Additional Information For Teachers
1 - History of the Senate of Canada
For more than 130 years, senators have represented, examined,
deliberated, and legislated in both official languages in the
interests of all Canadians.
At the Quebec Conference in 1864, the Fathers of Confederation chose a constitutional monarchy modeled after that of Great Britain for the new country that would become Canada. As a result, Canada's Parliament was to be composed of the Sovereign, an appointed upper house called the Senate, and an elected lower house called the House of Commons. This bicameral system, consisting of two separate but equal chambers, would help ensure that all legislation received careful consideration.
The role and the responsibilities of Parliament were set out in the British North America Act, now called the Constitution Act, 1867. It established that all Acts of Parliament were to be passed in the name of the Sovereign, currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the power of the people. To reflect this, all federal laws begin with these words, "Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows."
According to Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Senate was to be a place of "sober second thought."
2 - The Parliamentary System
Each of the three components of Parliament has a specific
The Queen's responsibilities as Head of State are fulfilled in Canada by the Governor General, who ensures there is always a Government to serve Canada, summons and dissolves Parliament, opens each parliamentary session with a Speech from the Throne, and gives Royal Assent to bills, thereby making them law.
The Senate, the Upper House of Parliament, has 105 members, who are appointed by the Governor General upon the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Senators introduce, examine, amend, reject, or approve bills. Senators help to focus greater attention on those people in our society whose rights and interests are often overlooked.
The Governor General is appointed by the Queen upon the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
The House of Commons, or Lower House, is made up of 301 Members, each one an elected representative of a riding. All Members, whether part of the government or the Opposition, express the views of their constituents, debate questions of national interest, introduce and study bills, and vote on them.
3 - Who Serves
The Fathers of Confederation gave the Senate the vital role
of protecting regional, provincial, territorial, and minority
interests. They assigned each region the same number of seats
to guarantee them an equal voice in the Senate. Seats were
added as new provinces and territories entered Confederation.
Today, 105 seats are distributed as follows:
|6||Newfoundland and Labrador|
|10 Nova Scotia|
|10 New Brunswick|
|4 Prince Edward Island|
|6 British Columbia|
To become a senator, an individual must:
be a Canadian citizen;
be at least 30 years of age;
own property in the province/territory which he or she represents;
reside in the province/territory which he or she represents;
have a personal net worth of $4000.
Today's Senate includes both women and men from varied
professional, cultural, religious, and linguistic
backgrounds. Canada's First Nations and Black communities are
represented, along with Canadians of Arab, Asian, Italian,
Jewish, Ukrainian, and other origins. Business people,
teachers, lawyers, surgeons, politicians, journalists,
athletes, farmers, police officers - Canadians from many
walks of life bring a broad range of experience to the
chamber. Their expertise is invaluable in dealing with the
complex issues before Parliament.
Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Because senators are appointed to serve until the age of 75, a certain continuity and institutional memory are maintained in the Senate. Senators have the opportunity to follow issues over a long period and to develop a thorough knowledge of particular areas of public policy and the workings of Parliament.
Women could not sit in the Senate until 1929. Before that time they were not considered "persons" under Canadian law. Now, about one third of senators are women.
4 - On the Job
In the course of duty, a senator may find him or herself
operating in a variety of arenas. On the international stage,
senators help promote the image of Canada and form links with
other countries through parliamentary associations. They meet
with representatives from around the world to discuss issues
such as health, trade, economics, security, culture, and
At home, senators frequently act as ombudsmen. They help those seeking information on legislation or dealing with the federal government and its bureaucracy. They highlight the needs of the regions and of minorities whose rights are often overlooked - such as children, veterans, the poor, the elderly - by offering a public forum through Senate committee investigations.
Committee work takes up the greater part of a senator's time. Many senators sit on two or more committees and serve on sub-committees as well, logging long hours preparing for and attending meetings.
Regular travel to and from a senator's own region is a given. Whether at home or in the nation's capital, senators spend much of each week meeting with individual citizens and interest groups, researching, writing, giving speeches, and attending Senate sessions or caucus meetings. In the chamber, time is spent each day on presenting petitions, tabling documents, discussing committee reports, debating issues, introducing bills, and passing laws.
5 - The Senate Chamber
A set of imposing doors leads to the "Red Chamber" as the
Senate is sometimes called. Regular sessions of the Upper
House take place in this regal setting fitted with red
carpeting, walnut desks, oak panelling, massive bronze
chandeliers, and a ceiling covered in gold leaf. The walls
display large oil paintings of scenes from World War I. Below
them is a frieze of Canada's flora and fauna sculpted from
At the far end of the chamber is an elevated platform where the Speaker's Chair is located.
Directly behind it are the thrones reserved for the Queen or the Governor General and their consort. Each senator has a designated seat. Members of the political party that forms the Government generally sit to the Speaker's right, while members of the Opposition sit to the left. Those senators who are not affiliated with a political party sit as independents.
The Mace is a richly ornamented staff of brass and gold dating back to the 1850s. As a symbol of the Senate's authority, it is set on the Clerk's table pointing toward the throne whenever the Senate is sitting.
Senate proceedings are open to the public and the media. The galleries at the north and south ends of the chamber can accommodate 350 people.
6 - Roles in the Senate
The Speaker, appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, presides over the Senate Chamber, maintaining order and decorum, directing debates, and ensuring that proper parliamentary procedure is followed.
Leader of the Government
Appointed by the Prime Minister and usually a member of Cabinet, the Leader of the Government performs the dual role of representing the Government in the Senate and the Senate in Cabinet. The Leader organizes government strategy, sponsors legislation, manages government business in the Senate, and responds to questions during Question Period.
The Speaker of the Senate is fourth in the Order of Precedence following the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Leader of the Opposition
Selected by the largest opposition party, the Leader of the Opposition coordinates party members' activities in the chamber and in committees. Another important responsibility of the Leader is to act as the spokesperson of his or her party.
The Deputy Leader of the Government and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition manage the day-to-day operations in the chamber for their respective parties. They negotiate the scheduling of the legislative activities and the sittings of the Senate.
Hansard is a printed record of each day's debates in the Senate. The name is taken from the family once responsible for transcribing the proceedings of the British Parliament.
Both the Government and Opposition parties have Whips in the Senate who are responsible for keeping their senators informed of Senate business and schedules, making certain there is a quorum in the Senate Chamber and at committee meetings, and ensuring attendance when a vote is called. They also decide, in consultation with their leaders, who is assigned to which committee and where members of their party will sit in chamber.
A number of procedural clerks assist the Speaker in the chamber. The Clerk of the Senate, who is also Clerk of the Parliaments, functions as the chief administrative officer. Among other duties, the Clerk is custodian of all Acts approved by Parliament and is responsible for authenticating copies of them. The Deputy Clerk, Law Clerk, and Clerks of Committees also provide support and advice.
Each year, university students from across Canada are hired by the Senate as pages. They provide support and assistance to senators in the chamber and in committee meetings.
7- The Legislative Process
The making of laws is the most important function of
Parliament. The process begins with the introduction of a
bill- a proposal to create a new law, or change an existing
one. Bills may be introduced in either the Senate or the
House of Commons except for those involving the collection or
spending of public funds. These are called money bills and
they must always begin in the House of Commons.
On its way to becoming law, a bill must move through a series of stages so as to ensure that the proposed legislation is given due consideration. These stages include three readings in each house:
The bill is presented and circulated.
The principle and purpose of the bill are debated and voted upon. If the members agree to pursue the bill, it is then sent to committee for closer review and report.
The committee's report on the bill is considered by the whole house and the bill is debated once more before a final vote is taken. The bill may be passed, amended, or defeated. Once passed, with or without amendments, it is sent to the other house which applies the same process of examination.
When one house amends a bill received from the other, the bill is sent back to the originating house with a message requesting acceptance of the changes. In the case of a disagreement, the two houses continue to exchange messages until a compromise is reached.
In 1999, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology recommended amendments to Bill C-6, the Electronic Commerce Bill, because of a concern that the bill did not sufficiently protect the privacy of personal health information. The Committee suggested changes to offer improved security. The Senate adopted the amendments and sent the amended bill back to the House of Commons, where it was approved and eventually became law.
Either chamber is able to vote down a bill approved by the other, while both houses must approve bills separately in order for them to become law. Once approved by both, the bill is presented for Royal Assent and is made law.
No bill can become law in Canada until the Senate has approved it.
The necessity of having both houses approve legislation ensures that proper checks and balances are in place. One house may have passed a bill too quickly or failed to consider input from certain interested groups. The other house then has the opportunity to address these concerns. Since most government bills are introduced in the House of Commons, the role of offering "sober second thought" usually falls to the Senate.
In 1998, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the Senate opposed Bill C-220. The bill would have given the Government the authority to censor publications written by persons convicted of crimes where the publication was based substantially on the crime. The Senate Committee believed that the bill was a direct violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of expression. Although the bill had been passed by the House of Commons, the Senate agreed with the Committee's recommendation and rejected the bill.
At times, one house refuses amendments to a bill made by the other. In this case, if a compromise cannot be reached, the legislation is defeated and the bill "dies." The Senate does not enact this veto power often, but has rejected bills when it was felt the Government did not have an electoral mandate for a measure, when the bill was obviously outside the constitutional authority of Parliament, or under other extraordinary circumstances.
The Senate also has the power to delay a bill. Without being officially rejected, a delayed bill dies at the end of that session of Parliament. This action on the part of the Senate can draw public attention to an issue and lead to more careful scrutiny of the proposed legislation. In some instances, it can persuade a Government to seek a new mandate from the people. Bills originating in the Senate are identified as S-bills, those from the House of Commons as C-bills.
In 1988, the Senate delayed passage of Bill C-130, legislation to implement the free trade agreement with the United States. This caused the Government to call an election on the issue. Once re-elected, the Government proposed a similar bill which was passed by Parliament.
8 - Senate Committees
A vital part of the work of the Senate takes place in its
committees. These study groups, made up of from five to
fifteen senators, have three main functions: to approve or
amend bills, to investigate policy matters and to examine the
Government's spending proposals.
The Senate's more flexible timetable allows for thorough, in-depth investigations of issues before Parliament.
Each committee has its own area of focus, from foreign affairs or Aboriginal peoples to transport and communications. Because of the diversity of background and experience in the Senate Chamber, there is a wealth of relevant expertise to draw on in the make-up of these groups. In addition to their own knowledge, senators rely upon outside advice and information gathered through hearings where experts and the general public are invited to appear. Committees request study papers and reports, and seek out the views and opinions of a wide range of people who may be affected by the matters under consideration.
In committee, senators have the opportunity to examine how a bill affects the daily lives of Canadians. Among the subjects that may be reviewed are children's rights, literacy, terrorism, health, illicit drugs, euthanasia, the technological revolution, and poverty. These investigations give people from all walks of life a chance to have their voices heard on issues that matter. Senate committees hold an average of 400 meetings, hear from more than 1000 witnesses, and produce more than 100 reports annually.
9 - Tradition and Ceremony
The Senate Chamber is the setting for major parliamentary and
state ceremonies, such as the installation of a new Governor
General, the Speech from the Throne, and Royal Assent.
Royal Assent, the final step in making a bill law, requires the presence of all three components of Parliament: the Queen, represented by the Governor General, the Senate, and the House of Commons. During this ceremony, rich in tradition and symbolism, a representative of the Crown enters the chamber to take a seat on the dais. The senators are in their seats as the Usher of the Black Rod summons the Members of the House of Commons to the Senate Chamber.
Sometimes the Governor General appears in person, but is more often represented by a deputy, generally a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
With their Speaker at the head, the Members of the House of Commons meet at the rear of the chamber behind the brass bar. By their presence, the members of both chambers indicate that the people of Canada ask the Crown to ensure that the bill becomes law and that they agree to be governed by it. After the title of the bill is read aloud, the Governor General or representative nods to indicate that consent is given, and the bill becomes law.
Suggested Educational Activities
Here are suggested educational activities for introducing students to the topic of the Senate.
Devise a time-line that shows the evolution of the Senate from its beginnings until the present. Make note of significant people who have served (for example, the first woman senator, the first Aboriginal senator) as well as landmark events in the history of the Senate.
Stage a role-playing exercise to follow a bill through the various stages in both chambers to final passage and Royal Assent. Students may act as senators, Members of the House of Commons, Speakers, the Governor General, etc. Create a fictional bill based on a local or school-specific issue of interest to students. You may want to review actual Senate bills from the Hansard archives or consult the Canadian Parliament's website (www.parl.gc.ca).
Compare and Contrast
The Senate and the House of Commons are two independent chambers with similar powers. Make a chart to compare and contrast the Upper and Lower Houses in terms of roles and responsibilities, number of members, regional representation, membership criteria, etc.
Construct a Crossword
What is the meaning of "bicameral"? What does the Whip do? Design a crossword puzzle using terms relating to the Senate.
Conduct a Committee Investigation
Select an issue to research and review in a mock Senate committee investigation. Students playing the parts of witnesses (experts, government officials, individual citizens, etc.) must present accurate information and be convincing in their responses to the committee's questions. Those acting as committee members must develop and articulate their opinions based on the information they gather.
Reporting on the Senate
Take on the role of reporter in the Press Gallery to describe a significant event that took place in the Senate Chamber. Search for newsworthy stories for radio, TV, or print coverage.
Profile a Senator
Prepare a biography of a senator that includes details of his or her background, interests, professional pursuits, and record in the Senate. Present the information as an encyclopedia entry, magazine article, web page, or video script.
Art as Symbol
Examine the art and the architecture of the Senate Chamber and discuss the messages they convey. Create a collage using the symbols found in the room, or re-design the chamber to reflect a contemporary perspective.
Possible topics for research, written reports, or in-class discussion and debate: