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The Senate Explained
March 18, 2019

What’s so special about a standing vote? Have you ever heard of a Senate public bill? Why is the word “stand” called out during Senate sittings?

Senate procedure can sometimes seem a little bit intimidating, but fear not — the short videos and tiles below provide a parliamentary primer on the Red Chamber so you can understand exactly what’s going on.

Welcome to our series: The Senate Explained in Under a Minute.

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Committee of the Whole

The entire Senate sits as a committee so that all senators can participate in the study of urgent legislation, hear from people nominated for senior public positions (like the Commissioner of Official Languages) or hear testimony from a minister or expert witness.


Emergency Debates

Any senator can raise a matter of urgent public interest by requesting an emergency debate. The senator must first convince the Speaker of the Senate that the matter relates to a genuine emergency, that it concerns the responsibilities of the government and that the Senate is unlikely to have another opportunity to debate the matter.

If the Speaker determines that the matter is of urgent public interest, an emergency debate will take place later in the sitting, lasting a maximum of four hours. During the debate, senators can speak just once and for a maximum of 15 minutes.


First Reading

The first stage in the legislative process in the Senate. At this stage the Senate receives a bill without any debate. If it is a bill that started in the Senate, the actual text of the bill only becomes available after first reading. 


Government Business 

Government business includes legislation (bills), reports of committees, motions and inquiries initiated by the government. Government business has priority in the Senate. Most government business originates in the House of Commons but government legislation — except appropriation and tax bills — can be initiated in the Senate as well.


Other Business

All items before the Senate that are not government business. This includes legislation proposed by individual senators (Senate public bills) and legislation proposed by individual members of the House of Commons (private members’ bills).



In most situations, a question is a proposal made by a senator that requires the Senate to make a decision, for example, that a bill be adopted. A question can be adopted or defeated.

Question Period 

Senators may ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Government Representative) about matters relating to public affairs, or committee chairs about committee activities. Federal government cabinet ministers can also be invited to answer questions related to their ministerial responsibilities — another way in which the Senate promotes accountability and transparency in Parliament.


Second Reading

The stage at which senators debate the principle of a bill. Amendments cannot be made to the text of a bill at this stage. If the bill passes second reading, it almost always goes to a committee for further study.

Senate Public Bills

Senators can introduce their own bills on subject that are important to Canadians they represent. Senate public bills can have an easier time going through the legislative process than House of Commons private member’s bills, making it simpler for individual senators to introduce laws to help improve Canadians lives.

Senators’ Statements

For 15 minutes at the beginning of each sitting day, senators make remarks on matters of public interest that are not on the current Senate agenda, like community events, the accomplishments of someone in the senator’s region or an issue that is important to them.


Every item on the Order Paper and Notice Paper is called during a typical sitting of the Senate; any senator can generally engage in debate without notice when the item is called.

If no senator wishes to speak about a given item, the word “stand” is called out.  If there is no objection, the next item of business is then called.

Standing Votes

At the start of a standing vote, senators who are voting yes stand to show their support and their names are read out. Senators voting no then rise, followed by senators who wish to abstain. The Speaker then announces whether the question has been adopted or defeated. A tie vote means the question is defeated.


Third Reading

A final opportunity for senators to consider and debate a bill in its entirety, and to propose further amendments. 


Voice Votes

When senators are ready to vote on a question, the Speaker of the Senate asks all those in favour to say “yea” and then for all those opposed to say “nay.” The Speaker will then give his opinion as to which group has the most support and thus whether the question is adopted or defeated. If two senators rise, a standing vote will take place.