While oral questions are posed without
notice on matters deemed to be of an urgent nature, written questions are
placed after notice on the Order Paper with the intent of seeking from
the Ministry detailed, lengthy or technical information relating to “public
Forty‑eight hours’ written notice is required before a question may be
placed on the Order Paper.
Members are allowed a maximum of four questions on the Order Paper at
any one time.
A Member may indicate that he or she wishes to receive an oral reply to a
question during Routine Proceedings by marking the written question with an
asterisk at the time it is submitted.
Questions so designated are known as “starred questions”, and Members are
permitted a maximum of three starred questions out of the allowed four at any
Members may also request that the Ministry respond within 45 calendar days,
generally by adding a sentence to that effect either before or after the text
of the question, or by so indicating to the Clerk when submitting the question.
All questions are assigned a number when they are submitted.
Provisions allowing for written questions
to be posed to the Ministry have been included in the rules of the House of
Commons since 1867.
The rule, virtually identical to today’s Standing Order 39(1), provided that
questions could be asked of private Members as well as Ministers, although it
appears that, from the beginning, the practice saw questions directed only to
That practice has continued to this day, and has been periodically reinforced
with additions to the Standing Order referring to the manner that answers are
to be provided to Order Paper questions; in each case, questions to
Ministers appear to be assumed.
Between 1867 and 1896, when a written
question was called for consideration, the Member in whose name the question
stood would rise and read the question, to which the Minister responsible would
furnish a response. When a question was called and a response provided, the
exchange was printed in full in the Debates; supplementary questions
were not allowed.
Any questions called and not answered were automatically dropped from the Order
Paper and had to be renewed if a Member still wanted a response.
Beginning in 1896, reforms were made to
shorten the time taken by the House to consider written questions. A numbering
process for written questions was instituted, removing the necessity of a
Member reading in full the text of the question when called for consideration.
In 1906, written questions likely to require lengthy responses could be
transferred without debate to another section of the Order Paper as
notices of motions.
This rule was adopted because it was thought that too much time was being taken
up with reading the answers to the questions in the House. Also at this time,
questions that had been called for consideration but not answered could be
allowed, at the government’s request and with the consent of the Members
involved, to stand and retain their place on the Order Paper instead of
being automatically dropped.
In 1910, the rules were amended to allow Ministers to have their answers appear
in the Debates as if they were read; Members who wished to receive an
oral response to a written question could do so by marking it with an asterisk.
At the same time, a new rule made it possible for the government to table
lengthy or detailed responses to questions. These tabled responses were called
“Orders for Return”.
In most cases, the returns were tabled immediately after the order was deemed
made. These responses became sessional papers and were not printed in the Debates.
The procedure for answering written
questions changed relatively little until 1963 when the process was further
refined in order to allow the House to deal specifically with those questions
that the government was ready to answer and prepared to make public. In order
to dispose of the available responses, the new practice permitted the House to
consider only those questions to be answered that day by the government, rather
than forcing it to proceed through every written question on the Order Paper.
Once these were dealt with, the government would request that all remaining
questions be allowed to stand.
In 1986, the House agreed to a limit of four questions per Member on the Order
Paper at any one time,
three of which could be answered orally in the House, while also
codifying the right of Members to request a reply to a written question within
45 calendar days of its filing.
In 1991, the rules were again amended to allow Members whose questions had
remained unanswered after 45 days to take the matter up during the Adjournment
In 2001, the rules were further amended to provide for the referral of the
matter of the failure of the government to respond to a written question to an
appropriate standing committee once the 45-day period had elapsed.
In general, written questions are lengthy,
often containing two or more subsections, and seek detailed or technical
information from one or more government departments or agencies. Restrictions
governing the form and content of written questions are found both within the
and as a result of custom, usage and tradition. Several traditional guidelines
and conditions date back to Confederation. With time and following several
Speakers’ decisions, the list of restrictions enumerated in procedural texts
grew very long.
Concurrently, some became outdated or irrelevant. Aside from a 1965 Speaker’s
statement indicating that some of these restrictions no longer applied, there
is no definitive breakdown of which of these are still valid. Thus, a very large
measure of responsibility for ensuring the regularity of written questions fell
to the Clerk.
Acting on the Speaker’s behalf, the Clerk
has full authority to ensure that questions placed on the Notice Paper
conform to the rules and practices of the House. In so doing, the
Clerk applies a set of guidelines derived from the Standing Orders and from the
practice of the House similar to the guidelines used for oral questions. Thus,
a question must not:
concern a subject matter which does not pertain
to public affairs;
contain an expression of opinion, or request the
supply information to the House;
request information which could be obtained
through a notice of motion for the production of papers;
raise matters under the control of local
authorities not responsible to the government or Parliament;
seek information about matters which are in
their nature secret, such as decisions or proceedings of Cabinet or advice
given to the Crown by law officers; or
seek from a former Minister information
regarding transactions which took place during that person’s term of office.
Given that the purpose of a written
question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on
a Member submitting a question for the Notice Paper “to ensure that it
is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought”.
Since questions must be coherent and concise, the Clerk may split a question
into two or more questions if it is too broad or if it contains unrelated
If there are any irregularities in a question, the Clerk communicates this to
the Member who then has the opportunity to amend the question before it is
placed on the Notice Paper. It is not the responsibility of the Clerk to assess the merit of
the question or the government’s ability to respond to a question.
A Member may withdraw a written question
from the Order Paper by advising the Clerk of the House in writing that
he or she wishes the question to be withdrawn. A Member may also rise in the
House to request that the Speaker withdraw the question.
Replies to written questions may be
presented each sitting day during Routine Proceedings under the rubric
“Questions on the Order Paper”.
A Member, usually the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader,
rises to announce the numbers of the questions being answered that day; the
text of the question(s) and the answer(s) appear in that day’s Debates.
At the same time, the Parliamentary Secretary provides oral responses to
Normally, the Parliamentary Secretary seeks the consent of the House to deem a
starred question answered orally without actually reading aloud the text of the
The text of the question and the answer are published in the Debates.
If there is no agreement, then the Parliamentary Secretary would proceed to
read the answer. The Parliamentary Secretary may also seek consent to table a
document in response to a question, a process known as transforming a reply
into an Order for Return.
This is done by the Speaker asking the House whether there is agreement to
proceed in that way.
If there is no agreement, then the government would either not proceed with the
question on that day,
or alternatively have a Minister table the answer since a Minister does not
need consent to do so. Finally, the Parliamentary Secretary requests that any
remaining unanswered questions be allowed to stand and retain their place on
the Order Paper. This request is routinely made and granted.
The Speaker has indicated that, as this procedure has evolved to become an
automatic proceeding, this request is not debatable. If no questions
are to be answered that day, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government
House Leader requests that all questions be allowed to stand on the Order
The guidelines that apply to the form and
content of written questions are also applicable to the answers provided by the
government. As such, no argument or opinion is to be given and only the
information needed to respond to the question is to be provided in an effort to
maintain the process of written questions as an exchange of information rather
than an opportunity for debate.
As with oral questions, it is acceptable for the government, in responding to a
written question, to indicate to the House that it cannot supply an answer.
On occasion, the government has supplied supplementary or revised replies to
questions already answered.
The Speaker, however, has ruled that it is not in order to indicate in a
response to a written question the total time and cost incurred by the
government in the preparation of that response.
There are no provisions in the rules for
the Speaker to review government responses to questions. Nonetheless, on
several occasions, Members have raised questions of privilege in the House
regarding the accuracy of information contained in responses to written
questions; in none of these cases was the matter found to be a prima facie
breach of privilege.
The Speaker has ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether
or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to “assess
the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a
document are correct”.
When filing questions, a Member may request
that the Ministry respond within 45 calendar days. If a written
question has not been answered within the required 45‑day period, the
failure of the government to respond to the question is deemed referred to a
standing committee selected by the Member in whose name the question stands.
The question is designated on the Order Paper as “referred to
committee”. The Chair of the committee is required to convene a meeting within
five sitting days and the committee may then investigate the failure of the
government to respond to the written question and report back to the House.
However, the committee is not obliged to report back to the House, or to follow
any specific procedure in considering the matter. On occasion, the
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister responsible for tabling the response
has been invited to appear before a committee to explain the delay;
departmental officials have also appeared.
If the response to the written question has been tabled or the committee has
been advised that the tabling is imminent, no further action is usually taken.
The question remains on the Order Paper designated as “referred to
committee”, which allows the Member to submit an additional question; however,
the Member is still restricted to a maximum of four “non-designated” questions
at any one time.
If the Member does not wish to have the
question transferred to committee, the Member may rise in the House during
Routine Proceedings under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper” and
give notice of his or her intention to have the subject matter of the question
transferred to the Adjournment Proceedings.
The question is then removed from the Order Paper, and the order for
referral to a committee is dropped. This procedure also allows Members to
submit an additional question for placement on the Order Paper.
While the Standing Orders do provide for
the referral to committee of the failure of the government to respond to a
written question within 45 days, the Ministry is not compelled to reply within
this time, and Members have raised this complaint in the House on numerous
occasions. In these discussions, the Chair has indicated that it has no power
under the rules to order the government to produce an answer within the
allotted 45 days.
In some cases, long and complex questions
which require information from a number of government departments, or which
would require lengthy replies not compatible with publishing in the Debates,
are transformed to become Orders for Return (that is, documents that must be
provided following an order adopted by the House). Although the rule specifies
that it is a Minister who must be of the opinion that a reply to a question
should be in the form of a return, and that it is a Minister who must state
that he or she has no objection to laying such a return upon the Table,
in practice the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader assumes
the responsibility for communicating that opinion to the House. The agreement
of the House is requested and usually granted.
The return is tabled and becomes a sessional paper. As such, it is
available to all Members on request from the Clerk, but is not published in the
Debates. It is not necessary for the return to answer every part of the
The rules also provide the Speaker with the
authority to transform a written question into a notice of motion, if he or she
believes that a question would require a lengthy reply and if he or she is
asked by the government to have the question stand as a notice of motion.
Such a notice of motion could then be considered only during Private Members’
Business. However, this rule has been invoked only once, and in a ruling by
Speaker Fraser in 1989, the Chair refused a request to transform a written
question into a notice of motion. In choosing not to proceed with the
government’s request, the Speaker stated that the Chair was:
unable to comply with the terms of the
Standing Order in today’s context without prejudicing the right of private
Members to control fully their business by choosing for themselves how best to
seek information: by placing questions on the Order Paper, perhaps
requesting an answer from the Government within a 45‑day period; or by
having a Notice of Motion, if chosen after a draw, debated during Private
The Speaker remarked that the rule, adopted
by the House in 1906, had been unused for many years and, as a result, its
invocation decades later would be counter to the series of reforms concerning
written questions that had been implemented since then. The Speaker suggested
that the government, in responding to a written question requiring a lengthy or
detailed response, could make it an Order for Return, a procedurally acceptable
and widely used practice. The Chair also submitted that the government may
decline to answer a written question but, at the same time, may furnish a
reason for its refusal. Similarly, the government may provide a reason why the
response could not be provided within 45 days.
Prorogation of a session of Parliament
clears the Order Paper and cancels any requests for information
contained under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper”. Members who
wish to pursue their requests for information from the Ministry must resubmit
their questions in order for them to be reconsidered in a new session.
 Standing Order 39(1). The procedure for
submitting written questions for the Order Paper is identical to that
for placing bills and motions on the Order Paper. See Chapter 12, “The
Process of Debate”, and Chapter 24, “The Parliamentary Record”.
 Standing Order 54.
 Standing Order 39(4).
 Standing Order 39(3)(a).
 Standing Order 39(3)(a).
 Standing Order 39(5)(a).
 Rules, Orders and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons of
Canada, 1868, Rule No. 29.
 Bourinot, J.G., Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the
Dominion of Canada, South Hackensack, New Jersey: Rothman
Reprints Inc., 1971 (reprint of 1st ed., 1884), p. 321. Standing Order 39(1) states that written questions may also be
addressed to private Members concerning any bill, motion or other public matter
connected with the business of the House with which such Members may be concerned,
but it does not address how these responses are to be provided. Despite the
rule, the practice is that recipients of inquiries by way of written questions
have always been Ministers. Indeed, there are no known precedents of written
questions being addressed to private Members. Any attempt to do so would be
contrary to the long‑established practice and to the real purpose of
asking questions of the Ministry.
 Standing Order 39(3), (5), (6), and (7).
 Debates, May 31, 1895, cols. 1882‑3.
 Rules, Orders, and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons
of Canada, 1876, Rule No. 25.
 Debates, September 16, 1896, cols. 1303‑4.
This change was made at the direction of the Speaker and was not formalized
into the rules. A written question would be read if any Member so requested (Debates,
March 21, 1900, cols. 2367‑97).
 Debates, July 10, 1906, cols. 7602‑3.
 Rules, Orders, and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons
of Canada, 1906, Rule No. 31.
 Debates, April 29, 1910, cols. 8367‑9.
 Debates, July 17, 1963, p. 2295. Until then, when
the House reached “Questions on the Order Paper”, the Speaker called
each question in turn with the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary interrupting
occasionally to say “Answered” when they wished to send an answer to the Table
(Stewart, p. 65).
 Standing Order 39(4). See Journals,
February 6, 1986, pp. 1653‑4; February 13, 1986,
p. 1710. Prior to 1986, there was no limit to the number of written
questions requiring written responses and, as a result, there were many
sessions where the number of questions on the Order Paper exceeded 2,000. In several sessions in the 1970s, one Member alone, Tom Cossitt (Leeds), had several hundred
questions standing in his name.
 Standing Order 39(3)(a).
 Standing Order 39(5)(a). See Journals,
February 6, 1986, pp. 1653‑4; February 13, 1986,
 Journals, April 11, 1991,
pp. 2905, 2909‑10.
 Standing Order 39(5)(b). See the Report of the Special
Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House
of Commons, par. 18, presented to the House on June 1, 2001 (Journals,
p. 465) and concurred in on October 4, 2001 (Journals, p. 693).
 Standing Order 39(1) and (2).
 See list of restrictions published in successive editions of Bourinot
 Journals, March 30, 1965, pp. 1191‑4, in
particular pp. 1193‑4.
 Standing Order 39(2).
 See Standing Order 39(1) and the list of restrictions for written
questions enumerated in Beauchesne, A., Beauchesne’s Rules & Forms of
the House of Commons of Canada, 6th ed., edited by A. Fraser, W.F.
Dawson and J.A. Holtby, Toronto: The Carswell Company Limited, 1989,
pp. 124-6. For an example of a question deemed inadmissible, see the point
of order and subsequent Speaker’s ruling in Debates, December 11, 2002,
 Debates, February 9, 1995, pp. 9425‑7, in
particular p. 9426. Speaker Parent was responding to a question of
privilege raised in regard to a reply to a written question which a Member felt
was inaccurate. The Speaker ruled that it was a matter of interpretation of the
wording of the question placed on the Order Paper.
 Standing Order 39(2). See, for example, Debates,
February 8, 1999, pp. 11531‑3; October 18, 2006, pp.
 Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 313.
 Debates, February 6, 2003, pp. 3254-6.
 Journals, January 13, 1910, p. 154. See, for
example, Debates, March 14, 1956, p. 2124; May 3, 1993,
pp. 18822‑3; February 11, 1998, p. 3740. The authorities
in the Privy Council Office coordinating responses are informed when questions
 Standing Order 30(3).
 See, for example, Debates, May 15, 1989, p. 1694;
May 14, 1990, pp. 11372‑3; June 6, 2002, p. 12226;
November 5, 2003, p. 9200.
 Although the practice is almost invariably to deem a starred
question answered orally, the Speaker indicated, in response to a point of
order, that, strictly speaking, the rule requires oral responses to be given to
written questions and it must be observed unless it is the disposition of the
House to dispense with this procedure (Debates, May 24, 1989, p. 2102).
 See, for example, Debates, March 10, 2005, pp. 4236‑7.
 See, for example, Debates, March 10, 2005, p. 4237.
 See, for example, Debates, December 12, 1991,
p. 6181; September 18, 2006, pp. 2912‑5.
 See, for example, Debates, March 13, 1995, p. 10397;
March 17, 1995, p. 10671.
 Standing Order 42(1) reads: “Questions put by Members and
notices of motions not taken up when called may (upon the request of the
government) be allowed to stand and retain their precedence; otherwise they
will disappear from the Order Paper. They may, however, be renewed”. See
Debates, February 28, 1977, pp. 3473‑4 and May 27,
1977, p. 6015 where the Speaker indicated that this procedure is followed
each day for the benefit of the questioner who would otherwise have to resubmit
his or her question for insertion on the Order Paper. It is not clear
what would happen if consent to stand the remaining questions were denied,
although it may be that the Speaker would revert to the pre‑1963 practice
of calling each question in turn with the Parliamentary Secretary interrupting
occasionally to say “Answered”. See Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 315;
Stewart, p. 65. If the Parliamentary Secretary were to forget to
ask that the remaining questions be allowed to stand, the Speaker would remind
him or her to make the request (see, for example, Debates,
October 9, 1996, p. 5299).
 Debates, May 12, 1971, p. 5733.
 Standing Order 39(1).
 Debates, May 5, 1971,
p. 5515. See also Debates, February 25, 1991, p. 17590;
March 8, 1991, p. 18237; September 15, 2003, p. 7352; November
15, 2005, pp. 9664‑5.
 See, for example, Debates, November 18, 1994,
pp. 7993‑4; December 13, 1994, pp. 9003‑6;
December 15, 1994, pp. 9116‑8; April 29, 2004, p. 2565;
November 14, 2005, p. 9593; March 19, 2007,
 Debates, October 2, 1991,
p. 3147. The government has circumvented this procedural limitation by
having a government Member place a question on the Order Paper
requesting cost amounts for the preparation of responses to written questions
for specified time periods. See, for example, Debates, April 7,
1992, pp. 9410‑1; May 8, 1992, p. 10435; June 19,
1992, p. 12455; April 26, 1993, p. 18462.
 See, for example, Debates, December 12, 2002, pp.
2637‑8; February 6, 2003, p. 3256; February 8, 2005, pp. 3233-4.
 Debates, February 28, 1983,
p. 23278. The Speaker has also suggested that if a Member is not satisfied
with a response, the Member could resubmit the question for placement on the Order
Paper (Debates, March 26, 2003, pp. 4719‑20) or ask that the
question be transferred for debate under the Adjournment Proceedings (Debates,
March 29, 2001, p. 2500).
 Standing Order 39(5)(a). If the Member does not specifically
request that this timeframe be respected, the government has no obligation to
do so (Debates, June 15, 2005, p. 7190).
 Standing Order 39(5)(b). See, for example, Journals,
January 28, 2002, pp. 965‑9; January 27, 2003, pp. 316-7;
March 22, 2004, pp. 187-8. The government often tables responses to outstanding
questions within days of their referral to committee. See, for example, Journals,
April 26, 2004, pp. 313-4 (referred to committee); April 28, 2004,
pp. 331-2 (response tabled); September 18, 2006, pp. 391-2 (referred to
committee); September 19, 2006, pp. 393‑4 (response tabled). Once
the matter has been referred to committee, Members have been encouraged to
raise any concerns with the committee rather than in the House (Debates,
January 29, 2002, p. 8446).
 See, for example, Standing Committee on Government Operations and
Estimates, Minutes of Proceedings, February 3, 2005, Meeting No. 17.
Pursuant to an order of reference made on January 31, 2005 (Journals,
pp. 365-6), the Committee considered the failure of the government to respond
to a written question, heard statements from government officials, and adopted
a motion “expressing displeasure” in the Ministry for failing to respond to the
question. The Committee did not report back to the House on the matter.
 In response to a point of order concerning a committee’s decision
not to deal with the failure of the government to respond within 45 days, Deputy
Speaker Kilger outlined various options a committee could follow. He stated:
“The committee decides how it wishes to proceed. It may decide to proceed no
further with the matter; to invite witnesses to appear; not to report back to
the House; or to report back to the House: one, stating that it has considered
the matter and considers it closed; two, stating that it has considered the
matter and recommending improvements in the departmental or agency
responsiveness; three, stating that it has considered the matter and
recommending to the Member certain actions to facilitate a timely response;
four, stating that it has considered the matter and making other pertinent
recommendations” (Debates, February 4, 2002, pp. 8664‑5).
 See, for example, Standing Committee on Citizenship and
Immigration, Evidence, January 30, 2003, Meeting No. 15;
Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, Evidence, May
14, 2003, Meeting No. 45.
 See, for example, Standing Committee on Finance, Evidence,
February 4, 2002, Meeting No. 76; Standing Committee on Human
Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Evidence,
September 22, 2003, Meeting No. 37.
 See, for example, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and
International Trade, Evidence, May 27, 2003, Meeting No. 36; Standing
Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, Evidence, April 29,
2004, Meeting No. 11.
 Standing Order 39(5)(b). The transfer of a question directly
from the Order Paper into an Adjournment Proceedings item has occurred
only twice (Debates, November 20, 1992, p. 13720;
September 25, 1995, p. 14819). Members’ reluctance to avail
themselves of this opportunity in part led to the rule changes in 2001, which
allowed the matter of the government’s failure to respond to a written question
to be referred to committee.
 See, for example, Debates,
May 18, 1989, p. 1891; March 10, 1992, p. 7938; May 6, 1996,
pp. 2366‑7; February 8, 1999, pp. 11531‑3.
 Standing Order 39(7).
 Consent has been denied on occasion (Debates, June 1,
1992, pp. 11169‑70; March 13, 1995, p. 10397). The
same request was later made and granted (Debates, June 5, 1992,
p. 11477; March 17, 1995, p. 10671).
 See, for example, Journals, September 23, 1994,
p. 725; December 13, 1996, pp. 1018‑9; September 18, 2006,
pp. 2912-5. The government has also presented a revised or supplementary
return. See, for example, Journals, April 2, 1998, p. 664;
April 30, 2004, pp. 359‑60; March 19, 2007, pp. 1101‑3.
 Journals, November 16, 1962,
pp. 285‑7, in particular p. 286. See also Debates,
November 22, 1994, pp. 8077‑8 where a Member rose on a
point of order to complain that the government had tabled only one part of an
answer to his question. The government replied that the responses would not be
forthcoming because the cost of supplying the information would be substantial.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader suggested that if
the Member insisted on additional information, the question could be placed
again on the Order Paper.
 Standing Order 39(6).
 Debates, February 16, 1923, pp. 343‑4.
 Debates, June 14, 1989,
pp. 3023‑6. See also Debates, May 30, 1989,
pp. 2333‑44. The process for selecting private Members’ motions for
debate has since been changed. See Chapter 21, “Private Members’
 Debates, April 12, 1991, p. 19459; February 4,
2004, pp. 107‑8.