House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
Previous PageNext Page

8. The Parliamentary Cycle

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 two forms of proclamation issued by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister [12]  and published in the Canada Gazette. The first form sets the date for which Parliament is summoned (the date can later be advanced or put back). 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. The second form confirms the date and sets the time at which Parliament is summoned to meet for the transaction of business. For example, prior to the opening of the First Session of the Thirty-Sixth Parliament, a series of proclamations was initially issued summoning Parliament to meet on June 23, 1997, then to meet on August 1 and later to meet on August 29, 1997. On August 27, a final proclamation summoned Parliament to meet “for the Despatch of Business” at 11:00 a.m. on September 22, 1997. [13] 

Proceedings on Opening Day

The opening of a Parliament is also the opening of the first session of that Parliament. Two procedures distinguish it from the opening of subsequent sessions. These are the taking and subscribing of the Oath of Allegiance by Members, and the election of a Speaker.

Members Sworn In

Following a general election, the Clerk of the House receives from the Chief Electoral Officer the names of Members elected to serve in the House of Commons. [14]  In order for the elected Members to take their seats in the House, it is required by the Constitution Act, 1867, that they first subscribe to an Oath of Allegiance. [15]  As an alternative to swearing the oath, the Member may make a solemn affirmation. [16] 

The oath or affirmation is administered by the Clerk of the House or another designated Commissioner. [17]  At this time, the newly sworn-in Member 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 receives the certificates of election returns from the Chief Electoral Officer. [18] 

Matters relating to the oath, the affirmation and the signing of the Test Roll are covered in greater detail in Chapter 4, “The House of Commons and Its Members”.

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. [19]  On the day appointed by proclamation for the meeting of a new Parliament, the Members are summoned by the division bell to assemble in the Chamber, where they receive the Usher of the Black Rod, [20]  who reads a message requesting the immediate attendance of the House in the Senate Chamber.

In a procession led by the Clerk of the House, the Members go to the Senate. There, a Deputy of the Governor General [21]  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 “… the Deputy … does not see fit to declare the causes of his (her) summoning of the present Parliament of Canada until the Speaker of the House shall have been chosen according to Law …”. [22]  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 presiding officer. (For further details on the election of the Speaker, refer to Chapter 7, “The Speaker and Other Presiding Officers of the House”.)

Presentation of Speaker to Governor General

Following the election of the Speaker, at the time fixed for the purpose of appearing for the formal opening of Parliament with a Speech from the Throne, 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. [23]  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. [24]  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 fulfil 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 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. [25] 

The Speaker of the Senate, on behalf of the Governor General, makes the traditional reply: [26] 

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. [27] 

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. [28]  After the claiming of privilege, the session is formally opened by the reading of the Speech from the Throne.

Opening a Session

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 sessions subsequent to the first, there are no preliminary proceedings in the House. 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. On each opening of a session, 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.

The Speech imparts the causes of summoning Parliament, prior to which neither House can embark on any public business. [29]  It marks the first occasion Parliament meets in an assembly of its three constituent parts: the House of Commons, the Senate and the Sovereign, or Sovereign’s representative.

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 “Mr. (Madam) Speaker, The Queen (King) commands this Honourable House to attend Her (His) Majesty immediately in the chamber of the Honourable the Senate”. [30] 

Opened by the Governor General

When, as in most cases, the Speech from the Throne is read by the Governor General, [31]  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 chamber. [32] 

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. [33]  The Speech from the Throne has been read on occasion by the Administrator. [34]  The message conveyed to the House by the Usher of the Black Rod in these cases is “His (Her) Excellency the Administrator desires the immediate attendance of this Honourable House in the chamber of the Honourable the Senate”. [35] 

Speech from the Throne and Subsequent Proceedings in the House

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. [36]  The business for the day’s sitting then proceeds.

There are certain items which normally are dealt with by the House on the first day of a session. These are described below, in the order in which they are normally brought before the House. As will be noted, variations can and do occur.

Formal Business

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[37]  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. [38] 
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 printed in the Debates[39]  A motion is then moved, usually by the Prime Minister, and adopted for the Speech from the Throne to be considered either “later this day” or on a future day, [40]  at which time debate takes place on a motion for an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne (for further information on the Address in Reply, see Chapter 15, “Special Debates”).

Routine Opening Day Motions and Announcements

Traditionally, certain other items of business have been attended to following the Speech from the Throne. These are described below, in the order in which they are customarily taken up.

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. [41] 
Membership of Standing Committees:
At the start of the first session of each Parliament, the membership of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is appointed and charged with the selection of Members for all standing committees and standing joint committees. [42]  This is effected by motion moved without notice by a Minister, usually the Government House Leader. [43] 
Election of Other Chair Occupants:
At the beginning of a Parliament, a Chairman of Committees of the Whole (who is also Deputy Speaker) is selected for the duration of that Parliament. [44]  This is done by a government Member (usually the Prime Minister) moving without notice that a particular Member, usually also from the government side, [45] be Chairman of Committees of the Whole. The Deputy Chairman and the Assistant Deputy Chairman of Committees of the Whole are selected in the same manner; [46]  their terms extend for the duration of the session in which they are chosen (for further information on the roles and functions of these Presiding Officers, see Chapter 7, “The Speaker and Other Presiding Officers of the House” [47]). The motions have generally been adopted without dissent. [48] 
Order for Supply:
The Standing Orders require the House at the start of each session to designate, by means of a motion, a continuing Order of the Day for the consideration of the business of Supply. [49]  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 authorised by Parliament”. [50]  The wording of the motion is generally as follows: “That this House at its next sitting consider the business of Supply”. Once the motion is adopted, a continuing order to deal with Supply is placed on the Order Paper under Government Orders and any Supply item to be considered by the House during the session will appear on the Order Paper under this Order of the Day.

Other Items

Other items of business have been included from time to time on opening day. For example, in 1996, Speaker Parent responded to a point of order raised in the previous session on the first day of the new session after all the usual business items had been dealt with. [51] 

From time to time, the Speaker is notified that a sitting 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. [52] 
New Members:
Members elected in by-elections prior to the opening of a session have been introduced to the House on the first day of the new session. [53] 
When a Member, former Member or distinguished individual has died during a period when the House is not in session, tributes have been offered on the first day of the new session, often at the point in the proceedings following the adoption of the motion to consider the Speech from the Throne. [54]  Such tributes have also been offered early in the session but not as part of the proceedings on the opening day. [55] 
Appointment of House Officials:
In the event that senior officials of the House are appointed between sessions, it has been customary for the Speaker to inform the House of the appointment or appointments on the first day of the new session. [56] 

“Special” Sessions

A small number of sessions (see Figure 8.1) 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.

Figure 8.1 – Sessions Identified as “Special” in House of Commons Debates or Journals
Image showing a list of parliamentary sessions identified as “special” in the Debates and Journals of the House of Commons. The image consists of five rows and five columns. Each row corresponds to a specific special session and lists: in the first column, the Parliament and session number; in the second column, the opening day of the session; in the third column, the last sitting day of the House; in the fourth column, the number of days the House sat; and in the fifth column, the specific purpose for the calling of the session.

It will readily be noted that the “special” sessions were short-lived. They also shared certain characteristics. However, other sessions of short duration, though not officially termed “special” in the Debates or Journals of the House of Commons, have shared the same 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; [57] 
  • 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; [58] 
  • 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. [59] 

Top of documentPrevious PageNext Page