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Canada Primer

 Table of Contents

The Canadian Parliamentary System
The Legislative System
Environment and Climate Change Canada
Canadian Political Parties
Relevant Court Cases


The Canadian Parliamentary System

House of Commons
Executive Branch
Supreme Court of Canada

As a former British colony, Canada’s system of governance stems from the British or Westminster tradition. As a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, Canada’s parliament consists of the Crown, the Senate, and the House of Commons, and laws are enacted once they are agreed to by all three parts.

Canada is a federalist state and therefore, lawmaking jurisdiction is shared among one federal, ten provincial and three territorial governments. The judiciary is responsible for the interpretation and application of the law and the Constitution and for giving impartial judgments. 

Parliament is the federal institution with the power to make laws, to raise taxes, and to authorize government spending. The Parliament of Canada is bicameral, meaning it has two chambers: the Senate and the House of Commons.

© House of Commons, Canada
© House of Commons of Canada


The Senate

The Senate of Canada, or upper House, is composed of 105 Senators appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister to represent Canada’s regions, provinces and territories. Senators hold the responsibility of reading and scrutinizing legislation that has passed in the House of Commons, suggesting improvements, and fixing mistakes. A practice known as, 'The Sober Second Thought', a bill must pass the Senate before it can become law.

Senators serve until mandatory retirement at the age of 75. The Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.


The House of Commons

The House of Commons, or lower House, is the elected assembly of the Parliament of Canada. Its members are elected by Canadians to represent the 338 defined electoral constituencies in Canada. The House of Commons votes on legislation, introduces bills, and generally represents the interests of the Canadian population.

When government is formed by the party or coalition of parties holding an absolute majority of the seats in the house (50%+1= over 170 seats), it also known as a majority government. When the party in power holds more seats than any other party but falls short of a clear majority in the House, the government is referred to as a minority government. Minority governments must rely on the support of members belonging to other political parties to govern.

The party with the second largest number of seats in the House forms the Official Opposition.


The Executive Branch

As a constitutional monarchy, the executive authorities in Canada are vested in the Crown and carried out by the Governor in Council, the Prime Minister and cabinet.

The Prime Minister is traditional the leader of the governing party and once appointed, the PM selects a trusted group of advisors among the elected Members of Parliament (MPs) to be Ministers of Cabinet. Ministers are each responsible for individual departments or portfolios, assisted by other MPs who are appointed as Parliamentary Secretaries. Ministers develop policies, write legislation, and introduce bills in the House to translate policies into law and govern the country.


The Judiciary

The judiciary compromises of the judges of the Canadian courts of law. It is the branch of government which is independent of the legislative and executive branches. Judges are public officers appointed to interpret and apply the laws of Canada. 


The Supreme Court of Canada

The Supreme Court of Canada has been the ultimate court of appeal for Canada since 1949. 


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Legislative Process 

Stages in the legislative process
Question Period


How is a bill drafted, amended, voted, and implemented?

A public bill can be introduced into the House of Commons by a Minister, referred to as a “government bill”, or by a Private Member, a “Private Member’s Bill” (PMB). A bill can become law only once the same text has been approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate, and has received royal assent. Bills are first introduced in the House of Commons and Standing Orders of the House of Commons require that three readings of a bill take place on a different day.

Bills that require the spending of public funds or are related to taxation must be introduced in the House of Commons and must have a royal recommendation obtained and presented by a Minister. PMBs may include provisions requiring expenditure of public funds however, royal recommendation obtained by a Minister must be provided before the bill is passed. 


Stages in the legislative process

1. Notice

48 hours written notice must be given to the Clerk of the House before a member of minister intends to introduce a public bill in the House of Commons. The bill is then placed on the Order Paper.

2. Introduction and First Reading of a Bill

At the first reading of the bill, the member of minister introduces their bill when the item Introduction of Government Bills or Introduction of Private Members' Bills is called during Routine Proceedings.

3. Second Reading and Referral of a Bill to a Committee

At the second reading of the bill, the MPs debate the general scope of the bill. The text of the bill is not amended at this stage however, the motion for second reading may be amended.

Three types of amendments, as noted by the House of Commons, are permitted:

  • a three months’ or six months’ hoist, which seeks to postpone consideration of the bill for three or six months (and which adoption is equivalent to defeating the bill by postponing its consideration and removing it from the Order Paper);
  • a reasoned amendment, which requests that the House not give second reading to a bill for a specific reason; or
  • a motion to refer the subject matter of the bill to a committee.

4. Referral of a Bill to Committee Before Second Reading

Before Second Reading, a bill may be referred to a House Committee to allow for members to examine the principle of the bill before it is approved by the House of Commons. The committee can also propose amendments to the bill.

5. Consideration in Committee of a Bill

Bills are usually referred to the standing committee the mandate of which most closely corresponds to the bill’s subject matter. However, the House may also choose to refer a bill to a legislative committee, a distinct type of committee created solely to undertake the consideration of legislation.

The committee will then review the text and approve or modify it. The minister or member sponsoring the bill and witnesses may be invited to appear before the committee to present their views and answer questions from the committee.

The committee will then proceed to study and approve the bill clause by clause where MPs can vote on amendments. Once all the parts of the bill have been considered and adopted with or without amendment, the committee votes on the bill as a whole. Once adopted, the bill is reported to the House.

6. Report Stage of a Bill

After committee consideration, the bill is further studied in the House where MPs may propose motions to amend the bill. The debate focuses on the amendments made. If no amendments are proposed, there is no debate, the House will decide whether to concur in the bill at this stage, and there will be a motion for third reading and adoption for the bill.

7. Third Reading and Adoption of a Bill

The final stage for a bill to pass through the House of Commons is the third reading. Debate at this time focuses on the final form of the bill.

Once the motion for third reading has been adopted, the Clerk of the House certifies that the bill has passed and the bill is then sent to the Senate with a message requesting that it consider the bill.

8. Consideration and Passage by the Senate

The Senate process is similar to that of the House of Commons. In the case that the Senate adopts the bill without amendment, notice is sent to the House of Commons informing that the bill has passed and royal assent is granted.

If the Senate makes amendments, they are sent to the House to be voted on. If the House does not agree with the amendments, it adopts a motion stating the reasons for its disagreement, which it communicates in a message to the Senate. If the Senate wants the amendments to remain, it sends a message back who then accept or reject the changes. Usually the Senate accepts the decisions of the House. If an agreement cannot be made, a conference can be held.

9. Royal Assent and Coming into Force of a Bill

The last stage for a bill to pass before becoming an act is the royal assent. Royal assent may be granted in one of two ways: written declaration procedure or the traditional royal assent ceremony. Written procedure is done through the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Governor General. The royal assent ceremony involves a formal ceremony done in the Senate Chamber. Once a bill has been granted royal assent, it becomes law and comes into force either on that date or at a date provided for within the act.



Question Period

During each sitting day of Parliament at approximately 2:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m. on Friday), the Speaker begins Question Period. During this time, the members of the Opposing parties can ask questions to the Government (Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers) about the state of Parliament, legislation, and information pertaining to the governance of the country.

The period usually begins with the Leader of the Opposition, asking questions and followed by the Leaders of the other opposing parties.The order for subsequent questions follows an agreed-upon rotation list based on a party’s representation in the House and the number of members in each party.  Members of the governing party, members of political parties not officially recognized in the House, and independent members are also recognized to ask questions, although not as frequently as members of officially recognized opposition parties.


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Environment and Climate Change Canada

ENVI Committee

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is the federal department concerns a wide range of environmental topics within Canada. The department addresses issues through implementation of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change; engaging with provinces, territories and Indigenous peoples; monitoring; science-based research; policy and regulatory development; and, through the enforcement of environmental laws.

Under the Department of the Environment Act, the powers, duties and functions of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change extend to matters such as:

  • the preservation and enhancement of the quality of the natural environment, including water, air and soil quality, and the coordination of the relevant policies and programs of the Government of Canada
  • renewable resources, including migratory birds and other non-domestic flora and fauna
  • meteorology; and
  • the enforcement of rules and regulations

The department works closely with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and Parks Canada to achieve many common goals.



The Honorable Steven Guilbeault is the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and was first elected as the Member of Parliament for Laurier—Sainte-Marie in 2019.

Minister Guilbeault presents bills and legislation into the House, and answers questions related to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change during Question Period in the House.


ENVI Committee in Parliament 

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development (the Committee) is established by the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. Standing Order 108(2) gives committees the power “to study and report on all matters relating to the mandate, management and operation of the department or departments of government which are assigned to them.” The department and agencies under the purview of the Committee are:

  • Environment and Climate Change Canada;
  • Parks Canada; and
  • the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (formerly the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency).

The Committee examines, enquires into and reports on matters referred to it by the House of Commons. These may include legislation, departmental activities and spending, reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and other matters related to the general subject matter of the environment and sustainable development. Legislation administered by the above department and agencies, which therefore falls under the purview of the Committee, includes:

  • the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999;
  • the Impact Assessment Act (formerly the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012);
  • the Species at Risk Act;
  • the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994;
  • the Canada Water Act;
  • the Canada Wildlife Act; and
  • the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act.


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Federalism is a political system where governance and responsibility are divided between a federal legislature and state or provincial legislatures. For certain matters, different legislatures have authority to make decisions. Canadian federalism gives the federal government jurisdiction over the entire country. Each provincial government has jurisdiction over its portion of the population and region. Both levels of government get their authority from Canada’s written Constitution.


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Political Parties in Canada

Canada is home to a wide variety of political parties that work to be elected into the House of Commons. The five major federal political parties, which were elected into the House of Commons in 2021, are:

Liberal Party
Conservative Party
New Democratic Party
Bloc Quebecois
Green Party of Canada


Liberal Party

Leader: Justin Trudeau

The Liberal Party of Canada is the oldest party in Canada and historically, the most successful in holding seats in the House of Commons. Today, the Liberal Party considers itself a fiscally responsible and socially progressive party that is supportive of free market economy, LGBTQ rights, unrestricted access to abortion, and immigration. Believes in improving social programs such as old age pension, universal healthcare, and housing.

Climate Change is a major priority for the current Liberal Party. When first elected in 2015, the Party ran on a platform dedicated to combatting the climate crisis and therefore, changed the mandate of the Ministry of Environment to include Climate Change. The first Minster of Environment and Climate Change was appointed by Justin Trudeau in 2015. The Liberal Party has committed to reducing emissions to 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030 and has promised to cut subsidies to the oil and gas sectors.


Conservative Party

Leader: Pierre Poilievre

The Conservative Party of Canada is Canada’s second-largest party in Parliament, and currently forms the Official Opposition. The Conservative Party favours low taxes, smaller, less intrusive government, a strong regime of law-and-order, a strong military and respect for traditional values. They are focused on investing in Canada’s economy and promoting industry within Canada.

Climate Change has become a topic of interest for the party with the Conservatives focused on lowering GHG emissions while maintaining economic recovery and jobs – specifically in the Energy sector. The Conservatives want to meet the Paris climate accord’s original goal of reducing emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. 


New Democratic Party

Leader: Jagmeet Singh

Canada’s New Democratic Party, was originally a doctrinaire socialist party created in the midst of the Great Depression. The NDP today is more moderate and champions the goal of a social democratic society with a “mixed economy,”. The NDP is different from the Liberals with their stance on taxing the wealthy and large corporations and non-interventionist foreign policy.

Climate Change is a major concern for the NDP, with the party focusing on a strong regulation of environmental issues. The NDP wants to reduce emissions by 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050, and wants to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.


Bloc Quebecois

Leader: Yves-François Blanchet

The Bloc Quebecois is Canada’s leading separatist political party, consisting of only MPs from Quebec. Since they only run in elections in Quebec, they will never be able to form the federal government. However, their intention is to defend the interests of Quebecers in Parliament.

Climate Change is an important priority for the Bloc as the majority of Quebecers support combatting of climate change. The BQ propose cutting emissions by 60% by 2050. Specifically, the BQ want to enhance the capacity of green energy (like Hydrogen) within Quebec. The Bloc also supports a regional Québec alternative to Via Rail Canada.


Green Party of Canada

Interim Leader: Amita Kuttner

The Green Party of Canada emerged on the scene about 30 years ago as a party focused on raising awareness of the environment and fighting Climate Change. Since their inception, the Party has focused on other issues as well, including amending the Canadian political system to fight corruption, universal healthcare, and the role of large corporations in society.

The Green Party is very focused on reducing Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels and mining, and investing in renewable, carbon-free sources of energy. As well, the Green Party believes that Canada should play a larger role in the international community to fight climate change and provide assistance to developing countries. The Greens want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 end all new oil and gas projects, ban hydraulic fracking, end fossil fuel subsidies and phase out existing oil and gas operations by 2035.


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Relevant Court Cases


Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act

In Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act 2021 SCC 11, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on 25 March 2021 that the federal carbon pricing law is constitutional.

In 2016, the Canadian federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passed the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GHGPPA), which came into effect on 21 June 2018, establishing national standards for a carbon price. The province of Saskatchewan under Premier Scott Moe filed an appeal, and on 3 May 2019 the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan ruled in favour of the federal government concluding that, GHGPPA is "not unconstitutional either in whole or in part." and was a legitimate exercise of federal power under peace, order, and good government" (POGG). Moe filed his appeal of the Saskatchewan decision to the Supreme Court of Canada on 31 May 2019.

The majority found the Act to be constitutional. In their 400 page decision, the Supreme Court said that "all of the parties agree that global climate change is real. It's caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities and it poses a grave threat to the future of humanity."


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This page was prepared under the Transatlantic Climate Bridge project - which is supported by the German Federal Government. Its contents are the sole responsibility of adelphi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the German Federal Government.