Committees are at the core of the Senate’s work. They are recognized for their major contribution to legislation and public policy. Committees were called “the heart and soul of the Senate” by Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the first woman Speaker of the Senate, because of their focus on social, economic and political issues.
Senate committees have three basic functions:
1) Detailed study of proposed legislation, or bills;
2) Investigation of policy matters on issues that affect Canadians in their daily lives; and
3) Examination of government spending proposals, called the Estimates.
Detailed study of bills
Most bills are referred to committees after they have passed first and second reading in the Senate. It is at the committee stage of the legislative process that bills are examined in detail.
The committee stage is a three-step process:
1) Committees hold public hearings to gather facts related to the issue at hand. They invite cabinet ministers, public servants, experts, organizations and individuals to present their views and answer
questions from senators. Committees sometimes travel across Canada to hear from Canadians particularly affected by the issue or legislation being studied. With a specific mandate to protect regional and minority interests, the Senate sometimes hears from witnesses who may not otherwise have an opportunity to be heard. Witnesses concerned about important bills and policy questions are given time to discuss and exchange ideas in a Senate committee.
2) Committees study the bill clause by clause, discussing the views and testimony presented to them by witnesses. At this stage, senators may propose amendments to the bill, or delete certain clauses to improve it. They attempt to build a consensus for a report containing practical and coherent policy analysis and recommendations.
3) Committees report on the bill and present it to the full Senate. The report recommends that the bill be accepted as is, that it be accepted with amendments, or that it be rejected. The report may also include observations and proposals on policy.
Because senators come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, including business, law, education, public service and journalism, their work in committees allows them to apply their specialized knowledge and experience to proposed legislation.
Investigation of policy matters
In their investigations of special issues, committees help to turn the spotlight on important social, economic and political concerns. Committees also provide senators with a unique opportunity to hear from Canadians. Government officials, interest group representatives, academic experts and private citizens often appear as witnesses before Senate hearings.
The Senate authorizes these special policy studies on its own initiative, independent of the government. Important public concerns such as poverty, euthanasia and assisted suicide, illegal drugs, land use, science policy, Aboriginal affairs, Canada-United States relations, and human rights have been the subject of special policy studies. The resulting investigative reports include analyses and recommendations which have often influenced proposed legislation and government policy.
Types of committees
There are four main types of Senate committees:
(a) Standing Committees are permanent committees that correspond broadly to areas of public policy. Standing committees specialize in areas such as agriculture, banking, fisheries, foreign affairs, energy, Aboriginal affairs, and technology.
(b) Special Committees are mandated by the Senate to conduct studies on areas of special interest, from public policies to high-priority legislative measures. They are temporary committees that last for a specified time period or until the work assigned to them is done.
(c) Joint Committees (Special or Standing) include both senators and members of the House of Commons. These committees are established to examine issues of mutual interest to both Houses of Parliament.
(d) Committee of the Whole is a committee composed of all senators.
Generally, committees are made up of between nine and fifteen senators.
At the beginning of each session of Parliament, members are appointed by the Senate on the recommendation of a selection committee, usually chaired by the Government Whip (see the fact sheet entitled “Key Roles in the Senate Chamber”). On average, senators serve on two committees at a time, each committee meeting about twice a week, sometimes during periods of adjournment.
The chair of a committee is elected by its members and is responsible for calling and presiding over meetings, maintaining order, overseeing the budget and speaking publicly on behalf of the committee.
For a complete list of all Senate committees, please click here.