House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 8. The Parliamentary Cycle - Terminology


Several recurring terms and phrases associated with the parliamentary cycle require explanation for the purpose of clarity.

*   Parliament

A Parliament is a period of time during which the institution of Parliament (comprising the Sovereign, the Senate and the House of Commons) exercises its powers. The process of starting a Parliament begins with the proclamation of the Governor General calling for the formation of a new Parliament and setting the date for a general election. A Parliament ends with its dissolution. A House of Commons has a constitutionally-determined maximum lifespan of five years.[7]

*   Session

A session is one of the fundamental time periods into which a Parliament is divided, and usually consists of a number of separate sittings. A session begins with a Speech from the Throne when Parliament is summoned by proclamation of the Governor General; it ends with a prorogation or dissolution of Parliament.[8] There may be any number of sessions in a Parliament; the numbers have ranged from one to seven.[9] There is no set length for a session.

*   Sitting

A sitting is a meeting of the House of Commons within a session. The Standing Orders provide times and days for the sittings of the House.[10] A sitting is not necessarily synonymous with a calendar day. Some sittings are very brief; some have extended over more than one calendar day.[11] In some cases, there have been two sittings in one calendar day.[12]

*   Adjournment

An adjournment is the termination of a sitting (pursuant to Standing or Special Order, or by motion). An adjournment covers the period between the end of one sitting and the beginning of the next. It can be of varying duration—a few hours, overnight, over a weekend, a week or longer.[13] While prorogation and dissolution are prerogative acts of the Crown, the power to adjourn rests solely with the House.

*   House of Commons Calendar

The House calendar, as laid out in the Standing Orders, provides a fixed timetable of sittings and adjournments for a full calendar year.[14] In effect, once a session begins, the calendar alternates sitting periods with adjournments at set points throughout the year. Each year consists of seven sitting periods of approximately three to five weeks in length, and seven adjournments of varying lengths.

*   Prorogation

Prorogation is the formal ending of a session of Parliament, either by a special ceremony held in the Senate Chamber[15] or by a Governor General’s proclamation to that effect. Prorogation also refers to the period of time a Parliament stands prorogued.

*   Recess

The time between the ending of one session and the opening of the next can be called a recess. In practice, the term “recess” is also used in reference to a lengthy adjournment.

*   Dissolution

Dissolution is the formal ending of a Parliament by proclamation of the Governor General. A general election follows dissolution.

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[7] Constitution Act, 1867, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5, s. 50; Constitution Act, 1982, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 44, s. 4(1). In 1916, an extension was accomplished by way of a constitutional amendment (British North America Act, 1916, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 24). Since 1949, the Constitution has provided for an extension if no more than one‑third of the Members oppose it (British North America (No. 2) Act, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 33). See also Constitution Act, 1982, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 44, s. 4(2).

[8] Although a session of Parliament opens officially with the Speech from the Throne, the Throne Speech does not always take place on the first sitting day of a session. On the first sitting day of the first session of a Parliament, the first order of business of the House is the election of a Speaker (see the section in this chapter entitled “Election of the Speaker”). The election must take place before the House can attend in the Senate for the reading of the Speech from the Throne, which typically takes place on the second sitting day. In subsequent sessions, the Speech from the Throne takes place on the first sitting day, unless a vacancy in the Office of the Speaker has occurred between sessions.

[9] See Appendix 13, “Parliaments Since 1867 and Number of Sitting Days”.

[10] Standing Order 24.

[11] For an example of the House sitting continuously over two days, see Journals, December 18‑19, 1980, pp. 951‑1130. For examples of the House sitting continuously over several days, see Journals, March 10‑15, 1913, pp. 326‑40; December 7‑9, 1999, pp. 337‑767; March 13‑15, 2000, pp. 1071‑394. In 1982, the division bells were rung continuously, resulting in a two‑week sitting (Journals, March 2‑17, 1982, p. 4608).

[12] See, for example, Journals, September 8, 1930, p. 8; February 6, 1936, p. 8; March 30, 1973, p. 229.

[13] Standing Order 24 provides for adjournments overnight and over weekends. Standing Order 28 provides for periodic adjournments of a week or more. Occasionally, there are brief adjournments of a few hours’ duration. See, for example, Journals, September 9, 1992, p. 1957; June 15, 1995, p. 1768; March 13‑15, 2000, p. 1394; October 15, 2001, p. 710.

[14] Standing Order 28(2).

[15] Traditionally, the House was summoned to the Senate to hear the Governor General (or the Deputy of the Governor General) deliver a speech reviewing the accomplishments of the session, and to hear the Speaker of the Senate read a message containing the date for the opening of the new session. Prorogation has not taken place in this manner since 1983 (Journals, November 30, 1983, pp. 3429‑43).

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