How are Canadian laws made? A simple guide

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The law is the glue that holds a society together. It is a collection of rules that maintain order and ensure a safe and peaceful society. Laws also uphold our freedoms, guard our rights, and carry out social policies. In fact, laws affect almost all of the parts of our lives every day.

The rule of law, freedom under the law, democratic principles, and respect for others are the pillars of Canadian democracy. Legislation is a fundamental function.

Let’s take a close look at how laws are made in Canada.

The Canadian Parliament and Legislature

Laws are made in a legislature or parliament. As a federation, meaning a union of provinces and territories with a central government, Canada has a parliament and a legislature.

The federal parliament is in Ottawa and makes laws for the entire country. These often concern areas such as banking, criminal law, national defence, and citizenship. Meanwhile, the 10 provinces and three territories each have a legislature that deals with laws concerning their respective areas. These include concerns such as education, health care, social welfare, and highways.

Lawmakers on the federal level come from the House of Commons and the Senate. Members of the House of Commons, known as Members of Parliament (MPs), are elected by the people, while Senators are appointed.

Lawmakers on the provincial level are called Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). They are elected. They represent various areas called “ridings” or electoral districts of the province.

Both levels follow a similar process to create laws. To avoid confusion, the steps to the federal process are detailed below.

Steps in creating a law:

Step 1: Proposing and introducing a bill (First reading)

It all starts with an idea. Anyone can propose an idea for a new law, but most often, it’s the government, led by the Prime Minister, that introduces them. These are called bills. Bills can be about social policies, rules for society, or changes to existing laws.

During the first reading, the bill is introduced in the House of Commons or the Senate. The details and purpose of the bill are explained.

Step 2: Second Reading

In the second reading, Members of Parliament or Senators debate the bill’s principles and ideas. This is where the bill’s main content is discussed. They talk about its strengths and weaknesses. They debate about how it will affect different groups of people. If it passes this stage, it goes to committee for a more detailed review.

Step 3: Committee Stage

At this point, the bill is studied more closely by a small group of parliamentarians, called the parliamentary committee. They examine the bill closely and propose amendments. They also gather expert opinions and public input. They hold hearings where interested individuals and representatives from organizations can comment on the bill.

Once this process is complete, the head of the committee sends the report back to the House of Commons or the Senate.

How does a bill become a law? Parliament of Canada

Step 4: Report Stage and Third Reading

At this point, more debates can happen, and additional changes may be made. If the bill passes the third reading, it moves to the other house (from House of Commons to Senate, or vice versa).

House of Commons vs. Senate
Both the House of Commons and the Senate must agree on the bill’s final form. If there are disagreements, they must be resolved through negotiation. The bill may go back and forth between the two houses until an agreement is reached.

Step 5: Royal Assent

Because Canada is also a Constitutional Monarchy, bills must have the Monarchy’s stamp of approval. Once the House of Commons and the Senate agree on the bill’s content, it is sent to the Governor General for royal assent. Royal assent is the final step where the bill becomes law. This step is considered more of a formality because a royal assent is almost always granted.

After receiving royal assent, the bill becomes an official law known as an “Act of Parliament.” It is now part of the Canadian legal system and can be enforced by government agencies and the courts. Sometimes, regulations also need to be developed to provide detailed rules to implement a law.

As mentioned, provincial bills pass through the same process as federal bills, except they do not have to deal with a body like the Senate. The process of first reading to Royal Assent is carried out by the provincial or territorial legislature. Once a bill becomes part of Provincial law, bills are known as Acts or Statutes.

What is your role in making the law in Canada?

Forming laws in Canada is not limited to government officials. Public participation and input are crucial elements of the process. Canadians can influence the development of laws in various ways:

  • Public consultation: The government often seeks public input through consultations on specific issues or proposed legislation.
  • Petitions: Citizens can start petitions to draw attention to specific concerns or changes they wish to see in the law.
  • Contacting representatives: Canadians can contact their MPs, Senators, or MLAs to express their views on proposed legislation.
  • Elections: Voters have the power to elect representatives who align with their values and priorities, ultimately affecting the direction of lawmaking.

Sources: Canada’s System of Justice, Department of Justice;How a bill becomes law, Parliament of Canada; Laws, Bills, Acts, and Statutes, The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba; and How new laws and regulations are created, Government of Canada. Accessed September 28, 2023.

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