Alberta’s first Legislature was caught off guard just before its first sitting: there was no Mace. Because nobody so much as suggested that a sitting could be held without it, Alexander Rutherford’s Liberal government ordered the rush construction of one from Watson Brothers Jewelry of Calgary.
In May 2015, the Canadian Study of Parliament Group (CSPG) held a one day conference exploring parliamentary reform of procedure and practice. Noting that reform “enables an ancient institution to adapt to a changing environment, including relatively new democratic values and expectations,” the conference surveyed aspects of Canada’s parliamentary evolution and “where it needs to go in order to maximize its contribution to Canadian political life.”
The event brought together scholars, parliamentary officials and other interested observers to hear four excellent panel presentations and to discuss and debate how Canada’s Parliament might continue to adapt to meet the needs of Canadians.
In May 2015, the Canadian Study of Parliament Group held a conference in Ottawa to discuss parliamentary reform initiatives of the past, present and future. In this roundtable, some of the presenters from that conference discuss reforms from recent history and the prospects for change in parliament in the near term and whether they are optimistic or pessimistic that positive change will occur.
CPR: The Canadian Study of Parliament Group’s conference programme was loosely structured on where we’ve been, where we are now and where we’re going, and I’d like to adopt a similar structure here. Can you tell us a bit about how parliament has changed and evolved over the past 20 to 30 years?
With the 2014 Supreme Court of Canada reference making transformative reform or abolition of the Senate unlikely in the near future, the author asks if informal or incremental reforms have occurred in the past 30 years. Using quantitative data, he finds that the upper chamber has become more representative of aspects of Canadian diversity in the sociological sense. Women, Aboriginal people and official-language minorities are represented in greater numbers in the Senate than in the House of Commons. The data concerning the Senate’s effect on legislative business in Parliament reveals a somewhat uneven record.
Despite the absence of major constitutional amendments in recent decades, the Senate of Canada has changed in certain respects; however, these changes have not improved Canadians’ generally negative view of the Senate.
The provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 respecting the qualification and disqualification of Senators are outdated. They can be modernized without controversy and early action to accomplish that could be the impetus for Parliament and the Legislatures to address more significant aspects of Senate reform.
*Subsequent to the acceptance of this article for publication and immediately prior to publication, on March 10, 2016 Senator Dennis Glen Patterson introduced Bill S-221 and gave notice of a constitutional amendment resolution the combined effect of which, if adopted, will be to substantially effect the first three changes suggested by the author.
Parliamentary committees in Canada are undeniably important resources for interest groups – particularly in terms of gaining information, articulating one’s message on public record, and establishing oneself as a legitimate stakeholder in the eyes of politicians, government and the public. However, one of the intended functions of standing committees — to serve as a venue for non-governmental influence on policy — has largely proved to be a canard in Canada’s House of Commons. The first part of this article prioritizes the challenges facing non-governmental actors who wish to exert policy influence through parliamentary committees. It asserts that standing committees’ function of carrying out studies has more surmountable challenges than the function of legislative reviews. The second part of the article emphasizes that two developments are imperative in order to realize the potential committee studies hold: first, the open-ended nature of studies and the inadequacy of follow-up mechanisms should be addressed (with the scope of questions designed to feed into a pipeline of future legislative activity wherever feasible), and second, long-overdue accountability mechanisms should be introduced to ensure that the government responds to committee reports upon request.
Rule by Regulation: Revitalizing Parliament’s Supervisory Role in the Making of Subordinate Legislation
This article highlights the increasing use of regulations, or subordinate legislation, as a source of federal law. Notably, the Supreme Court of Canada has observed the importance of regulations in ascertaining a legislature’s intent with regard to a certain matter even though it is the executive and not Parliament that makes regulations. The author explains the current process in place to provide parliamentary oversight to regulations and suggests that Canada may want to adapt the UK model by dividing the existing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations into two separate committees. Methodologically screening new regulations under the proposed committee system would play an important role in supporting transparency in government by helping to publicize the exercise of legislative power by the executive, alleviating concern over governments using the regulation-making process to shield important public policy choices from public scrutiny.
On a bitterly cold evening on February 3, 1916, Members of Parliament were in the House of Commons to participate in an evening session when a fire started on one of the lower shelves in a Reading Room at 8:55 p.m. Four minutes later the first fire engine arrived on the Hill as flames engulfed the roof of Centre Block. At 9 p.m., the Chief Doorkeeper of the House of Commons alerted MPs by yelling, “There is a big fire in the Reading Room; everybody get out quickly!” Quick thinking by Librarian Michael Connolly MacCormac saved the structure from complete destruction when he dispatched a messenger to close its iron doors. At the stroke of midnight the bell in the Victoria Tower came crashing down. The fire raged towards the Senate by 12:45 a.m., but firefighters’ efforts to contain it allowed many pieces of art to be saved from the Senate side. It was 2:00 a.m. before firefighters had it under control (though it continued to smolder for much of the next day and flared up twice more). Seven people lost their lives in the Great Fire of 1916 and the Centre Block was in ruins. Reconstruction, which began later that year, and was completed in 1922 (with the Peace Tower being completed in 1927).
Library of Parliament
Library and Archives Canada
Senate of Canada
A selection of recent publications relating to parliamentary studies prepared with the assistance of the Library of Parliament (December 2015 – February 2016)
Blick, Andrew. “Constitutional implications of the [UK] Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.” Parliamentary Affairs 69 (1): 19-35 (January, 2016).
New Speaker – Northwest Territories
Jackson Lafferty was elected Speaker of the Northwest Territories’ Assembly on December 14, 2015. Lafferty, who was the sole nominee for the position, replaces Jackie Jacobson.