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The Parliament of Canada examines legislation in a wide variety of areas in the form of bills. There are two types of bills:

  • Public bills, which deal with public policy; and
  • Private bills, which convey special rights or powers on a particular individual or a specific group.

Most bills considered by Parliament are public bills.

Senators at work in the Senate chamber

While bills can be introduced either in the Senate (in which case their number is preceded by the letter S) or in the House of Commons (in which case their number is preceded by the letter C), the Senate cannot initiate money bills (i.e. bills imposing taxes or providing for the collection or spending of public money).

Bills can be introduced either by the Government (i.e. a Cabinet minister) or by private members (i.e. a senator or a member of the House of Commons).

All bills must be considered and passed by both the Senate and the House of Commons before receiving Royal Assent from the Governor General, the final step in a bill’s passage into law.

Passing Bills in the Senate

Passing bills in the Senate is similar to passing them in the House of Commons. There are five steps:

  1. First reading 1
    The Senate receives the bill, and it is printed and circulated among senators. This is an introductory proceeding in the Senate Chamber and takes place without debate or vote.

  2. Second reading
    Senators debate the principle of the bill in the Chamber: Is the bill good policy? To help with this process, the Senate may refer the subject matter of the bill to a Senate committee for closer examination before voting on whether to proceed with it.

  3. Committee stage
    The Senate refers the bill to one of its committees. The committee may invite Cabinet ministers, Government officials, experts, and members of the public who have an interest in the bill to share information and perspectives in public hearings. Committee members then study the bill clause by clause. Members of the committee may propose changes to the bill (known as amendments) during this process.

    After it has completed the clause-by-clause analysis, the committee adopts a report on the bill. The report will recommend to the Senate that the bill be accepted as is; that it be accepted with amendments; or that it be rejected. Committees often also append observations to their report. These comments may highlight issues raised by the committee’s study of the bill.

  4. Report stage
    If the committee’s report recommends adopting the bill as is (i.e., with no amendments), there is no report stage in the Senate and the bill goes directly to third reading.

    If, however, the report suggests amendments to the bill, senators must debate the report in the Senate Chamber and either accept, amend, or reject the amendments, in whole or in part.

  5. Third reading
    This is the final stage of debate in the Chamber. Senators may propose further amendments at this stage before voting to pass or reject the bill.

If the bill was introduced in the Senate, it is sent to the House of Commons, which will examine it in a similar three-reading process. If the bill was introduced in the House of Commons and was not amended in the Senate, it is now ready for Royal Assent.

If a bill introduced in the House of Commons and was amended in the Senate, a message about the amendments is sent to the Commons, asking for their agreement. If the Senate and the House of Commons do not agree on the contents of a bill, they may propose amendments until they reach agreement. Once the two Houses agree on a final version, the bill is granted Royal Assent by the Queen or one of her Canadian representatives (usually the Governor General or a deputy), making it law.

1 “Reading” is the term used for a stage in the consideration of a bill in a House of Parliament. It is a holdover from the early days of the parliamentary tradition in Britain before mass reproduction was available. A clerk would read the bill aloud to those assembled in the Chamber: hence the term “reading.” Today, of course, printed copies of bills are circulated and the bill number, and sometimes title, is all that is read aloud.

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