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Canada is a
parliamentary democracy, a system of government that is based on laws.
These laws, though we are not always aware of them, play a crucial role
in shaping our society and how we interact with the world around us.
Each level of government in Canada — federal, provincial and municipal —
has specific responsibilities for different aspects of society and has
the power to create laws to govern these areas. For example, provincial
governments can make laws about education while municipal governments
can make laws about waste collection.
Laws passed by the federal government cover a vast range of areas from
what kind of food and drink is safe for our dinner tables, how we travel
through airports and across borders, and how we are supported if we lose
The federal government also makes laws that impact the environment.
There are federal laws that require the federal government to have a
plan to meet carbon emission targets (and take more action if they are
off track) the kind of to chemicals we’re exposed to in our everyday
lives, and what kind of protections endangered species enjoy.
Despite the impact of the law on our everyday lives, many of us are not
aware how new laws are made. From a distance, the lawmaking process may
appear long and convoluted, but checks and balances built into the
process help keep governments and lawmakers accountable to the voices
and concerns of people across Canada.
It also is important to note that Canada’s lawmaking process is far from
perfect. Canada’s parliamentary system is inherently colonial, a mirror
of the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. It was used to
legitimize the displacement and abuse of Indigenous Peoples and
undermine the dignity and humanity of many other communities in Canada.
To this day, lawmaking in Canada often excludes the perspectives of
those most affected by the changes being debated.
Recognizing this tension, Ecojustice works to improve access to the
legislative process by sharing resources and expertise with our
partners. We aim to influence the process from within, in order to
deliver better, more equitable outcomes for everyone in Canada.
Why is changing the law important?
Laws evolve over time. They need to change and adapt to reflect the
world around us, and outdated laws can be a roadblock to progress.
When the federal government tables a bill in Parliament, it can be to
introduce new legislation or to update an existing law.
For example, when the Minister of Environment and Climate Change tabled
Bill C-12 in 2020 — which became the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions
Accountability Act — they introduced a new law to hold the federal
government accountable for achieving emission reduction targets for the
And, in February 2018, the federal government tabled Bill C-69, a bill
that replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 with the
new Impact Assessment Act.
It’s important for political leaders to review and update laws on a
regular basis to make sure they are still capable of delivering on the
outcomes they espouse.
Canada’s parliamentary system
In Canada, Parliament is composed of three distinct pieces: the House of
Commons, the Senate and the Monarch.
The House of Commons: The House of Commons is the lower chamber of
Parliament and is comprised of MPs, each of whom represents one of the
338 ridings across Canada. During each federal election, Canadian
citizens have the opportunity to vote for the candidate they want to
represent them as an MP in the House of Commons.
The Senate: The Senate is the upper chamber and is made up of 105
Senators who are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the
The Monarch: In Canada, the Governor General represents the head of
state, currently, Queen Elizabeth II. The Governor General is appointed
by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Who can propose a new law?
In Canada’s parliamentary system there are two main avenues to introduce
The Cabinet, which is composed of the Prime Minister and other
ministers, and assisted by parliamentary secretaries, create a policy
proposal, known as a “public bill”. Once the Cabinet signs off on a
bill, it is then introduced to either the House of Commons or the
The other avenue for introducing new legislation is for an MP, who is
not a member of the Cabinet or a parliamentary secretary, to introduce a
bill to the House of Commons. This is known as a private Member’s bill.
Any MP who does not hold ministerial responsibilities can propose a new
law by way of a private Member’s bill. If selected for debate, this bill
can eventually become law.
When a bill is proposed by Cabinet to either the House of Commons or the
Senate, it appears on the Notice Paper, notifying Parliament with 48
hours’ written notice of the start of the lawmaking process. The
following day it appears on the Order Paper and the bill heads for its
A bill that is introduced in the House of Commons begins with a C, while
a bill that is introduced in the Senate starts with an S. For example,
the Impact Assessment Act was first introduced to MPs and Senators as
How does a bill go from introduction to becoming law?
There are a number of stages all bills must pass in the House of Commons
and in the Senate before they can officially become federal law in
Each stage serves an important purpose so that a bill can be properly
reviewed, debated, amended, and voted on.
Here is a high-level review of what happens at each stage:
First Reading: The first reading of a bill can start in either the House
or Senate, depending on where the bill was first introduced. This stage
is generally a formality to introduce the content, there is no debate or
Second Reading: At the second reading, the foundation or principle of
the bill is discussed, debated and voted on. This is a high-level
opportunity for the Chamber (either the House of Commons or the Senate)
to mull over the general content and scope of the bill. Once reviewed,
the bill needs a majority of votes to proceed to the next stage.
Committee Stage: Once a bill has passed second reading it proceeds to a
committee for review. There are numerous committees for MPs and for
Senators to examine different issues that impact Canadian society, such
as the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
that reviews environmental issues and legislation. Committees may invite
witnesses to present views or answer questions. The committee’s role is
to then review the text of the bill clause-by-clause and approve, amend,
or modify it.
Report Stage: Once a committee has reviewed and voted on a bill, it
proceeds to the report stage. This stage allows members (either MPs or
Senators) to propose motions to amend the bill. Amendments will trigger
a debate, where members will debate the specifics of these amendments —
but not the bill in its entirety. Members are advised to seek legal
counsel to craft amendments.
Third Reading: The third reading of a bill is the final stage of review
for new legislation. While the lawmaking process is not always linear
and a bill can bounce between stages, the third reading is when members
have a final opportunity to debate and vote on the bill. Once it passes,
the bill proceeds to the other chamber of Parliament (depending on
whether it was introduced in the House of Commons or the Senate) to
repeat a similar process.
Royal Assent: The Governor General is a symbolic representation of the
Crown in Canada. Once a bill is passed by both chambers in identical
form, it receives royal assent, whereby the Governor General signs off
on the bill and officially turns the legislation into law.
The role of Ecojustice
Ecojustice fights for better laws that can fight climate change, tackle
dangerous pollution, and protect biodiversity.
Our team pushes those in power to introduce laws that can provide a
safe, sustainable future for everyone in Canada.
Ecojustice lobbies elected officials to make sure that they introduce
and pass the strongest legislation possible. To achieve this goal, we
provide analysis and briefing notes for politicians and their staff,
meet with MPs and Senators, and work with partner organizations to push
for bold and enforceable legislation.
Ecojustice supporters also play a crucial role in pushing those in power
to introduce bills and pass laws that will reduce emissions, reduce
Canadians’ exposure to toxic chemicals, and stop the loss of species and
For example, the advocacy actions we share with you, are opportunities
for you, as a member of the public, to call on Ministers, MPs and
Senators to table and pass strong bills. The 10,000 supporters like you
who took action with Ecojustice in support of climate accountability
were critical in persuading the federal government to finally table,
strengthen and pass the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act
Ecojustice acts with the understanding that the law is a powerful,
though imperfect, tool for change. As people across Canada grapple with
the reality of the interlocking climate, pollution and biodiversity
crises, we remain as committed as ever to advocating for better laws
that will deliver a brighter future for us all.