New Parliament, old traditions: Here’s what to expect when MPs return this week

November 21, 2021
New Parliament, old traditions: Here's what to expect when MPs return this week
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The opening days of the 44th Canadian Parliament this week will be steeped in age-old British traditions that may seem a little strange to some.

Things kick off with the election of a Speaker of the House of Commons on Monday. That will be followed Tuesday by Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon’s reading of the throne speech, which spells out the government’s legislative priorities and officially opens a new session of Parliament.

While members of Parliament can’t get down to any parliamentary business until that throne speech has been read, the journey to get there isn’t straightforward.

The hard-knock life of the Usher of the Black Rod

As MPs take their seats in the Commons Monday afternoon for the first time since the election, the Usher of the Black Rod — whose title is derived from the ebony staff he holds as a symbol of authority — will come knocking.

The Usher of the Black Rod is the Queen’s messenger in Parliament and is also responsible for Senate security and other ceremonial and administrative duties. The job originated in England in 1348.

Former RCMP superintendent J. Greg Peters has served in the role since 2013.

He’ll use the base of his rod to knock on the doors of the Commons chamber three times. Once he’s let inside, he’ll inform the House that the Governor General’s “deputy” — Chief Justice Richard Wagner — wants their immediate attendance in the Senate chamber.

Watch: The Usher of the Black Rod summons MPs to the Senate to hear the throne speech

Watch Greg Peters the Usher of the Black Rod summon MPs to the Senate to hear the Throne Speech

Watch Greg Peters the Usher of the Black Rod summon MPs to the Senate to hear the Throne Speech 4:40

Some MPs will then get up and follow a procession out of the House, which is typically led by the clerk of the House.

While it used to be easy for MPs to walk down the hall to the Senate for this ritual, massive renovations on Parliament Hill have complicated matters.

The upper chamber’s temporary home is now in the Senate of Canada building — once Ottawa’s train station — and is about a 10-minute walk from the House chamber in West Block.

So a limited number of MPs will head over there via shuttle bus Monday, only to be told … to go back.

The Senate Speaker will tell the group at the doors of the chamber that the Governor General won’t read the throne speech — and in effect won’t let MPs get to work — until the House elects a Speaker of its own. So MPs will return to the Commons to do just that.

The Speaker election

According to the standing orders, the MP with the “longest period of unbroken service” who isn’t a minister or party leader — referred to as the “Dean of the House” — is to be called up to the big green chair to preside over the election of a new Speaker on Monday.

Bloc Quebecois MP Louis Plamondon, first elected in 1984, will get the honour for the fifth time.

“It is becoming a habit and I admit that I quite like this magnificent chair,” he said in 2019.

Bloc MP Louis Plamondon presides over the election of a new Speaker in the House of Commons on Dec. 5, 2019 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

All MPs are automatically considered candidates for Speaker unless they notify the House clerk by tonight at 6 p.m. ET that they don’t want to be in the running.

Members will hear five-minute speeches from the MPs who have said they want the job. At least five have put their names forward: Liberals Anthony Rota (the Speaker in the last Parliament) and Alexandra Mendes; Conservatives Joël Godin and Marc Dalton; and New Democrat Carol Hughes.

MPs will vote according to a ranked-ballot system, listing the candidates in order of preference. If nobody wins on the first ballot, the last-place candidate will be dropped and their votes will be redistributed until someone claims a majority.  

Only MPs who are physically in the chamber can participate in Monday’s vote.

The new Speaker is ‘dragged’ 

Although the job comes with a salary of $274,500 and an official country residence in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills called The Farm, tradition dictates that whoever is chosen as the next Speaker has to pretend they really don’t want the gig.

The new Speaker will be “dragged” to the chair by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Official Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole. 

In 2015, then-Liberal MP Geoff Regan feigned being downright terrified when he took the chair.

Newly-elected Speaker of the House Geoff Regan, centre, pretends to resist as he’s escorted to the Speaker’s chair by Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Dec. 3, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The tradition honours the historical dangers of the role, which dates back to 1377 in the British system. 

Back in the day, Speakers had to deliver news from Parliament to the King and could find themselves in peril if the message wasn’t what the monarch wanted to hear. According to the British Parliament, seven Speakers were executed by beheading between 1394 and 1535.

The new Speaker will deliver remarks and receive congratulations from party leaders, but that’s probably all the Commons will have time for on Monday.

The Usher of the Black Rod returns

On Tuesday, once the Governor General arrives in the Senate, the Usher of the Black Rod will be sent back to the House to summon MPs for the throne speech.

Again, he will knock three times. When the doors open, he’ll find a Speaker seated and waiting for him.

Again, he’ll tell MPs the Governor General “desires” their attendance in the Senate chamber and lead a procession that will include the Sergeant-at-Arms carrying the massive gold mace kept in the Commons.

Usher of the Black Rod, J. Greg Peters makes his way to the House of Commons ahead of the speech from the throne on Parliament Hill on Oct. 16, 2013. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The speech to open a new Parliament is always read in the upper chamber, where there is a throne reserved for the Queen or her representative, the Governor General. On two occasions — in 1957 and 1977 — Queen Elizabeth II personally read the throne speech in Ottawa.

While the speech is written by the government, past governors general have contributed paragraphs of their own.

The new Speaker makes introductions at a distance

The new Speaker and the MPs can only enter the Senate chamber as far as a brass bar at the chamber entrance, a barrier meant to symbolize the independence of both Houses of Parliament.

The prime minister, however, can cross the boundary for the throne speech.

The Speaker, decked out in a black robe, white gloves and tricorn hat, will tell the Governor General that while he or she has been elected, “I am but little able to fulfil the important duties assigned to me.” 

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota speaks before the delivery of the throne speech in the Senate chamber in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2019. (Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press)

The Speaker will ask that the Crown recognize all of the MPs’ “undoubted rights and privileges,” including freedom of speech during debates.

The Senate Speaker will then respond on the Governor General’s behalf, saying she will “recognize and allow their constitutional privileges.”

And then, at last, the throne speech will be read.

‘Pro forma’ bills

After the throne speech has been read on Tuesday, MPs can return to the Commons and get to work — but not before engaging in a few more traditions.

The Speaker (again, pretending not to want the job) will tell MPs that the role has “fallen upon me” and that he or she made “the usual claim for your privileges.”

A “pro forma” bill — a Latin term meaning “for the sake of form” — will then be introduced, typically by the prime minister. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Bill C-1, “An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office,” will be given a first reading but won’t proceed any further and won’t be discussed again. A similar step will take place in the Senate with the introduction of Bill S-1.

The ritual is meant to assert the independence of both Houses from the Crown and show that they can pursue their own agendas regardless of the direction laid out in the throne speech.

Backbenchers get thrown into the action

The Speaker will offer to read the throne speech again in the House but will instead table a copy “to prevent mistakes,” and the prime minister will move a motion for the speech to be considered “later this day.”

The Speaker could on Tuesday announce members of the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE) — the governing body of the House of Commons — and the procedure and House affairs committee.

But the next key piece of business is what’s known as the address in reply to the speech from the throne.

A Liberal backbencher — often someone who’s never sat in the House before — will give a 20-minute speech outlining why they support the government’s agenda before moving a motion to offer “humble thanks” to the Governor General for the throne speech.

“I must admit that I am a little bit nervous,” rookie Liberal MP Lyne Bessette said in 2019 when she was called to give the remarks to a packed House, earning a standing ovation from the government benches.

The MP chosen for this task will also field questions from opposition members, typically ones who were also just elected and speaking in the House for the first time.

Another Liberal backbencher will give a 20-minute speech seconding the motion, with a bit more debate, before O’Toole or another Conservative moves that debate be adjourned for the day.

The rules provide for up to six days of debate on the address in reply to the speech from the throne.

What about that Conservative question of privilege on vaccinations?

O’Toole has promised his caucus will raise a question of privilege over the BOIE’s decision to require that almost all MPs be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering the House.

That can’t happen until after a new Speaker has been elected. At a technical briefing on the return of Parliament this week, an official said it would also be “unusual” for the new Speaker to hear such a question before the session is officially opened with the throne speech Tuesday.

O’Toole has said that all of his MPs will be in the House Monday, either because they’re fully vaccinated or because they’ve received an exemption.

The real legislative work begins

Once the pomp and ceremony are behind them, MPs will have about four weeks before the scheduled holiday break on Dec. 17 to get stuff done.

The Liberal government will move forward with legislation to implement new emergency aid benefits that it says will be more “targeted” toward individuals and hard-hit businesses in this phase of the pandemic.

The Liberals also promised in the last election to introduce or bring back eight bills within their first 100 days.

The government is expected to move quickly to introduce a tougher bill to ban so-called “conversion therapy.” Legislation to ban the discredited practice of trying to convert LGBTQ people to heterosexuality died in the Senate when the election was called in August.

Liberals also promised reforms to the Canada Labour Code to provide 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers.

For both bills, the government should find enough New Democrats willing to move quickly in the minority Parliament.

Liberals also pledged swift action to reform the Broadcasting Act to ensure foreign web giants contribute to “the creation and promotion of Canadian stories and music.” Critics said the government’s previous bill on the subject, C-10, risked curtailing free speech online; it died in the Senate.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

The government is expected to look to New Democrats to help it pass legislation. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said recently his caucus will approach government legislation on a case-by-case basis.

“If the Liberals want to pass legislation that will help Canadians, they can count on our help. If they put forward legislation that will hurt Canadians, they can work with the other parties like they’ve done in the past,” Singh said in a media statement.

Singh said he is looking for a substantive throne speech that offers new investments in health care — including increased transfers to the provinces — pharmacare and dental and mental health care. He said his party wants to see a focus on helping workers find jobs in renewable energy and on helping communities cope with climate change, and investments to build half a million new homes.

O’Toole’s spokesperson Mathew Clancy told CBC News in a media statement that Conservatives will work with the government as it responds to horrific floods in B.C.

“Canada’s Conservatives will hold Justin Trudeau’s Liberals responsible for skyrocketing grocery, gasoline and housing prices, our national unity crisis, and escalating crime in communities across Canada,” Clancy said.

“As the only voice of the middle class, Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives are focused on a realistic plan that promotes economic prosperity, national unity and strong communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast.”

A spokesperson for the Bloc Québécois told CBC News the party is focused on health care, climate change, the political weight of Quebec in Ottawa, protecting the French language and what they see as unfair changes to seniors’ pensions.

CBC News will have live coverage of Tuesday’s Speech from the Throne delivered by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon. Here’s how to follow:

  • CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton will host a CBC News Live Special beginning at noon ET on CBC News Network and CBC Television. You can also stream it on CBC Gem or the CBC News app.
  • Susan Bonner and Chris Hall will host the CBC Radio One and CBC Listen special beginning at 1 p.m. ET.
  • CBCNews.ca will carry the events live and have regular news updates.

This article is part of CBC News’ Minority Report newsletter, which will help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority government. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox.

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