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Activities in the Chamber

The Speaker has duties that extend beyond the Chamber. He represents the House of Commons in its relations with the Crown, the Senate and authorities outside Parliament. As part of this work, he welcomes many visiting dignitaries and delegations, and represents the House during national events and visits abroad. In addition to these duties, the Speaker also has the usual responsibilities of a Member of Parliament.

Members carry out their work in the Chamber according to a Parliamentary calendar that runs generally from September to June. Meetings of the House of Commons are called "sittings" and are grouped together into larger units known as "sessions." At the beginning of a session, the Governor General reads the Speech from the Throne, which sets out the government's commitments for that session. A session ends when it is prorogued or when a Parliament is dissolved. If it is dissolved, a general election follows, and Canadians elect representatives to a new Parliament.

On January 23, 2006, Canadians voted in a general election to choose representatives to the House of Commons. April 3, 2006 marked the first sitting day of the 39th Parliament.

Keeping Order in the House

Large meetings are conducted more effectively when someone keeps order and ensures participants deal with the business at hand. In the House of Commons, that person is the Speaker. The Speaker is responsible for managing debate and preserving order in accordance with the rules of the House. The Speaker is elected by other Members in a secret ballot.

The Speaker is assisted by three deputies selected from among the Members to serve as presiding officers. The Speaker proposes candidates for these positions after consulting with the leaders of the recognized political parties in the House. At the beginning of the 39th Parliament, Peter Milliken was elected to serve as Speaker for the third consecutive time. Speaker Milliken is a member of the Official Opposition. The following Members were chosen to serve as presiding officers: the Hon. Bill Blaikie, Deputy Speaker and Chair of Committees of the Whole; Royal Galipeau, Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole; and Andrew Scheer, Assistant Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole. Mr. Blaikie is also a member of the opposition, making this the first Parliament in which both the position of Speaker and that of Deputy Speaker have been held by opposition Members.

Making Laws for the Country

One of the most important functions of the House of Commons is that of making law. Laws start out as "bills" which are proposals to create new laws or amend existing ones. A bill must be approved by the Senate and the House of Commons, and receive Royal Assent before it becomes law. The time required for the passage a bill can vary, depending upon the urgency of the matter, its complexity and the degree of consensus among Members.

There are two main types of bills: public and private. Generally, public bills concern matters of public policy, such as immigration or finance. A public bill can be sponsored by the government and introduced by a Cabinet Minister (government bill), or sponsored by a Private Member (any Member who is not a Minister).

Government bills introduced
45
Private Members' public bills introduced
208

Private bills, on the other hand, relate to the affairs of an individual or specific group and may confer special powers or benefit on that individual or group, such as the case with a bill to incorporate a private company.

Bills may be introduced either in the House of Commons or in the Senate; however, any bills to raise or spend public funds must be introduced in the House of Commons.

From April 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007, there were 45 government bills introduced in the House of Commons. These bills addressed a range of social, economic and political issues, such as:

  • federal government accountability
  • First Nations jurisdiction over education
  • amendments to Criminal Code provisions respecting conditional sentencing, street racing and dangerous offenders
  • international adoption
  • election dates
  • air pollution
  • softwood lumber
  • sustainable development of fisheries
  • military justice system
  • establishment of the Public Health Agency of Canada

Over the past fiscal year, 208 Private Members' public bills were introduced. As with the legislation proposed by the government, these bills focused on a wide range of issues of importance to the public, such as:

  • international development assistance
  • prevention of Internet child pornography
  • student loans
  • amendments to Criminal Code provisions respecting violent crimes, hate propaganda and personal identity theft
  • amendments to the Employment Insurance Act regarding benefit periods
  • regulation of the pricing of motor fuels
  • review of foreign investment

The legislative process is so structured that Members of Parliament enjoy opportunities to suggest amendments to bills under consideration. Members proposed over 1,233 motions of amendment at committee and report stages in the period covered by this report.

For more information on the legislative process and the activities of the House of Commons, visit the Parliament of Canada Web site (www.parl.gc.ca).

Journalists wait in the House of Commons foyer to speak to Members after Question Period

Journalists wait in the House of Commons foyer to speak to Members after Question Period.

Photo: © House of Commons/Bernard Thibodeau

Seeking Information from the Government

Another important function of the House of Commons is to provide a forum for questioning the government about its policies and actions, and for receiving answers to these questions. Members of Parliament ask questions during Question Period, submit questions to the government in writing, and select topics for debate on specified days.

45 minutes of each sitting day are reserved for oral questions, or "Question Period" as it is more widely known. During this time, members of the Opposition Parties can ask questions of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and committee chairs. Members of the government who are not in Cabinet may also ask questions. These concern the programs, policies and activities which are the responsibility of the government or the activities of committees. When detailed, lengthy or technical information is sought from the government, questions can be submitted in writing. The government's replies are subsequently tabled in the House of Commons. There were 4,995 oral questions asked and 191 written questions submitted in the past fiscal year.

Opposition parties can also raise issues of concern by selecting the topics for the House to debate on allotted days (also known as opposition or supply days). Each calendar year, 22 days are set aside for consideration of these motions sponsored by opposition Members. The allotted days are allocated on the basis of party representation and after consultations among opposition parties. During the past year, Members discussed the following issues on allotted days:

  • the use of pesticides
  • economic growth
  • income support for older workers
  • the aeronautics industry
  • cultural diversity

Members can also participate in special debates, called "take-note debates," which focus on important public issues. These are held after the ordinary hour of daily adjournment and usually continue late into the evening. In 2006-2007, take-note debates were held and the following topics debated:

  • agricultural issues
  • Canada's commitment in Afghanistan
  • the situation in Sudan

Tabling Documents

Tabling a document is a formal way of presenting information to the House of Commons and placing it on the official public record. A variety of documents must be tabled, including the annual reports of various departments and agencies, documents concerning non-judicial Order-in-Council appointments, and government responses to committee reports. Ministers can table any report or paper concerning matters related to the administrative responsibilities of the government.

In 2006-2007, there were 1,844 sessional papers tabled in the House of Commons, including corporate plans and performance reports from departments and agencies, committee reports and government studies and policies.

Following the Rules

The daily activities in the Chamber are governed by a set of written rules known as the Standing Orders and by a body of practices and traditions, some of which came to Canada from Great Britain. The House of Commons continues to develop and modify its rules and practices in order to conduct business effectively. In 2006-2007, the House made several amendments to the Standing Orders concerned with committees. These amendments led to the creation of four new committees and dealt with the criteria for selection of the chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women (now from the Official Opposition), and the tabling of government responses to committee reports. The House also made permanent guidelines for the broadcasting of committee meetings by electronic media. Any committee may now allow the presence of the electronic media at its meetings, subject to the guidelines. Other amendments to the Standing Orders concerned time limits on speeches and debate in the House.

Practices can also be changed through rulings or decisions by the Speaker. These rulings involve the Speaker's interpretation of the rules and traditions of the House. In some cases, when more extensive procedural research is not required, the Speaker delivers these rulings immediately from the Chair.

When a more in-depth examination of the facts is required, a written ruling is prepared after a review of past practices and precedents. In the period covered by this report, the Speaker delivered 40 rulings on such questions as:

Seated at the Clerk's Table, the Table Officers provide procedural advice during sittings of the House, take the votes and keep the minutes

Seated at the Clerk's Table, in the centre of the Commons Chamber, the Table Officers provide procedural advice during sittings of the House, take the votes and keep the minutes of proceedings.

Photo: © House Of Commons

  • the requirement for a royal recommendation for Private Members' bills;
  • lowering the flag to half-mast on the Parliament Buildings;
  • the admissibility of amendments adopted by a standing committee;
  • funding cuts to the Law Commission of Canada;
  • the disclosure of a government bill before its introduction in the House;
  • alleged comments made by a Minister during Oral Questions;
  • alleged intimidation of witnesses before a parliamentary committee;
  • comments made by a Member during Statements by Members.