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Parliamentary Committees

An important part of the work of Parliament is done in committees. In these groups, parliamentarians examine proposals for new laws in detail, study issues, consult with experts, and listen to Canadians to inform their decisions and recommendations.

The Work of Committees

Parliamentary committees meet to gather input from many sources and discuss issues in depth. This allows Canadians to participate in the legislative process and helps parliamentarians consider bills (proposed laws), study issues and review policies with as much information as possible.

Committee roles and responsibilities include:

  • Studying bills: Members of committees study bills in detail. They analyze and vote on each clause (or numbered units of text), ensuring that all parts of the bill are examined closely. Since Parliament studies many bills at the same time, committees allow parliamentarians to divide this work and focus on particular public policy areas.
  • Listening to opinions: One of committees' central functions is to listen to and gather information from groups and individuals. Known as witnesses, these groups and individuals can appear before the committee to discuss bills or issues being studied. Committees also gather information, called evidence, from written briefs (a document explaining a viewpoint on a subject).
  • Travelling: Most committee meetings are held in Ottawa. Committees occasionally meet in other locations across the country to hear evidence, hold consultations or visit areas that are relevant to the bill or study. Travel allows committee members to meet with people who may not be able to attend in-person meetings in the national capital.
  • Suggesting amendments: Committees can suggest amendments (changes) to bills that are referred to them. Once a committee has suggested amendments, the bill returns to the chamber for further debate.
  • Writing reports: Committees typically produce reports about what was discovered during their investigations and analysis. Reports typically summarize the information learned during a study and make recommendations to Parliament concerning a specific bill or issue. Committees also report on administrative or procedural matters.

Committee Membership

Committees are designed to be smaller-scale versions of the Senate and the House of Commons. This format allows parliamentarians to discuss proposed laws and study important issues while maintaining representation ratios similar to those seen in the chambers. For example, a political party or group with 20% of the seats in the chamber will hold roughly 20% of the seats on a given committee. Similarly, a majority government will hold a majority of seats in a House of Commons committee.

At the beginning of each session of Parliament, both the Senate and the House of Commons create selection committees to choose which parliamentarians will be members of each committee. Substitutions may be made over the course of a session. All officially recognized parties and groups (a group or party with at least nine seats in the Senate or 12 seats in the House of Commons) are represented in the committees. Parliamentarians can work on several committees.

Committees mirror the layout of the Chamber

Most committees have similar room layouts and representation ratios to those seen in the Senate and House of Commons chambers.

Committee Room

A typical committee room layout. The Chair and the Clerk sit next to each other at the head of a long table. Government Members sit to the right of the Chair, and Opposition members sit to the Chair’s left, like in the House of Commons. The Proceedings and Verification Officers sit at their own desk near the large table. Members of the General public can sit in rows of chairs facing the Chair and the Clerk.

house of commons

A general seating plan of the House of Commons chamber. The Speaker or their deputy is the Chair for each sitting in the chamber. The Clerk sits at the long table in front of the Speaker. Proceedings and Verification Officers sit at separate desks in the middle of the aisle. Government Members usually sit to the right of the Speaker, and Opposition members generally sit to the Speaker’s left. Members of the general public can sit in the galleries above the chamber floor to watch proceedings.

Hover over the roles to highlight the seats

Types of Committees

There are five main types of committees in Parliament. Each one has a different purpose, mandate and membership.

Standing committees are permanent committees that oversee the work of government departments, review federal policies, investigate issues and study bills assigned to them by the Senate or the House of Commons.

Each standing committee has its own areas of study, such as:

  • agriculture
  • foreign affairs
  • finance
  • Indigenous affairs
  • natural resources
  • transport
  • science and technology

Most standing committees have between 12 and 15 members.

Special committees are established to investigate specific issues. The size of special committees is not fixed. Unlike a standing committee, a special committee’s job is complete once it has submitted its final report. Examples of special committees include the House of Commons Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, the House of Commons Special Committee on Canada–China Relations and the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic.

Legislative committees study specific bills. These are more common in the House of Commons than the Senate.

Joint committees are made up of both senators and members of Parliament. Joint committees have a Senate chair and a House of Commons chair, who alternate or share leadership during meetings. There are two standing joint committees: for the Scrutiny of Regulations and on the Library of Parliament.

A committee of the whole comprises all members of the House of Commons or all members of the Senate. This large committee may be used when a quick decision or discussion is necessary, since it allows all the parliamentarians from one chamber to participate at the same time.

A Senate Committee room A House of Commons committee room

Key Roles in a Committee

Aside from the contributions of committee members, several roles support the committee’s work.

The committee chair is the person responsible for enforcing the rules during meetings. As a parliamentarian who is elected by fellow committee members, the committee chair becomes the spokesperson for the committee.

The clerk of the committee is a non-partisan (politically neutral) Senate or House of Commons employee with expertise on rules and procedures. The clerk is the chief procedural, administrative and information officer for the committee. The clerk drafts the minutes, which serve as the official record of a meeting.

Analysts are non-partisan Library of Parliament employees who support the work of committees by researching topics on request. Analysts support parliamentarians during committee meetings and help answer questions. They also write papers and briefing notes and draft reports about topics the committee discusses.

Parliamentary reporters (Senate) and proceedings and verification officers (House of Commons) create a written record of committee discussions.

Public Access to Committees

Members of the public can participate in committees’ work by submitting a brief or by requesting to appear before most committees. When choosing witnesses, committee members try to select people who have diverse identities, as well as positions and perspectives across the political, social and cultural spectrums. The public can also watch most committee meetings in person or online.

Public meetings are open to visitors and transcripts of the discussions are published. Broadcasting and videoconferencing allow those in remote areas of the country to participate and observe.

In-camera meetings are not open to the public. These meetings are usually held when the committee is considering administrative matters, when it is drafting a report, or when it is dealing with sensitive topics, such as national security.

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