House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 4. The House of Commons and Its Members - Assignment of Seats in the House


Members are allocated seats and desks in the House under the authority of the Speaker but on the advice of the Whips of the recognized parties (usually those parties with 12 or more Members[264]) following negotiations. In order to be recognized by the Speaker to participate in the business of the House and to vote in any recorded division, a Member must be in his or her designated seat.[265]

Members representing the governing party traditionally occupy those seats to the right of the Chair, with the Prime Minister and the other Ministers seated in the front rows. Private Members, otherwise known as backbenchers, representing the governing party are customarily seated according to their seniority or length of service in the House within their caucus. If the number of Members representing the governing party exceeds the number of desks on the right side, the overflow, or “rump”, of government Members occupies those seats across the aisle. This section may, at the discretion of the Speaker, be near the Chair or at the far end of the Chamber.[266]

Members who represent parties in opposition to the government are usually seated to the left of the Chair.[267] The Leader of the Official Opposition is seated immediately opposite the Prime Minister and is flanked by Members of his or her party. Other opposition Members sit, according to party, in the remaining seats: the second‑rank opposition party gets the first choice of seats after the Official Opposition, the third‑rank party the next choice and so on.[268] The leading Members of the opposition parties, including House Leaders, Whips and critics, sit in the front rows of their designated area.[269]

Those Members who do not have a party designation[270] or who represent a party not recognized by the House are seated subject to the discretion of the Speaker in the remaining seats. These Members typically occupy the desks to the left of the Speaker along the back rows, often but not necessarily near the end of the Chamber. The Speaker allocates the seats for these Members pursuant to their seniority as elected Members, while at the same time retaining a degree of latitude in determining these arrangements.[271]

Typically, three desks are reserved near the Speaker’s Chair for the Deputy Speaker and the other Chair Occupants when they are not presiding over the House.[272] There is no seat reserved for the Speaker.[273]

The seating plan is modified frequently during a Parliament, sometimes following changes within a party, sometimes as a result of negotiations among the parties. Any changes in the seating of a Member or Members within a party are made by the Whip who then notifies the Speaker. If a Member is expelled from his or her party, or chooses to leave to sit as an independent Member, the Speaker reassigns him or her a new seat.[274]

*   Crossing the Floor

Although most Members are elected with a party affiliation (a very small percentage of them are elected without a party banner), Members are not obliged to retain that party label during the whole of their mandate. “Crossing the floor” is the expression used to describe a Member’s decision to break all ties binding him or her to a particular political party.[275] A Member who changes party allegiance is under no obligation to resign his or her seat and stand for re‑election; entitlement to sit as a Member is not contingent upon political affiliation.[276] If a Member decides to cross the floor and sit with another party, the Member’s new party Whip determines the seating arrangement for the Member.

[264] For further information on recognized parties, see Chapter 1, “Parliamentary Institutions”.

[265] This rule does not apply when the House is conducting its proceedings as a Committee of the Whole, or during the Adjournment Proceedings, an emergency debate or a take-note debate where Members may sit and speak from any seat in the House. See Standing Order 17. For further information, see Chapter 13, “Rules of Order and Decorum”, and Chapter 19, “Committees of the Whole House”.

[266] For example, during the Thirty‑Fifth Parliament (1994‑97) and Thirty-Seventh Parliament (2001‑04), the overflow of government Members sat to the immediate left of the Speaker. During the Twenty‑Fourth Parliament (1958‑62), the overflow of government Members sat to the left of the Speaker at the far end of the Chamber. During the Thirty‑Third Parliament (1984‑88) when there were 211 government Members, the overflow of government Members was situated both immediately to the left of the Chair and in the desks at the far end of the left‑hand side of the Chamber, effectively splitting the overflow of government Members to book‑end those Members of the opposition parties.

[267] During the Fortieth Parliament (2008‑present), the New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus was seated on both the government and opposition sides of the House at the far end of the Chamber. During the Twenty‑Fifth Parliament (1962‑63), Thirty-Eighth Parliament (2004‑05), and Thirty‑Ninth Parliament (2006‑08), NDP Members sat on the government side of the House at the far end of the Chamber. During the Thirty‑First Parliament (1979), the five Members of the Social Credit Party sat on the government side of the House at the far end of the Chamber.

[268] In response to a point of order, Speaker Parent explained the process followed in assigning seats to parties (Debates, September 30, 1998, pp. 8584‑5). If a Member is unable to occupy a desk due to a disability or physical restriction (such as a wheelchair), alternate seating arrangements may be made. See Standing Order 1.1, which permits the Speaker to make such arrangements as may be required. In 2004, a quadriplegic Member (Steven Fletcher (Charleswood–St. James–Assiniboia)) was elected to the House. A desk was removed and he was seated on the opposition side of the House in the front row near the Speaker. In 2006 and 2008, he was re-elected and seated in the front row on the government side of the House near the Bar of the House, accompanied in the Chamber by an aide who sat beside him.

[269] In 1994, at the beginning of the Thirty‑Fifth Parliament (1994‑97), the leader of the Reform Party (Preston Manning) chose to sit in the second row of seats; he eventually moved to the front benches.

[270] From time to time, independent candidates have been elected to the House of Commons. For example, in 1997, John Nunziata (York South–Weston) was given a seat in the back row on the opposition side of the House. In 2004, Chuck Cadman (Surrey North) was seated in the back row of the opposition benches. In 2006 and 2008, André Arthur (Portneuf–Jacques‑Cartier) was seated on the government side of the House in the back row. After being elected as an independent Member in 2008, Bill Casey (Cumberland–Colchester–Musquodoboit Valley) was seated in the back row on the opposition side of the Chamber.

[271] Debates, September 24, 1990, pp. 13216‑7. In 1963, a number of Social Credit Party Members from Quebec formed a new party, the Ralliement des Créditistes. As a result, Speaker Macnaughton was asked to decide a number of issues, including the recognition of parties and a new seating arrangement for the Chamber. In a statement given September 30, 1963, the Speaker informed the House that he believed the Chair should not be placed in a position to decide matters affecting the character or existence of a party because those decisions could be mistaken as political decisions. He concluded that the House itself had to resolve the various issues which had arisen as a result of the emergence of a new party. The House subsequently adopted a motion to refer these matters to the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections (Journals, September 30, 1963, pp. 385‑8). In its Second Report to the House, the Committee recommended that the New Democratic Party (NDP) (which had become the third largest party in the House) be seated next to the Official Opposition; that the Social Credit Party be seated to the left of the NDP; and that the new party occupy the seats to the left of the Social Credit Party (Journals, October 9, 1963, p. 423). The Report was concurred in on October 21, 1963 (Journals, pp. 465‑6). At the beginning of the Thirty‑Fifth Parliament (1994‑97), independent Members included representatives of the NDP (nine Members), the Progressive Conservative Party (two Members), and independent Members (originally just one Member, but the numbers grew to four over the life of the Parliament). Speaker Parent assigned each independent Member a seat according to his or her precedence in the House. Later, as the result of a point of order regarding the party status of the NDP, the Speaker modified the seating plan to allow the NDP and Progressive Conservative caucuses each to be seated together and identified as such. The other independent Members were assigned the remaining seats according to their seniority. See Debates, June 16, 1994, pp. 5437‑40, in particular p. 5439. In 2001, 8 Members of the Canadian Alliance joined together with 12 Members of the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Progressive Conservative/Democratic Representative (PC/DR) Coalition. Among other matters, the Members requested that their designation and slate of House officers be recognized and that they be allowed to sit together (Debates, September 19, 2001, pp. 5296-306). Speaker Milliken ruled that he could find “no procedural objection to the request that members who share the PC/DR designation and the leadership of these officers should be seated together in the configuration that their whip may determine” (Debates, September 24, 2001, pp. 5489‑92, in particular p. 5491).

[272] During the Thirty-Eighth Parliament (2004‑05), the Deputy Speaker, a Conservative Member, was allocated a seat with his party on the left side of the Chamber while the two other Chair Occupants, both government Members, sat with their party. During the Second Session (2007‑08) of the Thirty-Ninth Parliament, the seating arrangements for the Chair Occupants were modified on numerous occasions. At the beginning of the session, they were seated on the government side of the House between Conservative Members and NDP Members. A few weeks later, their seats were relocated to the last two rows on the government side close to the Speaker’s Chair. In the spring of 2008, they were seated on the opposition side of the House close to the Speaker’s Chair. During the First Session of the Fortieth Parliament (2008), the Assistant Deputy Chair of the Whole House, a New Democratic Party Member, sat with her party.

[273] It appears from seating plans for the Chamber that the Speaker, normally a government Member, used to be assigned a desk on the government side near the Chair. No desk has been assigned to a Speaker since the Thirty‑First Parliament (1979) when, following a change of government, Speaker Jerome was elected to a second term, becoming the first opposition Member to be nominated by the governing party to preside over the House (Beauchesne, A., Beauchesne’s Rules & Forms of the House of Commons of Canada, 6th ed., edited by A. Fraser, W.F. Dawson, and J.A. Holtby, Toronto: The Carswell Company Limited, 1989, p. 37).

[274] See, for example, Debates, February 18, 1965, p. 11457; August 29, 1966, pp. 7731‑2; December 3, 1969, p. 1532; June 27, 1978, pp. 6777‑8; May 14, 1986, p. 13268; February 2, 2004, p. 1. In many instances, no record of the change in the party affiliation or status appears in the Debates or the Journals. The Speaker is advised of the change through correspondence or by means of a press release issued by the Member.

[275] For examples of Members changing parties, see Debates, March 13, 1972, p. 745; March 7, 1979, p. 3910. On April 20, 1977, an opposition Member, Jack Horner (Crowfoot), crossed the floor to the governing party and was appointed Minister without Portfolio the following day. On May 17, 2005, Belinda Stronach (Newmarket–Aurora) crossed the floor to the governing party and was appointed Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal. David Emerson, who had been elected as a Liberal in the riding of Vancouver–Kingsway on January 23, 2006, was sworn in as Minister of International Trade in the Conservative Cabinet on February 6, 2006. In the latter case, three Members requested the Ethics Commissioner to investigate, pursuant to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons, whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper had induced Mr. Emerson to cross the floor in exchange for a Cabinet position. The Ethics Commissioner concluded that neither Mr. Emerson nor Mr. Harper had contravened the Code (Report of the Ethics Commissioner entitled “The Harper-Emerson Inquiry”, dated March 2006, tabled in the House on April 4, 2006 (Journals, p. 15)). The decision of Members to leave the party under which they were elected to form a new group has occurred on at least three occasions since Confederation. In February 1943, three Members from Quebec defected from the Liberal Party to form the Bloc populaire canadien in response to the introduction of conscription (Debates, February 10, 1943, pp. 309‑13; February 18, 1943, pp. 532‑7, 542‑5). In 1963, Members of the Quebec wing of the Social Credit Party broke away to form a new group called the Ralliement des Créditistes (Journals, September 30, 1963, pp. 385‑8). In 1990, in response to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, eight Members of different political affiliations formed a new party, the Bloc Québécois (Debates, May 18, 1990, pp. 11615‑7; May 22, 1990, pp. 11631, 11662‑4; June 26, 1990, pp. 13087‑8, 13121‑3).

[276] On several occasions, Peter Stoffer (Sackville–Eastern Shore) introduced a bill to amend the Parliament of Canada Act to provide that the seat of a Member who has crossed the floor be vacated and a by-election called (Debates, March 13, 2000, p. 4398; February 5, 2001, p. 229; October 4, 2002, p. 321; February 2, 2004, p. 10; November 1, 2004, pp. 1012-3; April 6, 2006, p. 60; November 21, 2008, pp. 116‑7).

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