Continuity in Canada’s System of Government During a Crisis

Revised on 5 June 2020, 9:35 a.m.
Any substantive changes in this HillNote that have been made since the preceding issue are indicated in bold print.

(Disponible en français : Continuité du système de gouvernement du Canada en temps de crise)

On 13 March 2020, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion that cancelled its scheduled sittings until 20 April 2020. On the same date, the Senate adjourned until 21 April 2020. On 20 April 2020, the House of Commons adopted a motion to adjourn and to meet in a reduced and virtual format, and in the form of a special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic until 25 May 2020. On 26 May 2020, the House of Commons adopted another motion to adjourn while maintaining the special committee until 17 June 2020. Pursuant to that last motion, the House of Commons will meet on 17 June 2020, 8 July 2020, 22 July 2020, 12 August 2020, and 26 August 2020.

Since the first suspension of Parliament in March 2020, parliamentarians were recalled and sat four times to pass emergency bills.

Despite the current suspension of Parliament, the federal government continues to provide critical services and programs to Canadians at home and abroad.

Canada’s system of government operates according to constitutional and legal rules and conventions that are both written and unwritten. The hallmarks of such a constitutional arrangement are flexibility, adaptability and continuity.

Two examples of how Canada’s system of government was built to endure unplanned for situations are discussed in this note: the continuity of Parliament’s spending power and the continuity of Canada’s Executive power.

Continuity of Parliament’s Spending Power

To continue operating, the government needs adequate and ongoing funding. However, Parliament must authorize all government spending, which presents a challenge when Parliament is not sitting.

1. Legislation

Approximately 60% of federal expenditures are authorized through standing legislation. This includes major transfer payments to provinces and territories, such as the Canada Health Transfer, and transfers to individuals, such as employment insurance benefits. The authority to make these payments is ongoing, but Parliament would need to approve any amendments to these payments.

The remaining 40% of federal expenditures is authorized through appropriation bills for spending requests outlined in the main and supplementary estimates. 

Prior to rising on 13 March 2020, Parliament adopted an appropriation bill (C-11, An Act for granting to Her Majesty certain sums of money for the federal public administration for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021) for interim supply. C-11 authorized funding to federal organizations to operate during the first three months of fiscal year 20202021, which starts on 1 April, until the main estimates (or full supply) are adopted, usually at the end of June.

2. Governor General’s Special Warrants

As the House of Commons and the Senate are not meeting regularly, the government may be unable to request Parliament’s approval for additional spending through appropriation bills that may be urgently required to help combat the COVID-19 virus and sustain the Canadian economy and individuals.

The Financial Administration Act includes provisions during election periods allowing the government to request that the Governor General sign special warrants authorizing expenditures urgently required for the public good. However, the government is unable to use these provisions because Parliament has not been dissolved for an election.

On 13 March 2020, the House of Commons and the Senate approved Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Financial Administration Act (special warrant), which allows special warrants to be issued while Parliament has been suspended. The bill also contains several reporting provisions for the warrants issued. These provisions expire on 24 June 2020.

Special warrants, however, cannot be used to amend or create new spending authorities or change the terms and conditions for payments authorized by standing legislation.

3. Emergency Bills

On 25 March 2020, Parliament approved Bill C-13, An Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19. Bill C-13 includes spending measures to provide support to Canadian individuals and businesses, including instituting a new Emergency Support Benefit and amending employment insurance benefits. It will also allow the government to spend “all money required to do anything in relation to [a] public health event of national concern.” This last provision expires on 30 September 2020.

On 11 April 2020, Parliament approved Bill C-14, A second Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19, which introduces an emergency wage subsidy to support employers.

On 1 May 2020, Parliament approved Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits (coronavirus disease 2019), which provides income support to students who lost work and income opportunities due to COVID-19.

Finally, on 15 May 2020, Parliament approved Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act to support dairy producers and processors by increasing the Canadian Dairy Commission’s lending capacity.

Continuity of Canada’s Executive power

Canada’s Executive branch is composed of the Governor General, and the prime minister and Cabinet.

All federal bills that spend money or raise taxes must be introduced in the House of Commons by a Cabinet minister, acting on behalf of the Governor General. It is the Executive branch that sets the policy direction and spending priorities for the country.

Canada’s Constitution, with its unwritten conventions, provides direction based on precedent and contemporary norms as to the appointment, term and succession of members of the Executive branch.

1. Governor General

Appointment: By constitutional convention, the Governor General is appointed by the Queen on the personal recommendation of the Canadian prime minister. The discretion about whether to consult others about this appointment belongs to the prime minister. The appointment is made through a commission granted under the Great Seal of Canada.

Duration of term and succession: The usual term for a Governor General is five years, although it can be extended. In the event of the absence, removal, incapacitation or death of a Governor General, the Chief Justice or the Senior Judge of the Supreme Court of Canada assumes the powers of the Governor General and holds the title of Administrator of the Government of Canada, until replaced, if required, by a new Governor General.

2. Prime Minister

Appointment: The leader of the political party most apt to hold the confidence of the House of Commons is asked by the Governor General to be prime minister. The convention of responsible government has evolved to limit the discretion that a governor general can exercise in this appointment.

Duration of term and succession: A prime minister ceases to hold office when the Governor General accepts his or her resignation or, extraordinarily, when the prime minister is dismissed by the Governor General or dies.

The circumstances surrounding a prime minister’s resignation, dismissal or death will inform the appropriate potential courses of action for a governor general to consider.

Decisions about a process or procedures used to name a prime minister’s successor belong to the governing party. A longstanding practice has been for the Committee of the Privy Council, on the recommendation of the prime minister, to issue an official line of succession within Cabinet to replace a prime minister in the event the person is unable to perform the functions of the office.

3. Federal Cabinet

Appointment: Cabinet ministers are chosen by the prime minister and formally sworn in by the Governor General.

Duration of term: Cabinet ministers can be removed and replaced by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister at any time. In the event a minister is not able to perform the functions of office, the Privy Council office has issued a list of acting and second acting replacement ministers for each minister. A Cabinet also ceases to exist when the prime minister submits their resignation to the Governor General.

Authors: Andre Barnes, Raphaëlle Deraspe and Alex Smith, Library of Parliament