House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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9. Sittings of the House

Special or Unusual Sittings

The House sometimes alters its normal schedule of sittings to accommodate special events or ceremonies. These “special” or “unusual” sittings have included: sitting for the sole purpose of attendance at the Royal Assent ceremony; sitting for the purpose of electing a Speaker; conducting a secret sitting; and sitting to hear addresses by distinguished visitors.

Sitting for the Sole Purpose of Attending Royal Assent

In the late 1980s, the House followed the practice of adopting special orders permitting the Speaker, during periods of adjournment, to recall the House for the sole purpose of attending Royal Assent. [100]  The Standing Order authorizing the Speaker to recall the House, if it is deemed to be in the public interest, has also been invoked to recall the House for the sole purpose of attending Royal Assent. [101]  In 1994, the House codified in the Standing Orders the practice of recalling the House, at the request of the government for the sole purpose of Royal Assent. [102] 

A sitting for the sole purpose of Royal Assent is treated as a recall of the House with proper notice given so that the Speaker may make the necessary preparations to reopen the House. The House does not need a quorum for the Speaker to take the Chair when the Usher of the Black Rod appears in the Chamber to request the attendance of Members in the Senate. [103]  In responding to a summons of the Crown, the House is simply being asked to witness an event, rather than to make a decision. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Speaker returns to the House and, once in the Chair, reports that the Governor General was pleased to give, in Her Majesty’s name, Royal Assent to certain bills. The Chair then immediately adjourns the House [104]  without proceeding to any other business. [105] 

Election of a Speaker

At the first sitting of a new Parliament or at any time during the course of a Parliament when the Speakership becomes vacant, the House may, if necessary, sit beyond the regular hour of adjournment until such time as a Speaker is declared elected. The election of a Speaker takes precedence over all other business. No other business may be addressed and no motion for adjournment, nor any other motion, may be entertained. If the House has continued to sit beyond the regular hour of adjournment, the Speaker, upon being elected and taking the Chair, adjourns the House until the next sitting day. [106] 

Secret Sittings

Although not explicitly provided for in the Standing Orders, the House has the right and authority to conduct its proceedings in private. This has been referred to as a “secret sitting”. The House may conduct an entire sitting or a portion of a sitting where “strangers” (anyone who is not a Member or an official of the House of Commons) are either not admitted or asked to withdraw from the galleries of the House. [107] These meetings are regarded as sittings and are noted as such in the documents of the House. To conduct a secret sitting, the House has either adopted a special order to initiate the proceeding, [108]  or has simply not opened the doors of the House to the public following the prayers at the beginning of a sitting. [109] 

The House has met in secret on four occasions, all during wartime. [110]  As well, in the years shortly after Confederation, the House would, upon the commencement of a sitting but prior to the doors being opened to the public, conduct a portion of its sittings out of public view in order to discuss internal or “domestic” matters. [111] 

Addresses by Distinguished Visitors

From time to time, the House of Commons Chamber is the site for a joint address to Parliament by a distinguished visitor (usually a head of state or head of government). Since the early 1940s, numerous distinguished visitors have addressed Members of the Senate and the House of Commons from the floor of the Chamber. (See Figure 9.1.)

Figure 9.1 – Joint Addresses to Parliament Since 1940
December 30, 1941 Winston Churchill, Prime Minister, Great Britain
June 16, 1943 Madame Chiang Kai-shek
June 1, 1944 John C. Curtin, Prime Minister, Australia
June 30, 1944 Peter Fraser, Prime Minister, New Zealand
November 19, 1945 Clement R. Attlee, Prime Minister, Great Britain
June 11, 1947 Harry S. Truman, President, United States
October 24, 1949 Pandit Jewaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister, India
May 31, 1950 Liaquat Ali Khan, Prime Minister, Pakistan
April 5, 1951 Vincent Auriol, President, French Republic
November 14, 1953 Dwight D. Eisenhower, President, United States
February 6, 1956 Sir Anthony Eden, Prime Minister, United Kingdom
March 5, 1956 Giovanni Gronchi, President, Republic of Italy
June 5, 1956 Dr. Sukarno, President, Republic of Indonesia
March 4, 1957 Guy Mollet, Prime Minister, French Republic
June 2, 1958 Dr. Theodor Heuss, President, Federal Republic of Germany
June 13, 1958 Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister, United Kingdom
July 9, 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower, President, United States
July 21, 1958 Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister, Ghana
May 17, 1961 John F. Kennedy, President, United States
May 26, 1964 U Thant, Secretary General, United Nations
April 14, 1972 Richard M. Nixon, President, United States
March 30, 1973 Luis Echeverria, President, Mexico
June 19, 1973 Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister, India
May 5, 1980 Masayoshi Ohira, Prime Minister, Japan
May 26, 1980 José Lopez Portillo, President, Mexico
March 11, 1981 Ronald W. Reagan, President, United States
September 26, 1983 Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister, United Kingdom
January 17, 1984 Zhao Ziyang, Premier, State Council, People’s Republic of China
May 8, 1984 Miguel de la Madrid, President, Mexico
March 7, 1985 Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary-General, United Nations
January 13, 1986 Yasuhiro Nakasone, Prime Minister, Japan
April 6, 1987 Ronald W. Reagan, President, United States
May 25, 1987 François Mitterand, President, French Republic
May 10, 1988 Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
June 16, 1988 Dr. Helmut Kohl, Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany
June 22, 1988 Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister, United Kingdom
February 27, 1989 Chaim Herzog, President, State of Israel
October 11, 1989 His Majesty King Hussein Bin Talal, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
June 18, 1990 Nelson Mandela, Deputy President, African National Congress
April 8, 1991 Carlos Salinas de Gortari, President, Mexico
June 19, 1992 Boris Yeltsin, President, Federation of Russia
February 23, 1995 William J. Clinton, President, United States
June 11, 1996 Ernesto Zedillo, President, Mexico
September 24, 1998 Nelson Mandela, President, Republic of South Africa
April 29, 1999 Vaclav Havel, President, Czech Republic

Since the 1970s, the practice has normally been for the House to adopt a motion for a joint address, without debate, prior to the delivery of the address. [112]  In addition to the order to append the address and related speeches to Hansard[113] the motion has also included the date and time of the adjournment of the House, as well as other conditions for the order of business on the day of the address. By 1980, the motion also included permission for the transmission of the address and related speeches by the media. [114] 

When a joint address takes place, Senators and Members of the House of Commons assemble in the House of Commons Chamber. However, the assembly does not constitute a sitting and the Mace is not on the Table. An established protocol is nonetheless followed.

The seating arrangements in the House are not what they would be for a regular sitting. The Speaker of the House takes the Chair, with the Speaker of the Senate seated in a chair to his or her right. The Table is cleared of the usual paraphernalia and a lectern placed at its head. The Prime Minister and the distinguished visitor are seated along the side of the Table to the Speaker’s right; the Clerk of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Commons are seated along the other side of the Table. Seating for the rest of the official party, the Justices of the Supreme Court and the Senators is arranged on the floor of the House in front of the Table.

On arrival at the Centre Block, the distinguished visitor is met in the Rotunda by the Prime Minister and the Speakers of both Houses, and signs the Senate and House of Commons’ visitors books. At the appointed hour, the official party enters the House of Commons Chamber. The Prime Minister provides an official welcome and invites the visitor to address the assembly. Afterwards, the visitor is thanked by the Speaker of the Senate, followed by the Speaker of the House of Commons who will then conclude the assembly. At this point, the official party exits the Chamber and proceeds to the House of Commons Speaker’s Chambers.

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