It is a day of pomp and ceremony, of Mounties in full dress, the horse-drawn carriage for the Governor General and, of course, the procession of dignitaries led by the Usher of the Black Rod.
The occasion is the official opening of a new session of Parliament, in this case, the
41st Parliament, on Friday, June 3.
The focus of this ceremony is the Speech from the Throne, which sets out the government’s priorities and legislative intentions for the upcoming session, usually employing inspirational prose.
The Speech is actually prepared by the prime minister and his or her Cabinet. It is delivered by the Governor General while seated on a “throne” of oak and scarlet velour on an elevated dais in the Senate chamber.
The Senate plays host to this event because, by custom, the sovereign and senators are barred from entering the elected House of Commons (the “people’s house”).
According to tradition, neither senators nor MPs can start their work until they have first been summoned to do so by the sovereign.
A proclamation or series of proclamations is issued in the sovereign’s name, setting the date and time for this first meeting, which brings together the three constituent parts of Parliament: the Queen (usually represented by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons.
First test of confidence
The Speech from the Throne marks the first test of confidence that a government must undergo following an election or a prorogation. Having heard the government’s prospective plans, parties in opposition are afforded the opportunity to amend the speech.
Over the six days of debate in response to the speech, MPs are given three chances to vote for or against this agenda. Each of these votes is considered a confidence vote.
Some observers have asserted that an election is not really over until the government passes this first test. The principle of responsible government dictates that a government must prove that it holds the confidence of the House of Commons.
Following an election, the Governor General appoints a prime minister to govern, but the right to govern flows from holding the confidence of the House.
Roots trace back to feudal England
The current Canadian practice for opening a session of Parliament traces its roots back to England in feudal times. During that period, the King ruled the country. His landed barons were counted on for support – popular, military and financial.
The King, infrequently, summoned these barons to form his King’s Council. When he did so, his address set out his plans and the parts he wished the barons to play.
While certain ceremonial aspects of these encounters remain intact today, over the centuries, the power to rule shifted from the hands of the sovereign to a popularly mandated government.
What happens on June 3
If past practice is any indication, Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon will make the trip to Parliament in a horse-drawn carriage.
What follows is also time-honoured tradition.
Once on the Hill, the Governor General inspects the Canadian Forces honour guard while a 21-gun salute booms in the background.
The Prime Minister greets the Governor General in the Hall of Honour. A procession of dignitaries led by the Usher of the Black Rod files toward the Senate chamber, first knocking on the door of the House of Commons to request the presence of MPs in the Senate.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, MPs in tow, walks to the bar at the entrance of the Senate. There, the Speaker of the House makes a short standard address to the Governor General in which the rights and privileges of MPs are claimed (this claim is merely ceremonial).
Aside from senators, the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, the members of Cabinet, and members of the diplomatic corps are usually among those in attendance to hear the speech.
During the Speech from the Throne, there is no applause. It is tradition that to applaud might inappropriately implicate the sovereign in political matters.
The ceremony completed, both Houses of Parliament are properly constituted. They are then ready to begin their business.