DEFINITION AND PURPOSE
Royal Assent is the approval by the Sovereign of a bill that has passed both houses of Parliament in identical form. It is the process by which a bill becomes an act of Parliament and part of the law of Canada. In Canada, Royal Assent is given by the Governor General or one of the Governor General’s deputies (a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada or a senior official such as the Secretary to the Governor General).
The legislative process by which a bill becomes part of the law of the land requires the participation and approval of the three components of Parliament: the Sovereign, the Senate and the House of Commons. Royal Assent and the accompanying ceremony, where all three institutions are present, are the visible manifestation of the Sovereign sanctioning the work of Parliament.
While an act may come into force on the day on which Royal Assent is given, it should be noted that some bills contain provisions that the act (or part of the act) will come into force on a specific day or on a day to be fixed by proclamation. The determination of when such an act will be proclaimed is made by the government on the recommendation of the minister responsible for the act.
This procedural note describes the two forms of Royal Assent: the traditional ceremony, which takes place in the Senate, and the procedure by written declaration.
The Royal Assent ceremony in Canada is based on the United Kingdom tradition used prior to Confederation.
Until 2002, Royal Assent could only be given by means of a traditional ceremony in the Senate Chamber. Since June of that year, a written declaration procedure may also be used to signify Royal Assent as provided for in the Royal Assent Act.1 While allowing for the signification of Royal Assent by written declaration, the act requires that the traditional ceremony be used at least twice each calendar year and in the case of the first appropriation bill of each session of Parliament.
PROCEDURE FOR TRADITIONAL CEREMONY
Once a bill has been passed in the same form by both the Senate and House of Commons, the government chooses the date when Royal Assent is to be given. Whether government will arrange for Royal Assent to be given immediately after a bill has been passed by both houses or wait until other bills have also been passed for reasons of efficiency is dependent on the time-sensitivity of the legislation.
It is the Government Leader in the House of Commons, in consultation with the Leader of the Government in the Senate and with Government House or the Office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who chooses the exact time that a Royal Assent ceremony will take place. When choosing a time for a Royal Assent ceremony, consideration is given to whether other bills are expected to pass the schedule of the Governor General or his or her deputy and when Question Period is to take place in the House of Commons on the given day.
On the day that a Royal Assent ceremony is to take place, the Speaker announces, usually at the beginning of the sitting of the Senate, that a communication has been received from the Secretary to the Governor General. This letter states that the Governor General or a Justice of the Supreme Court (naming which Justice specifically), acting as deputy of the Governor General, will proceed to the Senate Chamber at the given time for the purpose of giving Royal Assent to certain bills. Once the Senate has been notified that Royal Assent will occur, it cannot adjourn beforehand, even if all other business before the Senate has been completed.2
A few minutes before the Governor General’s arrival, the Senate suspends its sitting to await him or her. The Speaker leaves the chair and the mace is taken off the table and held by the mace bearer near the chair until the ceremony is over.
After the Governor General’s procession has made its way into the Senate Chamber and the Governor General takes the Speaker’s chair, the Speaker commands the Usher of the Black Rod to proceed to the House of Commons and inform the members that “it is the desire of His (Her) Excellency the Governor General that they attend Him (Her) immediately in the Senate Chamber.”
The Usher of the Black Rod then proceeds to the House of Commons, where he or she is admitted to the Chamber by the Sergeant-at-Arms, and delivers the message. The Usher of the Black Rod then returns in procession with the Sergeant-at-Arms carrying the mace, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the clerks at the table and members of the House of Commons. Upon arriving at the Senate, all members of the procession, except the Usher of the Black Rod, stop at the bar of the Senate.
All bills, except appropriation bills, are then presented to the Governor General for assent. The request, followed by the titles of the bills to be assented to, is made by a reading clerk in both official languages. The Governor General then signifies assent by a nod of the head, and assent is announced by the Clerk of the Parliaments3. If there are any supply bills to receive assent, the Speaker of the House of Commons addresses the Governor General and reads the titles of these bills. The Governor General again signifies assent, which is announced by the Clerk of the Parliaments. After the Governor General has signified assent to the bills, the Speaker and members of the House of Commons withdraw from the Senate Chamber. The Governor General then leaves. The Speaker of the Senate then returns to the chair, the mace is returned to the table and the sitting of the Senate resumes.
If the business of the Senate has been completed for the day, it adjourns.
PROCEDURE FOR WRITTEN DECLARATION
As with a traditional Royal Assent ceremony, it is the government that decides when Royal Assent by written declaration will take place. The exact time and location that a written procedure will take place is also determined by the availability of the Governor General or the deputy on a given day. Generally, when the Governor General is available, the written declaration will occur at Rideau Hall. If, however, the Governor General is unavailable and a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada acting as deputy will signify Royal Assent, it normally takes place at the Supreme Court. The procedure can, however, take place at an alternate location of the Justice’s choosing. In addition, under the Act, no location is specified for the signifying of Royal Assent by written declaration; consequently, Royal Assent may be given outside of Ottawa.
The participants normally present for Royal Assent by written declaration are the Governor General or a deputy, the Clerk of the Parliaments, the Senate’s Principal Clerk of Chamber Operations and Procedure and a representative of the Privy Council Office. If a supply bill is to be given Royal Assent, a table officer from the House of Commons is also present. The Royal Assent Act also allows for the attendance of interested parliamentarians.
When a written declaration of Royal Assent is to take place, the Clerk of the Parliaments prepares a letter indicating that the bills listed in the appendix to the letter have been passed by both houses and that they request that Royal Assent be granted. This letter, along with the parchments of the bills, is presented to the Governor General or the deputy by the Clerk of the Parliaments in much the same way as done during a traditional ceremony. If there are any supply bills to receive Royal Assent, it is the table officer from the House of Commons who presents these bills to the Governor General. After the bills have been duly presented, the Governor General signs a declaration of Royal Assent, which is witnessed by the Clerk of the Parliaments as to the date, time and place.
After the written declaration procedure is complete, the Secretary to the Governor General provides a letter to the Speakers of the Senate and House of Commons formally advising them that Royal Assent has been signified to the bills listed in the schedule to the letter. These letters are then delivered to the two Speakers. The Speakers read the letter in their respective chamber so as to notify their members that Royal Assent has been granted to certain bills. Royal Assent is only deemed to have been granted to a bill after both chambers have been notified. Pursuant to Standing Order 28(5) of the House of Commons, notice of Royal Assent by written declaration may be given when the House of Commons is adjourned by publishing the notice in the Journals, but the Senate must be sitting in order for the letter to be read by its Speaker.
For additional information
Senate Procedure in Practice (Chapter 7)
1 Royal Assent Act, S.C. 2002, c.15
2 Rule 16-1(4)
3 The Clerk of the Parliaments is also the Clerk of the Senate.