Types of Committees and Mandates

The House of Commons has an extensive committee system. There are various types of committees: standing, standing joint, legislative, special, special joint and subcommittees.61 They differ in their membership, the terms of reference they are given by the House, and their longevity. Figure 20.1, “Committee System of the House of Commons”, illustrates the various types of committees and their characteristics.

Standing Committees

The majority of committee activity is carried out by standing committees. This is reflected by their large number, the variety of studies entrusted to them, and the fact that they return session after session as their existence is entrenched in the Standing Orders. Composed of 10 members representing all recognized parties in the House, they play a crucial role in the scrutiny of legislation and the oversight of government activities.62

As Figure 20.2, “List of Standing and Standing Joint Committees”, shows, their titles and mandates cover every main area of federal government activity, but for a few exceptions. However, they do not match its administrative structure exactly.63 Standing committees fall into three broad categories: (1) those overseeing one or more federal departments or organizations; (2) those responsible for matters of House and committee administration and procedure; and (3) those with transverse responsibilities that deal with issues affecting the entire government apparatus.64 The latter may work with other committees in discharging their mandates.

Figure 20.1 Committee System of the House of Commons

Figure 20.2 List of Standing and Standing Joint Committees*

Standing Committees

  • Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
  • Agriculture and Agri-Food
  • Canadian Heritage
  • Citizenship and Immigration
  • Environment and Sustainable Development
  • Finance
  • Fisheries and Oceans
  • Foreign Affairs and International Development
  • Government Operations and Estimates
  • Health
  • Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities
  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs
  • Industry, Science and Technology
  • International Trade
  • Justice and Human Rights
  • National Defence
  • Natural Resources
  • Official Languages
  • Procedure and House Affairs
  • Public Accounts
  • Public Safety and National Security
  • Status of Women
  • Transport, Infrastructure and Communities
  • Veterans Affairs

Standing Joint Committees

  • Library of Parliament
  • Scrutiny of Regulations

* As provided in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons

General Mandate

With the exception of standing joint committees and certain standing committees, the Standing Orders set out a general mandate for all standing committees.65 They are empowered to study and report to the House on all matters relating to the mandate, management, organization and operation of the departments assigned to them by the House. More specifically, they can review and report on:

  • the statute law relating to the departments assigned to them;
  • the program and policy objectives of those departments, and the effectiveness of their implementation thereof;
  • the immediate, medium and long-term expenditure plans of those departments and the effectiveness of the implementation thereof; and
  • an analysis of the relative success of those departments in meeting their objectives.

In addition to this general mandate, other matters are routinely referred by the House to its standing committees, such as bills, estimates, Order in Council appointments, documents tabled in the House pursuant to statute, and specific matters which the House wishes to have studied.66 In each case, the House chooses the most appropriate committee on the basis of its mandate.

Specific Mandates

The Standing Orders set out specific mandates for some standing committees on the basis of which they are to study and report to the House:

  • The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs deals with, among other matters: the election of Members; the administration of the House and the provision of services and facilities to Members;67 the effectiveness, management and operation of all operations which are under the joint administration and control of the two Houses, except with regard to the Library of Parliament; the review of the Standing Orders, procedure and practice in the House and its committees;68 the consideration of business related to private bills; the review of the radio and television broadcasting of the proceedings of the House and its committees; the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons; the review of the annual report of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner with respect to his or her responsibilities under the Parliament of Canada Act; and the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Commons: Sexual Harassment.69 The Committee also acts as a striking committee, recommending the list of members of all standing and legislative committees, and the Members who represent the House on standing joint committees.70 It also establishes priority of use of committee rooms,71 and is involved in designating the items of Private Members’ Business as votable or non-votable.72
  • The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, among other matters, monitors the implementation of the principles of the federal multiculturalism policy throughout the Government of Canada.73
  • The Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates has a very broad mandate74 which includes, among other matters: the review of the effectiveness, management and operation, as well as the operational and expenditure plans of the central departments and agencies; the review of estimates for programs delivered by more than one department or agency; the review of the effectiveness, management and operation of activities related to the use of new and emerging information and communication technologies by the government; and the review of the process for consideration of estimates and supply by parliamentary committees.
  • The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities is responsible for, among other matters, proposing, promoting, monitoring and assessing initiatives aimed at the social integration and equality of disabled persons.75
  • The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights is responsible for, among other matters, the review of reports of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.76
  • The Standing Committee on Official Languages deals with, among other matters, official languages policies and programs, including reports of the Commissioner of Official Languages.77 The Committee’s mandate is derived from a legislative provision requiring that a committee of either House or both Houses be specifically charged with review of the administration of the Official Languages Act and the implementation of certain reports presented pursuant to this statute.78
  • The Standing Committee on Public Accounts deals with, among other matters, the review of the Public Accounts of Canada and all reports of the Auditor General of Canada.79
  • The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics reviews, among other matters, the effectiveness, management and operations as well as the operational and expenditure plans relating to four Officers of Parliament: the Information Commissioner; the Privacy Commissioner; the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner; and the Commissioner of Lobbying. It also reviews their reports, although in the case of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the reports concerned relate to the Commissioner’s responsibilities under the Parliament of Canada Act regarding public office holders and reports tabled pursuant to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. In cooperation with other standing committees, the Committee also reviews any bill, federal regulation or Standing Order which impacts upon its main areas of responsibility: access to information, privacy and the ethical standards of public office holders. It may also propose initiatives in these areas and promote, monitor and assess such initiatives.80
  • The Standing Committee on Finance is empowered to review proposals relating to the government’s budgetary policy.81

Standing Joint Committees

In addition to the standing committees, there are two standing joint committees: the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament and the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations.82 These are described as joint committees because their membership consists of Members of the House of Commons and Senators. In contrast to standing committees, moreover, the number of members can vary.83 Struck for each session of Parliament, their status is formalized by statute and confirmed by the Standing Orders of the House of Commons and the Rules of the Senate.84

The Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament is charged with the review of the effectiveness, management and operation of the Library of Parliament, which serves both the House of Commons and the Senate.85 The mandate of this Committee arises from a statutory provision giving direction and control of the Library to the Speakers of the Senate and the House, with the provision that they are to be assisted by a joint committee.86 At the beginning of each session, the Committee usually seeks confirmation of its mandate by presenting a report for that purpose to each House, which is usually concurred in.87

The Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations88 is mandated to review and scrutinize statutory instruments.89 The Committee’s mandate is set out in part in the Standing Orders90 and in part in the Legislation Revision and Consolidation Act and the Statutory Instruments Act.91 At the beginning of each session, the Committee presents a report relating to its review of the regulatory process, proposing a more detailed mandate. When the report is concurred in by the House of Commons and Senate, this proposed mandate then becomes an order of reference to the Committee for the remainder of the session.92

Legislative Committees

Legislative committees are created on an ad hoc basis by the House solely to draft or review proposed legislation.93 They therefore do not return from one session to the next as standing and standing joint committees do. They are established as needed when the House adopts a motion creating an order of reference94 and cease to exist upon presentation of their report on the legislation to the House. They consist of a maximum of 15 Members drawn from all recognized political parties in the House, plus the Chair.95

Their mandate is restricted to examining and inquiring into the bill referred to them by the House, and presenting a report on it with or without amendments.96 They are not empowered to consider matters outside the provisions of the bill,97 nor can they submit comments or recommendations in a substantive report to the House.98 However, if the House has instructed a committee to prepare a bill, it is empowered under the Standing Orders to recommend in its report the principles, scope and general provisions of the bill and may include recommendations regarding legislative wording.99

Special Committees

As in the case of legislative committees, special committees are ad hoc bodies created as needed by the House. Unlike legislative committees, however, they are not usually charged with the study of a bill,100 but rather with inquiring into a matter to which the House attaches particular importance.101 Every special committee is established by an order of reference of the House. The motion usually defines the special committee’s mandate and may include other provisions covering its powers, membership—the number of members varies, with a maximum of 15—and the deadline for presentation of its final report to the House.102 The content of the motion varies with the specific task entrusted to the committee. Special committees cease to exist upon presentation of their final report.103

Special Joint Committees

Special joint committees are created for the same purposes as special committees: to study matters of great importance. However, they are composed of Members of the House of Commons and Senators. They are established by order of reference from the House and another from the Senate.

The House that wishes to initiate a special joint committee first adopts a motion to establish it and includes a provision inviting the other Chamber to participate in the proposed committee’s work.104 The motion also includes any instruction to the committee and sets out the powers delegated to it. It may also designate the members of the committee to represent the House,105 or specify how they are to be selected.106

Decisions of one House concerning the membership, mandate and powers of a proposed joint committee are communicated to the other House by message. Both Houses must be in agreement about the mandate and powers of the committee in order for it to be able to undertake its work. Once a request to participate in a joint committee is received, the other House, if it so desires, adopts a motion to establish such a committee and includes a provision to inform the originating House that it agrees to the request.107 Once the originating House has been informed of the agreement of the other Chamber, the committee can be organized. A special joint committee ceases to exist when it has presented its final report to both Houses.

The mandate of a special joint committee is set out in the order of reference by which it is established. In the past, special joint committees have been set up to inquire into such matters as child custody,108 defence,109 foreign policy,110 a code of conduct for Members and Senators,111 Senate reform,112 and physician-assisted dying.113 Constitutional issues have often been referred to special joint committees.114 From time to time they have also been charged with review of legislation, either by being empowered to prepare a bill115 or by the referral of a bill to the committee after second reading.116


Subcommittees are working groups that report to existing committees. They are normally created by an order of reference adopted by the committee in question.117 They may also be created directly by the House, but this is less common.118 The establishment of subcommittees may also be provided for in the Standing Orders.119

The establishment of subcommittees is usually designed to relieve parliamentary committees of planning and administrative tasks, or to address important issues relating to their mandate.120 A subcommittee is able to devote all the necessary attention to the mandate it is given, whereas the committee it reports to is likely to be dealing with a heavy agenda and conflicting priorities. Subcommittees generally have a lower level of activity than the committees they report to, but in some cases they may be just as busy. Apart from the cases in which they are created by the House or required pursuant to the Standing Orders, a parliamentary committee is under no obligation to strike subcommittees; the decision rests entirely with its members.121

Unless provision has already been made in the Standing Orders, it is up to the committee or the House, as the case may be, that creates a subcommittee to establish its mandate in an order of reference, specifying its membership (the number of members varies), powers and any other conditions that are to govern its deliberations.122 Depending on the circumstances and the type of mandate it is assigned, a subcommittee will exist as long as the main committee does, or will cease to exist when its task is completed.

Not every type of committee can create subcommittees. Under the Standing Orders, standing committees (including, where the House is concerned, standing joint committees) may do so.123 In practice, most of them create a subcommittee on agenda and procedure, commonly referred to as a steering committee, to help them plan their work.124 A steering committee is the only type of subcommittee a legislative committee is empowered to create under the Standing Orders.125 Special committees may create subcommittees only if empowered to do so by the House (and by the Senate, in the case of a special joint committee).126

Once established, subcommittees carry out their own work within the mandate entrusted to them. They are free to adopt rules to govern their activities, provided these are consistent with the framework established by the main committee.127 Subcommittees are not empowered to report to the House but rather report to their main committee with respect to resolutions, motions or reports they wish the main committee to concur in.128 Proposals by a steering committee as to how the main committee’s work is to be organized must also be approved by the committee itself before they can be implemented.129 In every case, this is achieved by having the subcommittee adopt a report for presentation to the main committee.130 Unless the House or the committees decide otherwise, main committees may amend the reports of their subcommittees before concurring in them.131