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How do we make federal laws in Canada?
A Blog Post by EcoJustice written by Melanie Snow

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Canada is a parliamentary democracy, a system of government that is based on laws. These laws, though we are not always aware of them, play a crucial role in shaping our society and how we interact with the world around us.

Each level of government in Canada — federal, provincial and municipal — has specific responsibilities for different aspects of society and has the power to create laws to govern these areas. For example, provincial governments can make laws about education while municipal governments can make laws about waste collection.

Laws passed by the federal government cover a vast range of areas from what kind of food and drink is safe for our dinner tables, how we travel through airports and across borders, and how we are supported if we lose our jobs.

The federal government also makes laws that impact the environment. There are federal laws that require the federal government to have a plan to meet carbon emission targets (and take more action if they are off track) the kind of to chemicals we’re exposed to in our everyday lives, and what kind of protections endangered species enjoy.

Despite the impact of the law on our everyday lives, many of us are not aware how new laws are made. From a distance, the lawmaking process may appear long and convoluted, but checks and balances built into the process help keep governments and lawmakers accountable to the voices and concerns of people across Canada.

It also is important to note that Canada’s lawmaking process is far from perfect. Canada’s parliamentary system is inherently colonial, a mirror of the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. It was used to legitimize the displacement and abuse of Indigenous Peoples and undermine the dignity and humanity of many other communities in Canada. To this day, lawmaking in Canada often excludes the perspectives of those most affected by the changes being debated.

Recognizing this tension, Ecojustice works to improve access to the legislative process by sharing resources and expertise with our partners. We aim to influence the process from within, in order to deliver better, more equitable outcomes for everyone in Canada.

Why is changing the law important?
Laws evolve over time. They need to change and adapt to reflect the world around us, and outdated laws can be a roadblock to progress.

When the federal government tables a bill in Parliament, it can be to introduce new legislation or to update an existing law.

For example, when the Minister of Environment and Climate Change tabled Bill C-12 in 2020 — which became the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act — they introduced a new law to hold the federal government accountable for achieving emission reduction targets for the first time.

And, in February 2018, the federal government tabled Bill C-69, a bill that replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 with the new Impact Assessment Act.

It’s important for political leaders to review and update laws on a regular basis to make sure they are still capable of delivering on the outcomes they espouse.

Canada’s parliamentary system
In Canada, Parliament is composed of three distinct pieces: the House of Commons, the Senate and the Monarch.

The House of Commons: The House of Commons is the lower chamber of Parliament and is comprised of MPs, each of whom represents one of the 338 ridings across Canada. During each federal election, Canadian citizens have the opportunity to vote for the candidate they want to represent them as an MP in the House of Commons.

The Senate: The Senate is the upper chamber and is made up of 105 Senators who are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The Monarch: In Canada, the Governor General represents the head of state, currently, Queen Elizabeth II. The Governor General is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Who can propose a new law?
In Canada’s parliamentary system there are two main avenues to introduce a law.

The Cabinet, which is composed of the Prime Minister and other ministers, and assisted by parliamentary secretaries, create a policy proposal, known as a “public bill”. Once the Cabinet signs off on a bill, it is then introduced to either the House of Commons or the Senate.

The other avenue for introducing new legislation is for an MP, who is not a member of the Cabinet or a parliamentary secretary, to introduce a bill to the House of Commons. This is known as a private Member’s bill. Any MP who does not hold ministerial responsibilities can propose a new law by way of a private Member’s bill. If selected for debate, this bill can eventually become law.

When a bill is proposed by Cabinet to either the House of Commons or the Senate, it appears on the Notice Paper, notifying Parliament with 48 hours’ written notice of the start of the lawmaking process. The following day it appears on the Order Paper and the bill heads for its first reading.

A bill that is introduced in the House of Commons begins with a C, while a bill that is introduced in the Senate starts with an S. For example, the Impact Assessment Act was first introduced to MPs and Senators as Bill C-69.

How does a bill go from introduction to becoming law?
There are a number of stages all bills must pass in the House of Commons and in the Senate before they can officially become federal law in Canada.

Each stage serves an important purpose so that a bill can be properly reviewed, debated, amended, and voted on.

Here is a high-level review of what happens at each stage:

First Reading: The first reading of a bill can start in either the House or Senate, depending on where the bill was first introduced. This stage is generally a formality to introduce the content, there is no debate or vote.

Second Reading: At the second reading, the foundation or principle of the bill is discussed, debated and voted on. This is a high-level opportunity for the Chamber (either the House of Commons or the Senate) to mull over the general content and scope of the bill. Once reviewed, the bill needs a majority of votes to proceed to the next stage.

Committee Stage: Once a bill has passed second reading it proceeds to a committee for review. There are numerous committees for MPs and for Senators to examine different issues that impact Canadian society, such as the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development that reviews environmental issues and legislation. Committees may invite witnesses to present views or answer questions. The committee’s role is to then review the text of the bill clause-by-clause and approve, amend, or modify it.

Report Stage: Once a committee has reviewed and voted on a bill, it proceeds to the report stage. This stage allows members (either MPs or Senators) to propose motions to amend the bill. Amendments will trigger a debate, where members will debate the specifics of these amendments — but not the bill in its entirety. Members are advised to seek legal counsel to craft amendments.

Third Reading: The third reading of a bill is the final stage of review for new legislation. While the lawmaking process is not always linear and a bill can bounce between stages, the third reading is when members have a final opportunity to debate and vote on the bill. Once it passes, the bill proceeds to the other chamber of Parliament (depending on whether it was introduced in the House of Commons or the Senate) to repeat a similar process.

Royal Assent: The Governor General is a symbolic representation of the Crown in Canada. Once a bill is passed by both chambers in identical form, it receives royal assent, whereby the Governor General signs off on the bill and officially turns the legislation into law.

The role of Ecojustice
Ecojustice fights for better laws that can fight climate change, tackle dangerous pollution, and protect biodiversity.

Our team pushes those in power to introduce laws that can provide a safe, sustainable future for everyone in Canada.

Ecojustice lobbies elected officials to make sure that they introduce and pass the strongest legislation possible. To achieve this goal, we provide analysis and briefing notes for politicians and their staff, meet with MPs and Senators, and work with partner organizations to push for bold and enforceable legislation.

Ecojustice supporters also play a crucial role in pushing those in power to introduce bills and pass laws that will reduce emissions, reduce Canadians’ exposure to toxic chemicals, and stop the loss of species and nature.

For example, the advocacy actions we share with you, are opportunities for you, as a member of the public, to call on Ministers, MPs and Senators to table and pass strong bills. The 10,000 supporters like you who took action with Ecojustice in support of climate accountability were critical in persuading the federal government to finally table, strengthen and pass the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act into law.

Ecojustice acts with the understanding that the law is a powerful, though imperfect, tool for change. As people across Canada grapple with the reality of the interlocking climate, pollution and biodiversity crises, we remain as committed as ever to advocating for better laws that will deliver a brighter future for us all.

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