A Story about an Unusual Parliamentary Procedure

Source: Library and Archives Canada (Boundary of the Province of Quebec - Min. Int. [Minister of the Interior] submits Dy. [Deputy] Minister defining), Order in Council No. 1896-2623)

Source: Library and Archives Canada (PC1896-2623, dated July 7 1896 = RG2-A-1-a, volume 712)

(Disponible en français : La petite histoire d’une procédure parlementaire inusitée)

On 2 June 1898, the Hon. Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, introduced Bill C-160, An Act Respecting the North-Western, Northern and North-Eastern Boundaries of the Province of Quebec.

He began by explaining that the purpose of the bill was to ratify “a conventional boundary on the north and north-east of the province of Quebec, which was agreed upon between the Government of the province of Quebec and the Government of the Dominion, and ratified by an Order in Council of this Government, under the date of the 8th of July 1896.”

The Labrador boundary question had re-surfaced in the political sphere in the early 1890s. It had been debated by the governments of Canada and of Newfoundland at the Halifax Conference in 1892. Reports and surveys of the area had brought to light Labrador’s vast natural resources, which prompted Quebec and Canada to extend Quebec’s boundaries further north in order to secure coastal fishing rights and access to Labrador’s natural resources. As stated by Minister Sifton, in 1896, a federal order in council agreed to act upon a recommendation to expand Quebec’s northern boundaries. Bill C-160 was to be the first Act arising out of the above-mentioned order in council and one of the first Acts in an international dispute.

At first reading, Minister Sifton went on to explain that the bill had not yet been drafted and asked “the indulgence of the House to introduce it in blank.” One Member of Parliament pointed out that this practice was quite unusual. The Speaker of the House of Commons, the Hon. Sir James David Edgar, explained that it could be done only with the consent of the House. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier added: “The Bill is merely formal, the subject is well known.” The Prime Minister also remarked that, if a member objected, the bill could not be introduced. Since no one objected, Bill C-160 was read for the first time. It was then expedited by both Chambers and received Royal Assent on 13 June 1898. In accordance, Labrador was left with only a narrow strip of coastal land.

Already at the time, the Rules, Orders and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons of Canada (1896) did not allow for the introduction of blank bills. Rule 40 stated: “No bill may be introduced either in blank or in an imperfect shape.” Consequently, the said bill was introduced with the unanimous consent of the House of Commons.

A decision rendered on 6 May 1882 by the then Speaker of the House of Commons ( Mr. Joseph-Godric Blanchet) stated that blank bills had been introduced in the past, despite the fact that this practice was contrary to the Rules:

It is true that a loose practice has prevailed in this House, and the Bills have even been allowed to be introduced in blank, without objection being taken. But the rule is absolute, and such a practice should not be permitted.

The question of blank bills has been discussed in various procedural manuals. In Decisions of the Speakers of the Legislative Assembly and House of Commons of Canada: From 1841 to June 1872, with an Appendix Containing the Speakers’ Decisions on Election Petition Recognizances, the author refers to a decision made by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada on 16 February 1859. Following a motion to introduce a bill, some members of the Legislative Assembly asked that the bill be read in its entirety. This request revealed that the bill had not been drafted. The Speaker therefore ruled the motion out of order and said that it was not a bill.

A similar question was asked in the House of Commons on 2 April 1878:

[…] I should like to know whether the right of a member to call for the production of a Bill in extenso has been exploded with the right to cause the reading of the Bill. The call for the reading of the Bill is usually made with the object of disclosing the fact that the Bill is introduced in blank. Can a Bill be introduced in blank?

To which the Speaker replied: “No; it is contrary to the law of all Parliaments that a Bill be introduced in blank.”

In a manual published in 1894, Sir Bourinot stated: “If a member has broken the rule, the speaker calls attention to the fact, and if, by some inadvertence, leave has been given to introduce the bill, the order must be rescinded.”

At first glance, the facts above may seem anecdotal and of no consequence as the bill ultimately passed all steps of the legislative process without any difficulty. However, it is important to place Bill C-160 in the political context of the day to appreciate the historical value of this commonplace practice. After all, the question was one of international borders. So how can we explain Minister Sifton’s action and the Laurier government’s attitude? How did the Canadian government of the day see its relations with Newfoundland? These are questions that certainly deserve to be studied.

In the end, Newfoundland challenged the 1898 Act and asked Great Britain to restore its borders. In 1912, Canada passed a second Act that Newfoundland challenged. The case was brought before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of London, which ruled in favour of Newfoundland in 1927.

Sources:

Author: Lucie Lecomte, Library of Parliament