The origin of new legislation

There are three different types of bills.

  • New legislation sponsored by the government, known as a government bill, originates in government ministries.
  • New legislation can also originate from a bill sponsored by a member of the legislature, known as a member’s bill.
  • New legislation can originate from an initiative by private parties, known as a private bill.

These readings are concerned with government bills.

The Cabinet minister sponsoring a bill consults with interested parties, studies the policy issues and considers the economic and social impact of the proposed legislation. Sometimes discussion papers are released to promote public consultation. The documents prepared during this initial stage can be important in determining the policy behind any legislation that is eventually introduced.

Following study and consultation, a legislative proposal goes through the following steps before it is presented in Parliament:

The Cabinet minister presents a legislative proposal to Cabinet.
If Cabinet approves the proposal, legislative counsel prepare a bill.
Once the minister and legislative counsel are satisfied with the bill, it is submitted to Cabinet.
If approved by Cabinet, the bill is printed and proceeds to 1st reading in Parliament.

Readings in the Legislature

Federal legislation must pass three readings in both the House of Commons and the Senate before it is passed into law. Federal legislation is usually introduced first in the House of Commons, but it can originate in the Senate.

First Reading in the House of Commons
Second Reading in the House of Commons
Commons Committee
Third Reading in the House of Commons
First Reading in the Senate
Second Reading in the Senate
Senate Committee
Third Reading in the Senate
Royal Assent

First reading

The first reading occurs on the day the legislation is introduced. The sponsoring Cabinet minister will briefly introduce the bill in the legislature. There is no debate. Sometimes the bill is sent to committee for study at this stage. The first reading version of the bill may contain explanatory notes.

Some law libraries receive first reading bills in print form, but many rely on the electronic version posted on the Internet. Legisinfo is an excellent Internet site for obtaining copies of federal bills and also for tracking the progress of a bill and obtaining important information about the bill such as background papers and Hansard debates. For older sessions of Parliament (pre-1994 for the House of Commons, and pre-1996 for the Senate) Hansard is available from Historical Debates of the Parliament of Canada.

Second reading

During second reading, the sponsoring Cabinet minister explains the purpose of the bill, and debate takes place on the main principles of the bill. Speeches in the legislature by the Minister sponsoring the legislation can be important in determining the intention behind the legislation. The proceedings of the House of Commons and the Senate are recorded in Hansard, and are available from Legisinfo. They are also available in print form in law libraries.

After the bill has passed second reading, it is sent to a parliamentary committee for detailed consideration on a clause by clause basis. This can be a legislative committee, a standing committee, or a Committee of the Whole House. The committee can receive briefs or hear witnesses. Amendments to the bill can be proposed at this stage. See Parliamentary Internet for detailed information about parliamentary committees. Links to committee reports and proceedings are included in the Legisinfo profile for a bill.

The committee reports on the bill to the legislative body in which the bill originated, and any amendments made to the bill are voted on by that legislative body. If the bill has been amended, it is reprinted prior to third reading. You may want to review a transcript or report of a committee’s proceedings to find why a bill was amended. In addition to being available through Legisinfo, proceedings and reports of parliamentary committees are also available in print in some law libraries.

Third reading

The final version of the bill is circulated for third reading. There is often no debate at this stage. Third reading versions of bills are available through Legisinfo.

Passage by the other House

Federal bills must be passed by both the House of Commons and the Senate. So the three readings described above must be repeated for the second legislative body. If the second legislative body amends the bill, it cannot become law without the agreement of the originating body to the amendments. If the originating body will not agree, representatives of both Houses will try to reach a compromise. If no compromise can be reached, the legislation cannot become law.

Royal assent and coming into force

After the bill passes third reading in both Houses, it receives royal assent from the Governor Governor, the Queen’s representative. At that time it is assigned a chapter number.

As soon as practicable after the bill has received royal assent, it is published in the Canada Gazette, Part III. As of April 1, 2003, the Internet version of the Canada Gazette has official status equivalent to that of the print version. Eventually, the government publishes hard cover volumes containing all legislation passed in a particular year. The third reading versions of any legislation passed in that year will be included. These volumes are referred to as sessional volumes.

If the bill is silent on how and when it comes into force, then it comes into force immediately on receiving royal assent. If the bill indicates that it is to come into force in some other way, then it does not come into force on royal assent. See section 5 of the Interpretation Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-21.

A common way for a bill to come into force is by regulation. This means that the bill does not come into force until the Governor in Council (in other words, Cabinet) issues an order in council proclaiming the legislation into force.

Once you have found a reference to an order in council, you may want to find a copy of the order itself. To do this, you must go to the Canada Gazette, Part II. Current print issues are in pamphlet format. Older issues are usually bound by year and contain an index. Go to the volume for the year of the regulation, and look it up by number.

Ascertaining the status of a bill

There are various ways to ascertain the status of a bill and to obtain references to the documents arising out of the legislative process.

Electronic sources for obtaining this type of information include:

  • Legisinfo
  • Canadian Legislative Pulse published by CCH.

Citing a bill

The proper format for citing a federal bill includes the bill number, the name of the bill, the legislative session, and the year.

Bill C-28, Pearson International Airport Agreements Act, 2nd Session, 35th Parliament, 1996.


Parliamentary procedure