The House of Commons was established in 1867, when the British North America Act 1867 created the Dominion of Canada, and was modelled on the British House of Commons. The "lower" of the two houses making up the parliament, the House of Commons in practice holds far more power than the upper house, the Senate. Although the approval of both Houses is necessary for legislation, the Senate very rarely rejects bills passed by the Commons (though the Senate does occasionally amend bills). Moreover, the Government of Canada is responsible solely to the House of Commons through a system of responsible government. The Prime Minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains the support of the Lower House.
It is widely thought that "Commons" is a shortening of the word "commoners". However, the term derives from the Anglo-Norman word communes, referring to the geographic and collective "communities" of their parliamentary representatives and not the third estate, the commonality. This distinction is made clear in the official French name of the body, la Chambre des communes. Canada remains the only country besides the United Kingdom to use the name "House of Commons" for the Lower House of Parliament.
As a result of these three clauses, smaller provinces and provinces that have experienced a relative decline in population are over-represented in the House. Quebec is over represented in proportion to its populations, while Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta are represented in proportion to their populations. Provincial boundary commissions are responsible for drawing the boundaries of the electoral districts. Territorial representation is independent of population; each territory is entitled to only one seat. The calculation is done by taking the minimum 282 seats and subtracting the three territories to equal 279 seats. The population of Canada is then divided by 279 to equal the electoral quotient. The population of the province is then divided by the electoral quotient to equal the provincial seat allocation. (Source: Jackson & Jackson, Politics in Canada, Prentice Hall, Toronto, pg 438) Representation in the House of Commons is summarised in the table at the end of this section.
|Province or Territory||Minimum number of seats in accordance with the Constitution Act, 1867||Calculations||Electoral Quotient (Average population per electoral district)|
|Population 2001||National Quotient||Rounded result||Special clauses||Total|
|Newfoundland and Labrador||7||512 930||107 220||5||2||7||73 276|
|Prince Edward Island||4||135 294||107 220||1||3||4||33 824|
|Nova Scotia||11||908 007||107 220||8||3||11||82 546|
|New Brunswick||10||729 498||107 220||7||3||10||72 950|
|Quebec||75||7 237 479||107 220||68||7||75||96 500|
|Ontario||95||11 410 046||107 220||106||0||106||107 642|
|Manitoba||14||1 119 583||107 220||10||4||14||79 970|
|Saskatchewan||14||978 933||107 220||9||5||14||69 924|
|Alberta||21||2 974 807||107 220||28||0||28||106 243|
|British Columbia||28||3 907 738||107 220||36||0||36||108 548|
|Nunavut||1||26 745||–||–||–||1||26 745|
|Northwest Territories||1||37 360||–||–||–||1||37 360|
|Yukon Territory||1||28 674||–||–||–||1||28 674|
|TOTAL||282||30 007 094||308||97 426|
General elections occur whenever Parliament is dissolved by the Governor General on The Queen's behalf. The timing of the dissolution is normally chosen by the Prime Minister. A parliamentary term may not last for more than five years. Canadian law states that all federal elections must be held on a Monday (except on statutory holidays), and the campaign must be at least 36 days long. Candidates are usually nominated by political parties. It is possible for a candidate to run independently, although it is rare for such a candidate to win. Most successful independent candidates have been incumbents who were expelled from their political party (for example, John Nunziata in 1997) or who failed to win their party's nomination (for example, Chuck Cadman in 2004). The most recent exception to this was the election of André Arthur in a Quebec City district in 2006. Most Canadian candidates are chosen in meetings called by their party's local association. In practice, the candidate who signs up the most local party members generally wins the nomination.
To run for a seat in the House, candidates must file nomination papers bearing the signatures of at least 50 or 100 constituents (depending on the size of the electoral district). Each electoral district returns one member; the First Past the Post electoral system, under which the candidate with a plurality of votes wins, is used. To vote, one must be a citizen of Canada and at least eighteen years of age.
Once elected, a Member of Parliament normally continues to serve until the next dissolution of Parliament. If a member dies, resigns, or ceases to be qualified, his or her seat falls vacant. It is also possible for the House of Commons to expel a member, but this power is only exercised when the member has engaged in serious misconduct or criminal activity. Formerly, MPs appointed to cabinet were expected to resign their seats, though this practice ceased in 1931. In each case, a vacancy may be filled by a by-election in the appropriate electoral district. The first past the post electoral system is used in by-elections, as in general elections.
The term "Member of Parliament" is usually used only to refer to members of the House of Commons, even though the Senate is also a part of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons may use the post-nominal letters "MP". The annual salary of each Member of Parliament, as of 2008, is $154,400; members may receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). MPs rank immediately below senators in the order of precedence.
The act also prohibits certain officials from standing for the House of Commons. These officers include members of provincial and territorial legislatures (although this was not always the case), sheriffs, crown attorneys, most judges, and election officers. The Chief Electoral Officer and Assistant Chief Electoral Officer (the heads of Elections Canada, the federal agency responsible for conducting elections) are prohibited not only from standing as candidates, but also from voting. Finally, under the Constitution Act, 1867, a member of the Senate may not also become a member of the House of Commons and MPs must give up their seats when appointed to the Senate or the bench.
The House of Commons elects a presiding officer, known as the Speaker, at the beginning of each new parliamentary term, and also whenever a vacancy arises. Formerly, the Prime Minister determined who would serve as Speaker. Although the House voted on the matter, the voting constituted a mere formality. Since 1986, however, the House has elected Speakers by secret ballot. The Speaker is assisted by a Deputy Speaker, who also holds the title of Chair of Committees of the Whole. Two other deputies—the Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole and the Assistant Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole—also preside. The duties of presiding over the House are divided between the four officers aforementioned; however, the Speaker usually presides over Question Period and over the most important debates.
The Speaker controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a member believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order", on which the Speaker makes a ruling that is not subject to any debate or appeal. The Speaker may also discipline members who fail to observe the rules of the House. When presiding, the Speaker must remain impartial. The Speaker also oversees the administration of the House and is Chair of the Board of Internal Economy, the governing body for the House of Commons. The current Speaker of the House of Commons is the Honourable Peter Milliken, MP.
The member of the Government responsible for steering legislation through the House is Leader of the Government in the House of Commons. The Government House Leader (as he or she is more commonly known) is a Member of Parliament selected by the Prime Minister and holds cabinet rank. The Leader manages the schedule of the House of Commons, and attempts to secure the Opposition's support for the Government's legislative agenda.
Officers of the House who are not members include the Clerk of the House of Commons, the Deputy Clerk, the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel, and several other clerks. These officers advise the Speaker and members on the rules and procedure of the House in addition to exercising senior management functions within the House administration. Another important officer is the Sergeant-at-Arms, whose duties include the maintenance of order and security on the House's premises and inside the buildings of the Parliamentary precinct. (The RCMP patrol Parliament Hill but are not allowed into the buildings unless asked by the Speaker). The Sergeant-at-Arms also carries the ceremonial mace, a symbol of the authority of the Crown and of the House of Commons, into the House each sitting. The mace is subsequently laid upon the Table of the House of Commons for the duration of the sitting. The House is also staffed by parliamentary pages, who carry messages to the members in the Chamber and otherwise provide assistance to the House.
Like the Senate, the House of Commons meets on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Commons Chamber is modestly decorated in green, in contrast with the more lavishly furnished red Senate Chamber. The arrangement is similar to the design of the Chamber of the British House of Commons. The seats are evenly divided between both sides of the Chamber, three sword-lengths apart (about three metres). The Speaker's chair (which can be adjusted for height) is at the north end of the Chamber. In front of it is the Table of the House, on which rests the ceremonial mace. Various "Table Officers"—clerks and other officials—sit at the Table, ready to advise the Speaker on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, while members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left. Government ministers sit around the Prime Minister, who is traditionally assigned the 11th seat in the front row on the Speaker's right-hand side. The leader of the Official Opposition sits directly across from the prime minister and is surrounded by a shadow cabinet, or critics for the government portfolios. The remaining party leaders sit in the front rows. Other Members of Parliament who do not hold any kind of special responsibilities are known as "backbenchers".
The House usually sits Monday to Friday from late January to mid-June and from mid-September to mid-December according to an established calendar, though it can modify the calendar if additional or fewer sittings are required. During these periods, the House generally rises for one week per month to allow members to work in their constituencies. Sittings of the House are open to the public. Proceedings are broadcast over cable and satellite television and over live streaming video on the Internet by CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel, owned by a consortium of Canadian cable companies. They are also recorded in text form in print and online in Hansard, the official report of parliamentary debates.
The Constitution Act, 1867 establishes a quorum of twenty members (including the member presiding) for the House of Commons. Any member may request a count of the members to ascertain the presence of a quorum; if, however, the Speaker feels that at least twenty members are clearly in the Chamber, he or she may deny the request. If a count does occur, and reveals that fewer than twenty members are present, the Speaker orders bells to be rung, so that other members on the parliamentary precincts may come to the Chamber. If, after a second count, a quorum is still not present, the Speaker must adjourn the House until the next sitting day.
During debates, members may only speak if called upon by the Speaker (or, as is most often the case, the deputy presiding). The Speaker is responsible for ensuring that members of all parties have an opportunity to be heard. The Speaker also determines who is to speak if two or more members rise simultaneously, but his or her decision may be altered by the House. Motions must be moved by one member and seconded by another before debate may begin. Some motions, however, are non-debatable.
Speeches may be made in either of Canada's official languages (English and French). Members must address their speeches to the presiding officer, not the House, using the words "Mr. Speaker" ("Monsieur le Président") or "Madam Speaker" ("Madame la Présidente"). Other members must be referred to in the third person. Traditionally, Members do not refer to each other by name, but by constituency or cabinet post, using forms such as "the honourable member for [electoral district]" or "the Minister of..."
No member may speak more than once on the same question (except that the mover of a motion is entitled to make one speech at the beginning of the debate and another at the end). Moreover, tediously repetitive or irrelevant remarks are prohibited, as are written remarks read into the record (although this behaviour is creeping into modern debate). The presiding officer may order a member making such remarks to cease speaking. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons prescribe time limits for speeches. The limits depend on the nature of the motion, but are most commonly between ten and twenty minutes. However, under certain circumstances, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Official Opposition, and others are entitled to make longer speeches. Debate may be further restricted by the passage of "time allocation" motions. Alternatively, the House may end debate more quickly by passing a motion for "closure".
When the debate concludes, the motion in question is put to a vote. The House first votes by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question, and members respond either "yea" (in favour of the motion) or "nay" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but five or more members may challenge his or her assessment, thereby forcing a recorded vote (known as a division, although, in fact, the House does not divide for votes the way the British House of Commons does). First, members in favour of the motion rise, so that the clerks may record their names and votes. Then, the same procedure is repeated for members who oppose the motion. There is no formal means for recording an abstention, though a member may informally abstain by remaining seated during the division. If there is an equality of votes, the Speaker has a casting vote.
The outcome of most votes is largely known beforehand, since political parties normally instruct members on how to vote. A party normally entrusts some Members of Parliament, known as whips, with the task of ensuring that all party members vote as desired. Members of Parliament do not tend to vote against such instructions, since those who do so are unlikely to reach higher political ranks in their parties. Errant members may be deselected as official party candidates during future elections, and, in serious cases, may be expelled from their parties outright. Thus, the independence of Members of Parliament tends to be extremely low, and "backbench rebellions" by members discontent with their party's policies are rare. In some circumstances, however, parties announce "free votes", allowing Members to vote as they please. This may be done on moral issues.
Potentially, the largest of the Commons committees are the Committees of the Whole, which, as the name suggests, consist of all the members of the House. A Committee of the Whole meets in the Chamber of the House, but proceeds under slightly modified rules of debate. (For example, a member may make more than one speech on a motion in a Committee of the Whole, but not during a normal session of the House.) Instead of the Speaker, the Chairman, Deputy Chairman, or Assistant Deputy Chairman presides. The House resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss appropriation bills, and sometimes for other legislation.
The House of Commons also has several standing committees, each of which has responsibility for a particular area of government (for example, finance or transport). These committees oversee the relevant government departments, may hold hearings and collect evidence on governmental operations and review departmental spending plans. Standing committees may also consider and amend bills. Standing committees consist of between sixteen and eighteen members each, and elect their own chairmen.
Some bills are considered by legislative committees, each of which consists of up to fifteen members. The membership of each legislative committee roughly reflects the strength of the parties in the whole House. A legislative committee is appointed on an ad hoc basis to study and amend a specific bill. In addition, the Chairman of a legislative committee is not elected by the members of the committee, but is instead appointed by the Speaker, normally from among his deputies. Most bills, however, are referred to standing committees rather than legislative committees.
The House may also create ad hoc committees to study matters other than bills. Such committees are known as special committees. Each such body, like a legislative committee, may consist of no more than fifteen members. Other committees include joint committees, which include both members of the House of Commons and senators; such committees may hold hearings and oversee government, but do not revise legislation.
In conformity with the British model, the Lower House alone is authorised to originate bills imposing taxes or appropriating public funds. This restriction on the power of the Senate is not merely a matter of convention, but is explicitly stated in the Constitution Act, 1867. Otherwise, the power of the two Houses of Parliament is theoretically equal; the approval of each is necessary for a bill's passage.
In practice, however, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber of Parliament, with the Senate very rarely exercising its powers in a way that opposes the will of the democratically elected chamber. The last major bill defeated in the Senate came in 1991, when a bill passed by the Commons restricting abortion was rejected in the Upper House by a tied vote.
A clause in the Constitution Act, 1867 permits the Governor General (with the approval of the Queen) to appoint up to eight extra senators to resolve a deadlock between the two houses. The clause was invoked only once, in 1990, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney advised the appointment of an additional eight senators in order to secure the Upper House's approval for the Goods and Services Tax.
The Prime Minister may only stay in office as long as he or she retains the confidence of the House of Commons. The Lower House may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a motion of confidence, or by passing a motion of no confidence. Important bills that form a part of the Government's agenda are generally considered matters of confidence, as is any taxation or spending bill and the annual budget. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to either resign, or request the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election. The Governor General may theoretically refuse to dissolve Parliament, thereby forcing the Prime Minister to resign. The last instance of a Governor General refusing to grant a dissolution was in 1926.
Except when compelled to request a dissolution by an adverse vote on a confidence issue, the Prime Minister is allowed to choose the timing of dissolutions, and consequently the timing of general elections. The time chosen reflects political considerations, and is generally most opportune for the Prime Minister's party. However, no parliamentary term can last for more than five years from the first sitting of Parliament; a dissolution is automatic upon the expiry of this period. Normally, Parliaments do not last for full five-year terms; Prime Ministers typically ask for dissolutions after about three or four years. The 2006 Conservative government introduced a bill to set fixed election dates every four years. This bill was approved by Parliament and has now become law.
Whatever the reason—the expiry of Parliament's five year term, the choice of the Prime Minister, or a Government defeat in the House of Commons—a dissolution is followed by general elections. If the Prime Minister's party retains its majority in the House of Commons, then the Prime Minister may remain in power. On the other hand, if his or her party has lost its majority, the prime minister may resign, or may attempt to stay in power by winning support from members of other parties. A Prime Minister may resign even if he or she is not defeated at the polls (for example, for personal health reasons); in such a case, the premiership goes to the new leader of the outgoing Prime Minister's party.
The House of Commons scrutinizes the Government through "Question Period", a daily forty-five minute period during which members have the opportunity to ask questions of the Prime Minister and of other Cabinet ministers. Questions must relate to the responding minister's official Government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as a private Member of Parliament. Members may also question Committee Chairmen on the work of their respective committees. Members of each party are entitled to a number of questions proportional to the party caucus' strength in the House. In addition to questions asked orally during Question Period, Members of Parliament may also make inquiries in writing.
In times where there is a majority government, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the government is weak. Since the first-past-the-post electoral system is employed in elections, the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. (Minority governments, however, are not uncommon.) Modern Canadian political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. In many cases, MPs may be expelled from their parties for voting against the instructions of party leaders. As well, the major parties require candidates' nominations to be signed by party leaders, thus giving the leaders the power to, effectively, end a politician's career. Thus, defeats of majority governments on issues of confidence are very rare. Paul Martin's Liberal minority government lost a vote of no confidence in 2005; the last time this had occurred was in 1979, when Joe Clark's Tory minority government was defeated after a term of just six months.
|Affiliation|| Members||Conservative Party||127||Liberal Party||95||Bloc Québécois||48||New Democratic Party||30||Green Party||1|| Independent||3|| Vacant||4|