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How Does a Bill Become a Law?

Every law ever made starts as an idea for change. These ideas–once they are taken up by a Member of Parliament–become proposals that may one day become law.

The process…from idea to law…is outlined below:

Policy Proposals

A bill simply begins as an idea during the policy proposal process stage, either as a proposal for a new law, or as a modification to a pre-existing one. Many of the ideas driving the policy proposal stage are put forth by various internal and external stakeholders, such as members of government (e.g., Cabinet ministers), private citizens, and lobby groups. In addition, there are also Private Member’s Bills. These are introduced to Parliament by non-Cabinet Members of Parliament (e.g., government backbenchers, members of opposition parties). Many ideas which successfully turn into law often originate from Cabinet.

Most bills, at least those that are proposed by government, are drafted, and then the proposed bill is sent to Cabinet to undergo a vetting process. The Cabinet’s role is to take a proposed bill and ensure that it is drafted in a way that it can then be voted on in Parliament, which it does in conjunction with the Department of Justice. As a bilingual country, Canada requires two drafts be written: one in English and one in French. The drafts are then sent to the Cabinet once again, to receive approval. Once approved, the draft legislation is typically sent to Parliament. (There are some exceptions. See, for example, Bonnie Brown, Nancy Miller Chenier, and Sonya Norris’ work on parliamentary committees reviewing a bill prior to its being tabled in the House of Commons).


Moving through Parliament

When a bill is ready, it is introduced to Parliament, either in the House of Commons or the Senate.

  • The process begins with the first reading, where the bill is considered for the first time and made part of the legislative agenda.  This stage is also where the bill is assigned a number based on where it was introduced and who introduced it, the Senate (S-) or the House of Commons (C-). Government bills are typically numbered between 2 and 200, whereas private members bills are numbered between 200 and 1000.
  • The bill then goes through second reading, where its main purpose and core principles are debated.
  • When a bill passes second reading, it is sent to the committee stage where an appropriate parliamentary committee reviews the bill. It is often analyzed by experts and those who would be affected by the Bill. After it is evaluated, the committee may also propose any necessary amendments, including clause-by-clause scrutiny.
  • The committee reports on the Bill to the House of Commons or Senate and indicates the amendments made by the committee in the report stage. This gives members of Parliament who are not on the committee a chance to voice their remaining suggestions, comments, and concerns. This leads to the consideration of relevant amendments, and a vote for proceeding to the third reading.
  • Third reading is the final debate and vote that occurs prior to the bill “passing” consideration by the House of Commons. Once all amendments have been considered and votes are complete, the bill then proceeds to the other chamber (the Senate if the bill was introduced in the House, or vice versa), to follow the same procedure.
  • Following third reading, the bill is sent to the Senate where it goes through the same process of consideration (unless it was a Senate bill to start).
  • Once a bill passes through both chambers of Parliament it must also receive royal assent to pass into law, Royal Assent occurs when the Governor General who acts as the Crown’s representative, signs the approved bill into law. As a matter of constitutional convention, Royal Assent is always granted. Once it has received Royal Assent, a bill is “proclaimed into law.”

Example: Bill C-16 from Bill to Law

At first reading, Bill C-16–An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code–was introduced in the House of Commons by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The bill proposed adding gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Humans Rights Act and the Criminal Code of Canada to expand protections for trans people from violence and discrimination.

At second reading, the arguments made against the bill were that it was vague, and it would affect sex-segregated spaces. It passed second reading, and the bill was sent to the Standing on Committee and Justice for further study. One of the amendments that were taken into consideration during the Committee Stage for Bill C-16 was brought forward by Conservative Senator Don Plett. He suggested adding an amendment that would have had the effect of allowing discrimination against trans individuals in the use of locker room and washroom facilities.

At the Report Stage, this suggested amendment was presented to the House of Commons. This amendment did not pass a vote and was not added to the bill. The bill then passed third reading and was sent to the Senate.

At the Third Reading  in the Senate, Senators who opposed the bill resorted to the argument that the bill will impact the freedom of speech and will be a threat to women’s safety and privacy in segregated areas. The House of Commons passed the bill on November 18, 2016, and it was passed in the Senate on June 15, 2017. Royal Assent was granted on June 19, 2017.

Additional Resources

Contributors: Michael Appiah-Kubi, Syed Alisher Hussain, Kevin Blanks, Ana Cvetkovic, Gabriella Dreher, Miguel Enriquez, Hamdiya Khan, and Anna Miedema