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I. Rules for Functioning under Emergency Measures
Canada’s federal legislative branch consists of the monarch, the House of Commons, and the Senate. The Senate and House of Commons constitute Canada’s bicameral Parliament. House of Commons proceedings are regulated by written rules known as the Standing Orders. Senate proceedings are regulated by the Rules of the Senate. There do not appear to be any special rules for the operation of Parliament in emergency situations.
On October 22, 2014, the House did not sit due to the shootings at Parliament Hill that had taken place earlier that morning. According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, “[q]uestions arose as to how the Speaker could have modified the meeting times of the House had the House wished to meet later that day”:
This question was in fact raised by Speaker Scheer in a letter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in which he proposed that it review the Standing Orders regarding the lack of provisions that would allow the Speaker to modify the hours or days of sitting in an emergency situation. Arguments could have been made, however, that the Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 1, had the authority to do so. At its meeting on February 3, 2015, the Committee agreed to propose a change to the Standing Orders to that effect (Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, Minutes of Proceedings, February 3, 2015, Meeting No. 66). The Committee did not report on the matter.
The Emergencies Act provides for special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies. It allows the federal government to deal with security emergencies of five different types: national emergencies, public welfare emergencies, public order emergencies, international emergencies, and war emergencies. Declarations and regulations issued during the period of a national emergency are subject to the supervision of Parliament, with its oversight regulated by part VI of the Act.
II. Arrangements for an “Emergency” Parliament
There does not appear to be any arrangement under the current rules for a designated subgroup of members to constitute a kind of “emergency parliament” with devolved powers from the whole parliament to address crisis situations. Under the Constitution Act, 1867, a quorum of 20 members (including the Speaker) is required “to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers.” This requirement is also reflected in the Standing Orders. According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, “[t]he attendance of any 20 Members is sufficient for quorum, regardless of their party affiliations or whether they are in government or in opposition.” The quorum in the Senate is at least 15 senators, including the Speaker.
As part of its strategic outlook for the current Parliament, the House Administration is implementing a series of initiatives to “upgrade technology services and facilities, as well as to ensure their security and resiliency, so Members and employees can better serve Canadians.” One of the initiatives is a Business Continuity Program, where “business continuity plans for the essential functions of the House of Commons will be refined and tested to ensure that the operations can continue in the event of an emergency situation that requires relocation.”
III. Adjustments to Operations during COVID-19
Canada’s federal political parties unanimously agreed to suspend Parliament on March 13, 2020, until at least April 20, 2020, “to help prevent parliamentarians from contributing to the spread of COVID-19.” However, Parliament was called back into session during the week of March 23, 2020, to pass the federal government’s “emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” One news report states that, “in keeping with social distancing protocol and safety measures only a small number of MPs are expected in Ottawa.” The article notes that the rules governing the House of Commons “have no provisions for online votes from MPs or teleconferencing, meaning some MPs will have to be in there in person.” However, as also stated above, “only 20 MPs, including the Speaker, have to be present for a vote to be valid.” The House Leader said that the House is “looking at a setup that will enable as few MPs as possible to be physically present.” On March 24, 2020, 32 members of Parliament returned to the House of Commons to approve a CA$82 billion (about US$61.5 billion) COVID-19 financial aid package, which was expected to be voted upon in both houses the next day.
Prepared by Tariq Ahmad
Foreign Law Specialist
 Constitution Act, 1867, § 35.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020