Authority to pass laws in Canada is shared between the federal Parliament and the various provincial and territorial governments, which in turn pass on some of their powers to local councils.
The Parliament of Canada is divided into two sections:
- the House of Commons, which has 338 elected members
- the Senate, which has 105 Senators appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister
There are usually one or two legislative sessions per year.
Before a statute becomes law, it goes through the following process in Parliament:
1. Introduction of a bill and first reading
A bill is a law that is being proposed, developed and reviewed. Bills are usually introduced in the House of Commons, but they may be introduced in the Senate. Bills introduced in the Senate go through the same process as those introduced in the House of Commons, the only difference is that the order of passage through the two houses is reversed. Financial bills can only be introduced by a minister in the House of Commons.
There are 2 types of bills: government bills and private members bills. Government bills are introduced by the party in power in the House of Commons. Private members bills are introduced either by a government member or by a member of the opposition. Bills introduced by private members are rarely passed because government business takes precedence over all other business throughout the legislative session.
The first reading of a bill introduces it to the House of Commons and outlines its general aim or purpose. There is no debate or amendments on first reading. Bills sometimes die at this stage, depending on public reaction to the bill.
2. The second reading
The bill is introduced for a second reading by the minister responsible for the subject of the bill. The general principles of the bill are debated fully by the Members of Parliament. The bill is then voted on and if it passes, the bill has been approved in principle. If it doesn't pass the vote, it dies.
3. Committee stage
After the second reading, the bill is referred to a committee which examines it in detail to see if its provisions will effectively attain the bill's desired ends. By tradition, party representation on these committees is roughly in proportion to that in the House of Commons.
There are four kinds of committees:
- Standing Committees are the ones most often used. There are 26 standing committees in the House of Commons, each one specializing in a particular area (for example, agriculture or regional development).
- Special Committees are specially created to examine a specific bill.
- Joint Committees contain members of both the House of Commons and the Senate.
- A Committee of the Whole includes all members of the House of Commons, sitting as a committee and not in their official capacity.
4. The third reading
After committee review, the bill is re-examined by the House of Commons to determine whether the committee's amendments are satisfactory. Once it is decided that the bill is in an acceptable form, it is given a third reading, followed by a vote.
5. The Senate
If the bill successfully passes the third reading in the House of Commons, it is referred to the Senate, where a similar process of first and second readings, committee review and third reading is carried out. Any amendments passed by the Senate must be referred back to the House of Commons for approval. If it is referred back, it does not have to go through the whole process in the House of Commons again.
6. Royal Assent
If the bill passes in the House of Commons and in the Senate, it is submitted to the Governor General of Canada for his or her signature. This is called Royal Assent. The bill is then called an Act or statute.
An Act or a statute does not necessarily become law immediately. There are three possible ways in which it will come into effect as law:
- It has a proclamation date which gives the day upon which it will be proclaimed or come into force.
- It has a section saying that it comes into effect on proclamation, which means at some unspecified date in the future.
- If it has no proclamation date, either specified or unspecified, it comes into force on the day of Royal Assent.
Until it has been proclaimed or comes into force, the statute or Act is not yet law and cannot be enforced by the government or the courts. Different sections of an Act may come into force at different times. For example, although the Charter of Rights and Freedoms section of the Constitution Act came into force on April 17, 1982, section 15 of the Charter only came into force on April 17, 1985.
Visit the “How Parliament works” section on the Parliament of Canada website for more information about the Parliament and how federal laws are made.
Nova Scotia laws
Each province and territory in Canada has a provincial or territorial legislature. The Nova Scotia government is made up of only one House, called the Legislative Assembly, and has 51 elected members. The way it makes law is similar to the process followed in Parliament. A bill goes through two readings, then a committee review and a third reading. As there is no Senate or upper House, the bill then goes directly to the Lieutenant Governor for Royal Assent. The provisions regarding proclamation dates when the bill becomes law are the same as for federal statutes.
A unique institution in Nova Scotia is the Law Amendments Committee, a Standing Committee of the Legislature. The Law Amendments Committee reviews bills referred to it by the House after second reading. Members of the public may attend hearings and comment on a bill or make written submissions. Contact the Legislative Counsel's Office for information about participating in Law Amendment Committee hearings. After the hearings, the committee reports back to the Legislative Assembly.
Private bills go through a similar process of review by the Private and Local Bills Committee.
Nova Scotia also has an independent Law Reform Commission. It reviews the laws of Nova Scotia and makes recommendations for improvement, modernization and reform.
Visit the “Proceedings” section on the Nova Scotia Legislature website for more information about how provincial laws are made.
The Constitution Act gives the provinces full control over municipal institutions. Each municipal government receives its power from the provincial legislature.
In Nova Scotia, there are four types of municipal units, as defined by the Municipal Government Act: cities incorporated under their own Charter, towns, municipalities (sometimes called rural municipalities), and villages.
Laws and regulations made by municipal councils are called by-laws. Councils also pass resolutions to deal with administrative matters such as agreeing to a contract for paving a road. Each council creates a by-law that sets out the procedure it must follow to make a law (that is, other by-laws); the procedure is usually similar from council to council. By-laws are reviewed at a committee stage before they are presented to council. All by-laws need the approval of the Minister of Service Nova Scotia before they become law.
Council sits on a regular basis, not in sessions. Most by-laws make it to the stage of being passed or defeated, since, unlike the procedure in the federal Parliament or the provincial legislature, bills do not die at the end of a session or after second reading. By-laws usually come into effect when adopted and signed, although occasionally a by-law includes a later date when it will come into effect.
Making changes to laws
Statute law is constantly undergoing change in the following ways:
- When a new Act is passed, an outdated Act is often repealed (declared no longer valid); usually this is stated in a section in the new Act.
- The legislature may pass an amending Act which repeals, or replaces, some parts or sections of an existing Act. Amending Acts can also add new sections to existing Acts, as long as the sections remain broadly within the scope of the old Act. The amending act or new act must go through the entire legislative process.
- Regulations can also be changed or repealed, as long as the new regulations are within the authority given to the delegated body under the original Act.