Commons Committee on Canadian Heritage: Officialization of Protocol


The Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (CHPC)met on Tuesday, 1 May 2012 in order to review national standards on protocol. The Committee called upon witnesses from the protocol sections of both the Department of Canadian Heritage (representing the executive branch) and from the Parliament of Canada (representing the legislative branch). The Members’ questions focused mainly on the procedures and protocols surrounding Royal Visits and State funerals. Nicole Bourget, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Sport, Major Events and Regions Branch in the Department of Canadian Heritage, and of Audrey O’Brien, the Clerk of the House of Commons and co-author of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, provided insights into the debate on officialising conventions into guidebooks. I agree with Audrey O’Brien’s approach; she even made some of the same arguments that Nick MacDonald and I have in our upcoming article “Writing the Unwritten: The Officialization of Constitutional Conventions”.

Protocol in the Executive Branch: State Ceremonial and Protocol Directorate 

Ms. Bourget explained that the State Ceremonial and Protocol Directorate generally applies its expertise on protocol toward organizing Royal Tours, to the swearing in of a new Governor General, and to State funerals. PCH thus coordinates with the Office of the Governor General and those of the provincial vice-regals, the Canadian Secretary to the Queen, and with Buckingham Palace. PCH informs the Privy Council when a member of the Royal Family (an “HRH”, His/Her Royal Highness) makes an unofficial, private visit to Canada, but plays no official role therein. On these private visits, the HRH may bring his or her own entourage. However, the State Ceremonial and Protocol Directorate and the Canadian Secretary to the Queen coordinate all official Royal visits, during which Canadian officials accompany the members of the Royal Family because they would then be acting with respect to the Crown of Canada.

One MP asked whether there exists a manual on protocol that contains provisions for a State funeral. Ms. Bourget replied that “the department has various documents and administrative templates”, including some “evergreen” documents that chronicle precedents and past practices and may change over time, depending upon the case. Some of the arrangements for State funerals are also subject to the wishes of the family. Ms. Bourget explained that PCH does not rely on one single document and suggested that such a manual would indeed lead to inflexibility and prevent innovations as required. Audrey O’Brien gave an excellent explanation in the second half of the committee as to why this argument is demonstrably false.

Given the specificity of the Member’s question, I was surprised that no one mentioned the Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, which devotes an entire section to State funerals. It explains that current and former Governors General, current and former Prime Ministers, and current Ministers may receive State funerals.[1] The Manual also explains:

There is no accepted definition of what constitutes a State funeral in Canada. It should be regarded as a funeral which merits official participation at the highest level, organized and financed by the State even though the extent of actual Government involvement in each area, participation, organization and finance, may vary greatly according to the circumstance and the wishes of the family. A State funeral is justified on the ground that the State is a “co-bereaved” because of the position of the deceased.[2]

That open guideline allows room for interpretation and modification as required rather than a rigid binding legal rule that would prevent any future innovation. Finally, the Prime Minister possesses the personal discretion to offer a State funeral to any Canadian: “The Prime Minister, after consultation with Cabinet if he considers it desirable, decides whether a State funeral should be proposed and ascertains the wishes of the family of the deceased.”[3]

Another member asked about the “codification” of protocol (though such a manual would in fact “officialize” protocol) and the framework under which PCH operates and whether the Government would create a manual on protocol that combines procedures from all relevant federal departments, and perhaps even those of the provinces. I would support the creation of such reference material; it could devote separate chapters to each relevant federal department – PCH, DFAIT, PCO, DND – to the Parliament of Canada, and to each province’s executive and parliamentary practices.

Protocol in the Legislative Branch: Office of the Chief of Protocol

Representing the Parliament of Canada and the protocol of the legislative branch, Audrey O’Brien, the Law Clerk of the House of Commons,explained that the Parliament of Canada maintains its own Protocol Office separate from the Government of Canada. This separation emphasizes the independence of Parliament from the Crown. Elizabeth Rody, the Chief of Parliamentary Protocol,stated that the Chief of Protocol of the Parliament of Canada assists the Speakers of both Houses in their diplomatic and ceremonial roles, organizes parliamentary conferences, and lends expertise and advice on all matters of protocol. Parliamentary protocol ensures that official visits are properly identified, organized, and carried out.

O’Brien explained that the guidelines for parliamentary procedure derive from past practice and precedents. The Office with Parliamentary Protocol works with DFAIT, PCH, and DND and helps coordinate State funerals, foreign visits, and military ceremonies, as appropriate. Different protocols apply depending upon whether the event is executive (the State) or legislative (the Parliament). Protocol requires flexibility and common sense, and principles need to be considered. Protocol is more art than science.

Rody explained that her office has not assisted in the funerals of parliamentarians who died in office. She also noted that funerals for members of the legislative branch do not occur as State funerals, unless the PM designates otherwise, because “State” in this case refers to the executive (Cabinet and the civil service) and not to the legislature.

Some Member sasked whether the Office of Protocol of the Parliament of Canada should compile a manual or guidebook of procedures in order to make this information more accessible to the public. O’Brien replied that the Parliament of Canada has considered creating and may yet create a guidebook on procedures; these guidelines would probably be designed to transfer knowledge between practitioners and within the Parliament of Canada. However, this guide would not necessarily prevent changes in procedures from occurring: guidelines are not laws; they would retain the possibility of innovation and evolution of protocol over time and where necessary. Protocol for unprecedented ceremonies still derive from the underlying principles that inform standard protocol and existing precedents. Written guidelines would not prelude negotiation and agreement to change or modify protocol as required, because those principles still inform decision-makers how to act. O’Brien cited the Government of Canada’s official apology (which Parliament supported and affirmed) to aboriginals for having subjected them to residential schools an excellent example of how the Government and the Parliament have adapted protocol. Incidentally, this is precisely the same argument that Nick and I have put forward in “Writing the Unwritten: The Officialization of Constitutional Conventions.”

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[1] Canada. Privy Council Office, Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, Henry F. Davis and André Millar.(Ottawa, Government of Canada, 1968): 61.
[2] Ibid.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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3 Responses to Commons Committee on Canadian Heritage: Officialization of Protocol

  1. Pingback: Jack Layton and the Prime Minister’s Prerogative to Offer State Funerals | James W.J. Bowden's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Ceremonial and Protocol Handbook by the Department of Canadian Heritage | James W.J. Bowden's Blog

  3. Pingback: Roundup: Begin budget implementation week | Routine Proceedings

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