Inside the Canadian House of Commons

(Note: If you’re looking for information about the British House of Commons, see Inside the UK House of Commons.)

I have written a number of posts explaining the role and purpose of various persons and objects in the House of Commons, but some readers want to know how the House of Commons is arranged – who sits where, who are those people at the table in the centre, etc.  The Canadian and UK Houses of Commons follow a similar lay-out, with government and opposition facing off on either side of the Chamber, while the Australian and New Zealand chambers have members seated in more of “U” lay-out. I will begin with a description of the lay-out of the Canadian House of Commons.

This diagram from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.) shows the House of Commons as viewed from the Bar of the House at the south end looking into the Chamber up towards the north end of the Chamber. The Speaker sits on a Chair on a dais [#2 in the diagram], and the Government side is on the Speaker’s right [#5] (but on the left in this image), and the Opposition parties sit on the Speaker’s left (but on the right in the image) [#3, 4 and 6]. You can see that the opposition side is divided between the opposition parties. The front bench of the Official Opposition party sits directly opposite the front bench of the Government party, with the Leader of the Official Opposition [#3] sitting directly opposite the Prime Minister [#1]. The other opposition parties are seated based on the size of their caucus (in decreasing order) in the House [#4]. Independent members wlll occupy the seats on the opposition side which are the furthest away from the Speaker.

Canadian House of Commons - lay-out
Unlike in the UK House of Commons, MPs in the Canadian House of Commons have individual desks assigned to them and must speak and vote from their assigned seat. The desks are equipped with microphones, an electrical outlet for laptop computers, access to the Internet, and a locked compartment in which Members may store belongings.

As stated, the Speaker sits on a Chair on a dais at the north end of the Chamber. The Speaker’s Chair is an exact replica of the original Speaker’s Chair at Westminster, made circa 1849, and then destroyed when the British House of Commons was bombed in 1941. It is approximately four metres high, surmounted by a canopy of carved wood and the Royal Coat of Arms. The oak used for the carving of the Royal Arms was taken from the roof of Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397. House of Commons Procedure and Practice also informs us that:

In recent years, the Chair has undergone some minor renovations. Microphones and speakers have been installed and lights placed overhead. The armrests now offer a writing surface and a small storage space. A hydraulic lift was also installed to permit more comfortable seating for the various occupants of the Chair. At the foot of the Chair, visible only to its occupant, is a computer screen which allows the Chair Occupant to see information generated by the computers at the Table, the countdown timer used to monitor the length of speeches and interventions when time limits apply, and a portion of the unofficial rotation list for Members wishing to speak. The screen also displays a digital feed from the television cameras in the Chamber, allowing the Speaker to see the image being broadcast.

The pages sit at the foot of the Speaker’s Chair [#20]. Pages are first-year university students who work for the House of Commons. They deliver messages and documents to MPs during sittings. The Table referred to above [#7] is where the Clerk of the House, chief procedural advisor to the Speaker, sits with other Table Officers. The Mace [#9] rests on the south end of the Table when the House is sitting.

The Proceedings and Verification Officers (PVOs) [#19] are part of the Hansard team, tasked with capturing Debates in the House. They are the eyes and ears of the production team, capturing details such as the name of the Member speaking, the item of business being discussed, the name of the occupant of the Chair, and using a stenomask to dub names of speakers, off-mike comments and other information that might be reflected in the Official Report.

The Canadian House of Commons conducts business in both English and French, and thus enclosed booths for interpreters are located in the corners of the Chamber opposite the Speaker’s Chair [#21]. Members’ desks are equipped with interpretation devices in order to receive simultaneous interpretation of the proceedings into French or English. Visitors in the galleries also have access to the sound reinforcement and interpretation systems and may choose to listen to the proceedings with interpretation in the official language of their choice, or without interpretation. Proceedings in the House have been broadcast on television since 1977, and TV cameras [#22] are located throughout the Chamber. Since 2003, proceedings are also carried over the Internet via the Parliament of Canada website.

There are several galleries from which proceedings can be watched and which can accommodate about 500 people [#11-18]. Some are reserved for specific purposes, such as visiting dignitaries, members of the diplomatic corps, parliamentary delegations, etc., Senators, departmental officials, and the press, while others are open to the public.

The Sergeant-at-Arms sits at the south end of the Chamber [#8], near the Bar of the House [#10].

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