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How a Bill Becomes a Law

To become Canadian federal law, a bill must be approved in identical form by both houses of Parliament – the Senate and the House of Commons. All bills follow a process of debate, review and voting. After a bill is passed by both the Senate and the House of Commons, the Governor General grants Royal Assent and the bill becomes a law.

The Legislative Process

Ideas for new laws often begin outside of Parliament. By signing petitions, meeting with parliamentarians and sharing their perspectives, Canadians indicate what they want to change. Political parties include these ideas in their election platforms. Parliamentarians bring these ideas into Parliament by writing them down in the form of bills (proposals for new laws).

All bills are first introduced in the Senate or the House of Commons by a parliamentarian (that is, a senator or a member of Parliament). Bills can come from the government or from parliamentarians not part of the government.

After a bill is introduced in Parliament, it goes through a series of steps designed to ensure that its purpose and effects are carefully considered, and that Canadians are consulted and informed. This is known as the legislative process.

The Legislative Process

Click on the numbers to learn about the legislative process

Infographic Infographic
A bill (proposed law) is introduced in either the Senate or the House of Commons.
Parliamentarians debate the bill and vote to decide whether it should be studied further.
If the bill passes, it is sent to a committee, which studies it in depth and may suggest changes.
The bill goes back for a final debate and vote, based on the committee’s report.
If the bill passes the vote, it is sent to the other Chamber, where it goes through the same process.
Once the bill has been passed by both Chambers in identical form, it goes to the Governor General for Royal Assent and becomes Canadian law.

First Reading: Introducing the Bill

First reading is the initial step in a bill’s progress through Parliament. The parliamentarian proposing the bill will introduce it in the parliamentarian’s chamber. Although this step is called first reading, the bill is not actually read aloud in the chamber – it is made available for parliamentarians and Canadians to read and examine.

Second Reading: Debating the Idea

During second reading, parliamentarians debate the principle (or main idea) of the bill. They examine its strengths and weaknesses and talk about how it might affect different groups of people. This gives parliamentarians (and other Canadians) a chance to listen to different perspectives and opinions on the bill. After the time for debate is over, parliamentarians vote on whether the bill will continue through the process. If the vote supports the bill, the bill is sent to a committee for a closer look.

Committee Stage: Discussion and Hearing Witnesses

At the committee stage, the bill is studied in detail by a smaller group of parliamentarians, called a parliamentary committee.

Committee members hold hearings where interested individuals and representatives from organizations can comment on the bill. The committee can also invite government officials and experts to answer questions.

Committees examine bills clause by clause (section by section). Committees can also suggest amendments (changes) to the bill. The clauses and amendments are voted on. Once this process is complete, the chairperson of the committee submits a report back to the chamber.

Report Stage: Back to the Chamber

At the report stage, the bill is returned to the chamber where it was introduced and debated again, including any changes proposed by the committee. Parliamentarians can suggest additional changes at this time and those amendments may be debated. When they have voted on the amendments, the bill is finalized, and it is ready for third reading.

Third Reading: Debate and Vote

During third reading, parliamentarians debate the final form of the bill and vote to decide if it should be sent to the other chamber. In the Senate, amendments may be made at third reading. Parliamentarians can choose to stop supporting a bill at any phase of the legislative process. They might vote “yes” at second reading to allow for further study and discussion, but vote “no” at third reading if they do not approve of the final version of the bill. If a bill is rejected or if a decision is not made before a session of Parliament ends, the bill stops going through the legislative process.

If the bill is passed by a majority of parliamentarians at third reading in the chamber where it was introduced, it is then sent to the other chamber.

Sent to the Other Chamber

Most bills begin in the House of Commons and are sent to the Senate for review. Bills can also start in the Senate and then go to the House of Commons for review. When a bill is sent from one chamber to the other, the bill is read again for the first time and goes through the same steps.

If the reviewing chamber makes any changes, the bill gets sent back to the initial chamber for further review. Messages may go back and forth between the chambers as amendments are debated. Most amendments are intended to clarify, simplify or improve a bill.

Royal Assent: Becoming a Law

In Canada’s constitutional monarchy, bills require the assent of the Monarch to become a law. Once both the Senate and the House of Commons have passed a bill in identical form, in both official languages, the bill is given to the Governor General for Royal Assent. Royal Assent may be granted by a nod of the head in a traditional Royal Assent ceremony in the Senate Chamber or by the Governor General signing the bill. Once the bill receives Royal Assent, it officially becomes a law. Royal Assent has never been refused to a federal bill in Canada.

How does a bill become a law?

Types of Bills

Public bills deal with matters of national interest and affect the whole country. There are two types of public bills:

  • Government bills are introduced by a Cabinet minister, a parliamentary secretary or the Government Representative in the Senate. These bills, which are debated in the order that the government chooses, take up most of Parliament’s time. Under the Constitution, legislation to raise taxes or spend public money must originate in the House of Commons.
  • Private members’ bills are introduced by a member of Parliament who is not a minister or a parliamentary secretary. One hour every sitting day in the House of Commons is dedicated to private members’ business. Similarly, senators who are not ministers may also introduce bills.

Private bills grant special powers, benefits or exemptions to a specific person(s) or a corporation rather than to society as a whole. They are based on a petition signed by the person or organization requesting the bill. Most private bills are introduced in the Senate.

Numbering of Bills

Bills can be introduced in either the Senate or the House of Commons. Bills introduced in the Senate are identified with the letter S and given a number (such as Bill S-4), while those introduced in the House of Commons start with the letter C (such as Bill C-78). All bills are numbered chronologically within each session of Parliament, and the numbering usually reflects the order in which they were introduced.

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