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Canadian House of Commons

The Canadian House of Commons, the Speaker of the House, the Deputy Speaker of the House and Selected House Operations
By David Kilgour, MP for Edmonton Southeast
Notes Prepared for Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University Interns
National Press Building, Ottawa, June 19, 1997

HISTORY -- Great Britain

The Speaker of the House is an office inherited from Great Britain that "dates back at least 600 years" and whose "principal function was to act as a spokesman for the House in its dealings with the House of Lords and the Crown." Over this period of time, the office has changed from one of a mere spokesman, to one of advancing policy, and then, finally, to one of a non-partisan presiding officer charged with overseeing the procedural aspects of House business.

In Great Britain, there is a principle of continuity of office whereby the Speaker, upon election, "renounces all party affiliation and, when seeking re-election to the House, runs as Speaker." Re-election of the Speaker is almost certain since he is not usually opposed. Finally, when he retires, he receives an appointment to the House of Lords and a pension.

HISTORY -- Canada

In Canada, the Speaker of the House fulfills a similar role of spokesman and presiding officer. However, the British practice of continuity has not been adopted in Canada, and, with few exceptions, tenures of Speakers have been limited to two Parliaments. Also, while there is confidence that the Canadian Speaker is impartial, there is no tradition or requirement of renouncing all party affiliation or running for re-election as Speaker, as is done in Great Britain. Furthermore, upon retirement, there is no guarantee of a position or appointment, although former Speakers have been appointed to ambassadorships, judgeships and the like.


A number of legal documents govern the Speaker’s position. The Constitution Act of 1867 establishes the position of Speaker and requires election of a member to the position immediately after a General Election, which only recently has been done by secret ballot, for a term which lasts through the life of a Parliament. The Act also delineates that the Speaker is to preside at all meetings of the House of Commons, and establishes the Speaker’s right to a casting vote in the event of ties, which is the only time when the Speaker has a right to vote. In presiding over sessions of Parliament, the Speaker maintains an atmosphere of decorum where members have a reasonable opportunity to speak and be heard, thus facilitating debate.

The Parliament of Canada Act of 1985, specifies the salary and administrative duties of the Speaker, establishes additional offices, such as Deputy Speaker, and provides that, upon dissolution, the members holding the offices of Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and others, are to remain in office until the new Parliament is seated for the purpose of handling administrative affairs.

There are also almost a dozen other statutes, as well as the Standing Orders, which govern the roles and the responsibilities of the Speaker of the House.

The Speaker has two other primary responsibilities beyond that of presiding officer and spokesman. First, he is responsible for the House administration, comprising more than 1700 individuals providing services to Members of Parliament. Second, the Speaker is chair of the Board of Internal Economy, one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. The Board is responsible for the House budget and the establishment of guidelines for the use of all resources provided to the Members for use in carrying out their parliamentary functions. These resources include goods, services, and premises, in addition to funds. The Board also authorizes expenditures and renders opinions on the propriety of any funds spent or resources utilized. It also must approve most legal processes affecting an MP while Parliament is in session.

So, for example, the Board may refuse to allow an MP to be released from his Parliamentary duties to make a court appearance. Or, when the RCMP is investigating an MP for alleged criminal violations regarding the use of House resources, the RCMP must first bring the search warrant request to the Board of Internal Economy for authorization.

ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES--Deputy Speaker of the House

The Deputy Speaker of the House, the position I held in the last Parliament, is not an elected one, as the Speaker’s office is. Instead, the newly elected Prime Minister appoints a Member to this position, as well as appointing Members to other positions, such as Assistant Speakers.

The Members of Parliament holding these offices continue to represent their constituencies to the extent possible under a strict party system and continue to ensure that their voters’ concerns are advanced to the right places while carrying out the added responsibilities of their appointment. This can be challenging since the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, at least, are neither to criticize nor defend the government or the opposition parties on their policies due to the need to remain impartial.

The Deputy Speaker has all of the legal powers a Speaker has and acts in the Speaker’s place in his absence. The Deputy Speaker also acts as the Chairman of Committees of the Whole, is a member of the Panel of Chairmen for the legislative committees and a member of the Board of Internal Economy. He is also required to have "full and practical knowledge of the official language which is not that of the current Speaker of the House."

Like the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker is expected to be impartial. However, the Deputy Speaker is entitled to engage in debate and participate in voting, unless acting in the role of Speaker in the Speaker’s absence. Yet, while the Deputy Speaker may engage in debate, precedent and practice has resulted in the Deputy Speaker refraining from participating in debate, thus retaining the appearance of impartiality.

[SOURCE: Briefing Notes for the Speaker, Table Research Branch, House of Commons, 1993.]

Selected House Operations

The Board of Internal Economy

Members have access to a variety of resources, services, and facilities in addition to receiving various allowances and benefits during their tenure in Parliament. The Board of Internal Economy, pursuant to various statutory limitations, is authorized to approve and control the expenditures of the House of Commons, is empowered to make by-laws governing the use of funds, and goods, services and premises purchased with such funds, and also acts as the employer of the staff of the House. Under the Parliament of Canada Act, the Board has the capacity of a natural person, thus enabling it to enter into contracts and other arrangements in the name of the House or the Board and to take such actions as are necessary to exercise its powers and functions, including taking legal action against third parties.

Members’ Services

Members have access to a wide variety of both office operations support services as well as Parliamentary facilities and services. Members also receive an orientation when newly elected to the House of Commons. To assist with office operations, Members have access to translation services and linguistic consultation services in French or English only, (unless the translation to or from a third foreign language is to communicate with constituents), access to an internal mail and messenger service, and access to OASIS Network services, which include a variety of audio-visual, e-mail, Internet and other data services and equipment

Members also have access to Parliamentary facilities and services such as the Public Information Office and its education and visitor services; the Library of Parliament and its research services; and language training in either French or English for the Members, their spouses, and their employees. Food services are available at the Centre Block Restaurant as well as a number of cafeterias, canteens and lounges, and room service; preventive health services. Daycare services for Members and their staff, mini-bus transportation between Parliamentary buildings, and other services, such as a barber shop, beauty salon, tailor, steam room, massage therapist, recreation room and gymnasium are also accessible to Members. Further, each MP receives offices in one of the buildings around Parliament as assigned by the Sergeant-at-Arms in consultation with party officials. Finally, substantial research funds are made available to officially recognized parties (i.e. those with a minimum of 12 elected M.P.s), with Government receiving significantly more than the Official Opposition or 2nd Party Opposition.

Members’ Allowances and Benefits

Members receive an annual sessional allowance of $64,000 and an expense allowance of $21,300 annually, although Members representing Schedule III electoral districts receive an annual expense allowance of $26,200 and those representing the Northwest Territories receive an expense allowance of $28,200. Additional allowances are given to Members occupying certain offices and positions, as follows:

  • Prime Minister - $69,920
  • Cabinet Ministers - $46,645
  • Secretaries of State - $34,984
  • Speaker - $49,100
  • Leader of the Official Opposition - $49,100
  • Leader of the Other Opposition Party - $29,500
  • Deputy Speaker - $25,700
  • House Leader--Official Opposition - $23,800
  • Chief Whips--Govt. & Official Opposition - $13,200
  • Parliamentary Secretaries - $10,500
  • Deputy Chair--Committees of the Whole House - $10,500
  • Assistant Deputy Chair--Comm. of the Whole House - $10,500
  • House Leader--Other Opposition Party - $10,100
  • Chief Whip--Other Opposition Party - $7,500
  • Deputy Whips--Govt. & Official Opposition - $7,500

Each Member also receives an Office Budget which can be used for Ottawa office staff costs, a constituency office and its staff costs and operating expenses, constituency travel expenses, and certain other authorized expenses. (See attached.) There is also a graduated Elector Supplement for constituencies where the number of electors is 70,000 or more, and a graduated Geographic Supplement for constituencies where the area to be served is 8000 square kilometres or more. (See attached.) Members also receive $3000 per Parliament if re-elected or $5000 if newly elected for the purchase of furniture and equipment for constituency offices. In addition, Members have free mailing privileges to anywhere in Canada and constituents may send mail to a Member free of postage from anywhere in Canada.

Also, Members may hire staff with their office budgets, whose rates of pay are determined by the Member upon appointment, but may not exceed an annual rate of $60,460, and pay increases may be made up to three times each year, not including raises resulting from promotions. Members, as employers, recruit, hire, promote, define job responsibilities, and discharge staff "for cause," although in reality staff can likely be discharged even without cause. However, MP employment practices are subject to human rights legislation if there is discrimination on gender, age, religion, race, etc. Furthermore, an MP is not allowed to hire a spouse or family members--there were even uproars in the past when M.P.s hired each other’s children.

Members also receive allowances for travel, subject to the limits authorized by the Board of Internal Economy. These include up to 64 return trips per year to travel anywhere in Canada, which may be converted into travel points that can be used, under certain conditions, by spouses, dependent children and employees; free rail transportation; and reimbursement for local ground transportation to and from airports, bus depots, etc. There are also reimbursements for travel-related expenses incurred for accommodations, meals and other incidental expenses.

In addition to these allowances, Members also receive a variety of benefits. A pension is available to former Members, aged 55, who served for a minimum of six years and who contributed the required percentage towards their retirement benefits (currently 9% of their sessional indemnity). The amount of the pension is based upon the total number of years of pensionable service and the average sessional indemnity over the best six consecutive years of service. In addition to the retirement plan, Members also have access to insurance for life, supplementary life, accidental death and dismemberment, health, hospital, dental, long-term disability, special risk insurance, flight insurance, and personal insurance.

[SOURCE: Manual of Allowances and Services, issued under the authority of the Board of Internal Economy, House of Commons, 1993.]

Major Policy Interests

Interaction with the Role of Deputy Speaker of the House

I have had a number of major policy interests during my tenure thus far as an MP. Although, since my appointment as the Deputy Speaker, you must realize the difficulties in pursuing legislative changes while refraining from taking positions in support of or opposition to either the government’s or the opposition’s proposals. Nevertheless, I’ll mention three of my interests -- the criminal justice system, human rights, and senate reform.

Criminal Justice

The first duty of any government is to attempt to ensure the public safety of its citizens. As a former prosecutor and an attorney, naturally, the justice system has long been an interest of mine. As a result, I’ve been concerned about various types of legislation related to the criminal justice system. For example, reforming the Young Offender Act to better balance the interests of the public and the young criminal; advocating on behalf of victim’s rights since they are the individuals most affected by the wrongdoing of others; and advocating for a balanced approach to crime prevention, as opposed to merely focusing on punishment for offenses, while ensuring that the protection and safety of Canadians takes priority over the wishes of the convicted offender. At one time, I had even introduced a private bill on child prostitution which was, unfortunately, unsuccessful, as most such bills are. Currently, I am also in the midst of projects related to new alternatives to effective crime prevention that are being attempted in various different countries around the world and the exclusion of evidence obtained in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Human Rights

I also have significant interests in human rights. Protecting and promoting human rights truly is a matter of common sense. It is also a sign of respect for others and for human dignity. I have often spoken and written on this subject. I have also made it a priority to visit other countries coping with these issues in order to advocate for better human rights. With my efforts, I try to bring attention to the rights of individuals to their freedom of thought and conscience, their freedom of expression, and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. I’ve also tried to bring attention to such crises as the genocide in Rwanda and the proper role of humanitarian aid and intervention in such circumstances.

One of my particular human rights concerns is freedom of religion, regardless of the specific faith involved. The freedom to worship one’s faith, or even the freedom not to do so, is a cornerstone of Canada’s appeal to so many people from other lands who wish to come to our country to pursue a better life. Unfortunately, the freedom to worship is not enjoyed worldwide. So many world conflicts are driven by religious motives, witness Bosnia, as one example among many. In many areas of the world, where armed conflict is not the means of oppression, there are still severe sanctions against those of certain faiths. There may be state regulation or even official state harassment in the forms of fines or criminal prosecutions, even torture. In other cases, officials merely tolerate, without intervening, riots, burnings of religious buildings, and beatings of religious leaders, educators, or worshippers.

Senate Reform

With regard to Senate reform, my interest stems from my position as an MP representing a Western Province. There is a great deal of alienation felt in the West as a result of the fact that the federal government is controlled by the House of Commons, where representation based on population inevitably results in control of the "national interest" by the provinces of Ontario and Quebec at the expense of all the other provinces.

Furthermore, there is not another chamber to effectively balance regional interests as in the Senates of the United States or Australia. For, as you know, the American Senate, where each state has an equal number of Senators, was specifically built on a compromise to avoid the effective disenfranchisement of less populous, less prosperous states.

The Australian Senate is similarly structured for similar reasons. In Australia, the founding fathers of the four smaller states refused to join a federal union where the other two states would enjoy two-thirds of the population unless there was a second house representing each state equally.

Yet, while American and Australian Senators are elected and accountable to the people, Canada’s Senators, are not only appointed, rather than elected, but are appointed until they are 75 years old, still a virtual life appointment. I have long thought that a Senate constituted of an equal number of Senators for each province, elected at fixed intervals for fixed periods of time, would be appropriate. This structure would provide equal representation for each province and provide a check and balance to the interests of the House of Commons which is dominated by Ontario and Quebec.

The HON. DAVID KILGOUR, P.C., M.P., received a B.A. in economics from the University of Manitoba, an L.L.B. from the University of Toronto and pursued doctoral studies in constitutional law at the University of Paris. Admitted to the bars of Alberta, British Colombia and Manitoba, Mr. Kilgour has served as a member of the International Commission of Jurists, s assistant city prosecutor of Vancouver, as a senior advisor to the Department of Justice in Ottawa and as a constitutional advisor to the Government of Alberta. In addition, he has worked as an investment analyst, an economist, a journalist, a teacher, and a ranch hand before beginning a career in federal politics. Since his election as a Member of Parliament for Edmonton Strathcona in 1979, Mr. Kilgour has served as the parliamentary secretary to three Ministers, the Minister of External Relations, the Minister of Indian and Northern Development and the Minister of Transport.

Mr. Kilgour’s outspoken criticism of ethics within the Progressive Conservative Party and the treatment of Western Canada along with his vote against the Goods and Services Tax, resulted in his departure from the Progressive Conservative Party and his becoming a member of the Liberal Party in 1991. He recently served as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and Chairman of Committees of the Whole for the 35th Parliament. He is currently active as the M.P. from Edmonton Southeast and is the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa.

Mr. Kilgour is the author of Uneasy Patriots: Western Canadians in Confederation (1989), Inside Outer Canada (1990), and Betrayal: The Spy Canada Abandoned (1994). He is also the recipient of the Masaryk Award from the Czechoslovak Association of Canada and the Human Rights Award of B’Nai Brith Canada, both are for his activities related to human rights.

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