The Silliness of Pro Forma Bills in the Canadian Parliament

It is not surprising that many Canadian are cyncial of their federal Parliamentarians.

Example in point: Bills C-1 and S-1 have been published. Despite respectively being – in name – “An Act respecting the administration of oaths of office” and an “Act relating railways” – of course neither bill has anything to do with either topic and neither bill will pass first reading.

Apparently, it all has to do with a “custom” dating back over 400 years ago for “pro forma” bills. I didn’t find the explanation on LegisINFO or Wikipedia to be entirely satisfactory. Wouldn’t it be simpler to amend the Rules of the House to make these pro forma bills unnecessary?

Time for Parliament to enter the 21st century. While they are at it, let’s abolish the Monarchy in Canada and take “God” out of proclamations and other Parliamentary procedures (as in the proclamation summoning Parliament to meet).

Or perhaps I’ll leave those last two items to another day . . . .


  1. Okay Ted, the late Senator Eugene Forsey is likely spinning like a top but let’s have him explain why the Pro Forma Bills matter in his own words from the classic How Canadians Govern Themselves:

    If the opening of a session also marks he beginning of a newly elected Parliament, you will find the Members of the House of Commons milling about in their chamber, a body without a head. On a signal, the great doors of the Chamber are slammed shut. They are opened gain after three knocks, and the Usher of the Black Rod arrives from the Senate. He or she has been sent by the deputy of the Governor General, who is not allowed to enter the Commons, to announce that the Governor General desires the immediate attendance of Honourable Members in the Chamber of the Honourable the Senate. The Members then proceed to the Senate Chamber, where the Speaker of the Senate says: “I have it in command to let you know that His Excellency the Governor General does not see fit to declare the causes of his summoning the present Parliament of Canada until the Speaker of the House of Commons shall have been chosen according to law.” The Members then return to their own chamber and elect their Speaker.

    Once the Governor General arrives in the Senate, the Usher of the Black Rod is again dispatched to summon the House of Commons, and the Members troop up again to stand at the bar of the Upper House. The Speaker of the House of Commons then informs the Governor General of his or her election, and asks for the Crown’s confirmation of all the traditional rights and privileges of the Commons. The Speaker of the Senate delivers that confirmation, and the Governor General delivers the Speech from the Throne, partly in English, partly in French.

    The speech, which is written by the Cabinet, sets forth the government’s view of the condition of the country and the policies it will follow, and the bills it will introduce to deal with that condition. The Members of the House of Commons then return to their own chamber, where, normally, the Prime Minister immediately introduces a Bill Respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office. This is a dummy bill, never heard of again till the opening of the next session. It is introduced to reassert the House of Commons’ right to discuss any business it sees fit before considering the Speech from the Throne.

    This right was first asserted by the English House of Commons more than 300 years ago, and is reasserted there every session by a similar pro forma bill.

    This formal reassertion of an ancient right of the Commons has been of very great practical use in Canada more than once. In 1950, for example, a nation-wide railway strike demanded immediate action by Parliament. So the moment the House came back from the Senate Chamber, the Prime Minister introduced Bill C-1, but this time no dummy; this time a bill to end the strike and send the railway workers back to work, and it was put through all its stages, passed by both Houses, and received Royal Assent before either House considered the Speech from the Throne at all. Had it not been for the traditional assertion of the right of the Commons to do anything it saw fit before considering the speech, this essential emergency legislation would have been seriously delayed.

  2. Ontario does the same thing – i.e. a dummy bill – for the same purpose – to assert the right of the Commons to set its own agenda, not to yield to the wishes of the Crown. See an Act to perpetuate an ancient parliamentary right, Bill 1 of the last Ontario session (and of many before that.)

    Whether it makes sense for the Chief Minister of the Crown to introduce this bill is another question. In Ontario it is always the Premier who introduces it – and he (or she) typically introduces no other legislation during the session.

  3. I think anything that serves to remind parliamentarians that they are independent of the government is a good thing. However, I agree that the Prime Minister is no longer the correct person to be asserting that independence, as the Prime Minister is now the author of the speech from the throne.