Lesson 2: How Law is Made

Topic 2: Government-Made Law or Statute Law


Bill: A proposed piece of legislation not yet passed by the House or Senate. Bills must be sponsored by private members, the ruling party or a member of the Senate.

Law: A law is a bill that has passed through the legislative process (three readings), received approval of the Commons and Senate and received Royal Assent.

Order Paper: The posting of all House business for a given day. The order paper lists all bills being presented to the House.

First Reading: The formal presentation of a bill in the Commons (can be in the Senate). It is commonly the first time all parties will receive notice of a bill.

Second Reading: This is where all bills receive full debate in the Commons (and Senate). At this stage the merits of new legislation are debated among the members of the government and opposition to make the process open and transparent.

Third Reading: At this stage a bill is read for the last time and any amendments are made public. Each bill is then voted upon and then forwarded for Royal Assent or approval of the second house.

Committee: All bills go to Standing Committees or Ad Hoc Committees of the House to allow for further review, clause-by-clause inspection and an opportunity for the public to give input. Committees always have representation from multiple parties of the House and are chaired by a member responsible for the bill.

Lobbyist: There are many lobbyists in Ottawa representing a variety of broad economic and social interests. These lobbyists are paid to provide government members with information designed to influence a particular point of view. Some examples would include: representatives of the real estate, tobacco and oil industries, medical practitioners and educators.

The Speaker of the House: This title is given to an MP that is elected by his or her peers. Essentially the Speaker of the House is referee of all parliamentary procedures and final arbitrator of disputes in the House.

The House of Commons: This is one half of the legislative branch in our Parliament. It is an elected body of 308 members that sits once each year with its principle purpose to pass legislative bills and debate matters of public interest. Members of the Commons must be citizens and at least 18 years of age. The Commons may initiate bills of any sort including those that impose taxation or the spending of public money.

The Senate: The Senate is the other legislative body in our Parliament. It is composed of 105 members, all of whom have been appointed by Prime Ministers. It serves as the place of “sober second thought” and considers all legislation coming out of the Commons. Senators are appointed until age 75, must be citizens of Canada and at least 30 years of age, and must have real estate and net assets of at least $4,000. The Senate can initiate bills that may not be for taxation or the spending of public money.

Senate Bill: A bill proposed in the Senate then sent to the Commons for further review. Senate bills are not uncommon but few are passed by Parliament.

Private Member’s Bill: A bill sponsored by a Member of Parliament but not in Cabinet. Many of these bills come from members of the opposition but ruling party members without a cabinet position may also sponsor a bill. Private Member’s Bills do not have the resources and support of the ruling party and therefore it is rare for such bills to become laws.

Government Bill: The majority of bills proposed each Parliament come from the cabinet of the ruling party. These bills have the support of the Prime Minister and the resources of the government to help push them through the legislative process.

Minority Government: A government formed by a party with fewer than 51% of the seats in the House of Commons (currently this would be 154 seats or fewer). Minority governments require the support of opposition members to pass bills and make significant policy decisions. A minority government can become a coalition government if two or more parties join together to achieve 51% of the seats.

Majority Government: When a party achieves 51% or more of the seats in the House of Commons it can form a majority government. With a majority of seats in the House it is easier for the government to pass legislation because it does not require support from any of the parties in opposition.

Branches of Government

Legislative Branch

The Legislative Branch includes the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Queen (represented by the Governor General of Canada). The principal role of this branch is to make laws for the governance of the nation. Members of the Commons are elected by the voting public while members of the Senate are appointed by the Governor General (on the advice of the Prime Minister).

Executive Branch

The Executive Branch includes the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the Queen (represented by the Governor General). The principal role of this branch is to enact and enforce the laws of the nation. The Cabinet is chosen by the Prime Minister and can include senators, but generally it is composed of Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling party. It is customary to have at least one cabinet member from each province and it is common to have 10-12 ministers chosen from Ontario and Quebec. More recently, women, ethnic minorities, and Aboriginal representation are appointed to the cabinet.

Judicial Branch

This branch is comprised of the Supreme Court of Canada and its nine judges, the Federal Court of Canada, and the superior courts of the provinces. The primary function of the judicial branch is to interpret and apply the laws made by Parliament. Supreme Court of Canada judges are appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, and have the authority of being the “court of last resort” in Canada.

To learn more about the branches of government, visit the Parliament of Canada website.

Canada’s Parliamentary System


Order Paper: The Order Paper is printed daily for both the House of Commons and the Senate. It lists the business of Parliament for that day’s sitting. Any bills to be introduced or debated will be listed on the Order paper as part of the business of Parliament for that day.

First Reading: A member of the Cabinet or backbencher proposes a bill and moves for the House’s “leave” to introduce the bill. Next comes the motion that the bill be read a first time and printed (the printed bill is on the Order Paper). Both of these steps are done without debate and approval is automatic.

Second Reading: After first reading the motion for second reading will take place. This is the stage at which MPs debate the principle of the bill — its substance rather than its language. If it passes second reading, it goes to a committee of the House, usually a standing committee. It is at this stage that the government and opposition parties will debate the value of the bill to a specific cause, issue, or matter of national importance. Specific procedural rules govern how long a bill may be debated. However, individual speakers may have the “floor” for anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours.

Committee Process: If it passes second reading, the bill goes to a committee of the House, usually a standing committee. At this stage, committees may hear from groups and individuals that are not MPs. The committee considers the bill, clause by clause, before reporting it (with or without amendments) back to the House. The size of these committees varies, but the parties are represented in proportion to their strength in the House itself. Any member of the committee can move amendments. The bill then returns to the House, with or without amendments for Third Reading.

Third Reading: Bills returning for approval for Third Reading have been presented, debated, analyzed, amended, and given due process. If the motion for third reading carries, the bill goes to the Senate, where it goes through much the same process. Bills initiated in the Senate and passed there come to the Commons, and go through the same stages as Commons bills.

Royal Assent: Royal Assent is given by the Queen’s representative in Canadian Parliament — the Governor General. No bill can become law (become an Act) unless it has been passed in identical form by both houses and has been assented to by the Governor General.

Parliamentary Roles

Government Party

The ruling party has the responsibility of the day-to-day and long-term operation of the federal government. This party must plan, finance, and run all aspects of our national government and is viewed as the "face" of the nation, particularly the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister: The leader of the party that holds the largest number of seats in Parliament. The Prime Minster is the chairman of the cabinet, head of state and the leader of the ruling party. The Prime Minister appoints all cabinet posts, leads the government in Question Period and is held accountable for the government’s legislative agenda in each Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister: This is an honourary position in the cabinet, appointed by the ruling prime minister. It is a ministry "without portfolio" but duties include: assuming the role of Prime Minister when he or she is absent or unable to carry on the duties, answering to the opposition in Question Period and working in cabinet.

Party Whip: The Party Whip has the responsibility of maintaining party discipline, ensuring that party members vote according to party beliefs and keeping party members in line during Question period.

Finance Minister: This is a critical role in Canada’s Parliament because he or she must present the budget for each fiscal year and is responsible for keeping the nation’s finances in check. The Finance Minister answers all questions of a financial matter in Question Period.

Cabinet Minister: Each department of the government has a cabinet minister in charge of that portfolio. The minister sets the agenda or direction for the department and is responsible in Parliament to answer all questions relating to issues coming out of the department and its activities.

Backbencher: All elected members of Parliament that are not assigned a specific portfolio or role are backbenchers. These members are frequently inexperienced, newly elected, or being punished for a lack of party discipline.

Official Opposition

The Official Opposition is generally the party that elects the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons. This party has the important task of keeping the actions and policies of the government open and honest. The opposition will question, attack, delay, or defeat legislation that is not in the interest of Canadians — or of the opposition party itself. As the "official opposition" this party receives specific financial and procedural advantages over all other opposition parties.

Leader of the Opposition: The Leader of the Opposition is the elected party head that receives the second largest number of seats in Parliament. This person is responsible for keeping the government, particularly the Prime Minister, in line during Question Period and represents the interests of the party in Parliament and the public.

Party Whip: The Party Whip has the responsibility of maintaining party discipline, ensuring that party members vote according to party beliefs and keeping party members in line during Question period.

Finance Critic: The Finance Critic is a key member of the shadow cabinet because he or she must be aware of all government expenditures, the official budget, and the overall fiscal direction of the government. The Finance Critic asks critical questions of the Finance Minister and government about federal spending.

Shadow Cabinet: Each shadow cabinet member plays a role as the opposite, or shadow, of a government minister. For each government portfolio (ministry) there is an opposite critic or shadow cabinet position. The primary role is to keep the government open and honest about its legislative agenda. Critics lead Question Period with specific questions targeted at the legislation supported by the government.

Backbencher: All elected members of Parliament that are not assigned a specific portfolio or role are backbenchers. These members are frequently inexperienced, newly elected, or being punished for a lack of party discipline.

Third Party

This is any opposition party not considered the official opposition. All parties in opposition have a similar role in keeping the government open and honest about its legislative agenda and overall direction for the nation. These secondary opposition parties do not have the financial advantages or procedural benefits in Question Period and so the impact they may have on government policy is less substantial.

Party Leader: Like the other party leaders, this person has been chosen by party membership and would step into the Prime Minister’s role if the party received a majority of seats. In Parliament, the party leader’s role is similar to that of the official opposition’s leader — he or she addresses the government in Question Period, sits on committees, and meets all media relations obligations.

Party Member: A party member is an MP that has no portfolio or title but does sit on committees, address the government during debate, and may probe government policy during Question Period. A party member’s loyalty is a balance between party interests and the needs of his or her constituents that elected him or her to office. The balancing of delegate interests (constituency) and trustee (national) interests is one of the challenges of our party system.