’s sitting then proceeds.

The items typically dealt with by the House on the first day of a session are described below, in the order in which they are normally brought before the House.45 As will be noted, variations can occur.

Routine Opening Day Motions and Announcements

Pro forma bill: Before proceeding to the consideration of the Speech from the Throne, the House gives first reading to the pro forma Bill C-1, An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office.46 Typically, the Bill is introduced by the Prime Minister; it receives first reading but is not proceeded with any further during the session. Its purpose is to assert the independence of the House of Commons and its right to choose its own business and to deliberate without reference to the causes of summons as expressed in the Speech from the Throne.47

Report of Speech from the Throne: The Speaker reports to the House on the Speech from the Throne, informing the House that “to prevent mistakes” a copy of the Speech has been obtained; its text is published in the Debates.48 A motion is then moved, usually by the Prime Minister, for the Speech from the Throne to be considered either “later this day” or on a future day; it is usually adopted without debate or amendment.49

Appointments to the Board of Internal Economy: The Speaker may make an announcement to the House with regard to Members appointed to sit for the duration of the Parliament on the Board of Internal Economy, the body responsible for all matters of administrative and financial policy affecting the House of Commons.50

Order for Supply: The Standing Orders require that, at the start of each session, the House designate, by means of a motion, a continuing Order of the Day for the consideration of the business of supply.51 The designation of a continuing order for supply follows on the statement usually found in the Speech from the Throne informing Members that they “will be asked to appropriate the funds required to carry out the services and expenditures authorized by Parliament”.52 The motion “That the Business of Supply be considered at the next sitting of the House” is moved by the President of the Treasury Board. By long-established practice, the motion is not debatable and is traditionally agreed to without dissent. Once the motion is adopted, a continuing order to deal with supply is placed on the Order Paper under Government Orders and any supply motion to be considered by the House during the session will appear on the Order Paper under this Order of the Day.53

Membership of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs: On the opening day of the first session of each Parliament, the membership of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is appointed and charged with acting as a striking committee for all standing committees and standing joint committees.54 In general, this is effected by a motion moved without notice by a Minister, usually the Government House Leader, and agreed to by the House.55

Election of Other Chair Occupants: At the beginning of a Parliament, a Chair of Committees of the Whole (who, once elected, also becomes Deputy Speaker) is selected for the duration of the Parliament.56 After consultations with the leaders of each officially recognized party, the Speaker announces to the House the name of a Member considered qualified to be Chair of Committees of the Whole.57 Once the name of a Member has been announced, a motion for his or her election is deemed to have been moved and seconded, and the question is put immediately without debate or amendment. The Assistant Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole, and the Assistant Deputy Speaker and Assistant Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole are selected in the same manner for the duration of the session in which they are chosen rather than for the duration of the Parliament.58 Since this practice began in 2004, such motions have invariably been adopted without dissent.59

Other items of business60 have been included on opening day. From time to time, the Speaker is notified that a Member has vacated his or her seat in the House. When this occurs prior to the opening of the session (whether the first or a subsequent session of a Parliament), the Speaker so informs the House at some point during the day’s proceedings.61 Members elected in by-elections prior to the opening of a session have also been introduced to the House on the first day of the new session.62

Special Sessions

A small number of sessions (see Figure 8.1, “Sessions Identified as ‘Special’ in House of Commons Journals or Debates”) have been termed “special sessions” in the Debates or Journals of the House of Commons. From a procedural standpoint, there is nothing special about a special session. The elements required for the opening and closing of a session are present. If the special session is the first of a Parliament (as occurred in 1930), a Speaker of the House must first be elected.

The special sessions were clearly short-lived. They also shared certain characteristics:

  • Parliament was called to meet for a specific purpose, which was the principal focus of what was in each case a comparatively short Speech from the Throne;63
  • The five sessions specifically designated as “special” took place during a period when sessions were generally shorter, with a fairly predictable annual rhythm of sitting and non-sitting periods; the special sessions were called in late summer or autumn, times of the year when the House did not usually sit; and
  • The House in each of the special sessions approved a temporary suspension of certain Standing Orders, with the aim of expediting the business before it.64

Other sessions of short duration, though not officially termed “special” in the Debates or Journals of the House of Commons, have tended to share the same characteristics.65

Figure 8.1 Sessions Identified as “Special” in House of Commons Journals or Debates

Parliament, session

Opening day of the session

Last sitting day

of the House

Number of sitting days

Specific purpose





Outbreak of World War I





Exceptional economic conditions





Outbreak of World War II





Disruption of railway transportation facilities and war in Korea





Hostilities in Middle East and events in Hungary