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How Orders-in-Council Work

Photograph of the East Block of the Parliament Buildings

Photograph of the East Block of the Parliament Buildings
Source

 

Floor plans of Parliament's East Block, identifying the offices of administrators, senators and members of Parliament, 1867

Floor plans of Parliament's East Block, identifying the offices of administrators, senators and members of Parliament, 1867
Source

 

Floor plans of Parliament's East Block, identifying the offices of administrators, senators and members of Parliament, 1867

Floor plans of Parliament's East Block, identifying the offices of administrators, senators and members of Parliament, 1867
Source

The term "order-in-council" refers to any submission to the Queen's (or King's) Privy Council for Canada -- the active portion of which is the Cabinet -- that gains legislative authority through the governor general's approval. This executive decision-making unit is recognized in the Constitution Act, 1867 as the "Governor General-in-Council," and is usually referred to as the governor-in-council.

Over the years, the content and form of orders-in-council have become standardized, particularly as handwritten documents have given way to typescript. However, the conventions for creating an order-in-council remain largely unchanged. Orders-in-council are not discussed by Parliament prior to approval, unlike statutes or acts, which receive scrutiny in the House of Commons and in the Senate in the form of bills. Any number of documents can form the basis for orders-in-council, including memoranda, correspondence, petitions, reports, maps and other material.

This supporting documentation is summarized or accompanied by a formal recommendation identifying the Cabinet minister or other authority responsible for the submission, together with a recommendation on behalf of the "Committee" (the Cabinet, formally a committee of the Privy Council) that the submission receive "Your Excellency's approval." The document, with any attachments, is then forwarded to receive the governor general's signature. Although the governor general has the authority to deny his or her approval, by convention the Cabinet's recommendation always is honoured.

Until the early twentieth century, a hand-written registry system was maintained to record the dates of submission, consideration and approval for all orders-in-council. A number was assigned to each order-in-council based on the order of submission. Documents that were not forwarded for the governor general's signature, such as petitions or formal reports, were noted in the Privy Council registers, but were maintained as separate records referred to as "dormants." Also closely associated with orders-in-council are "despatches." Filed together with orders-in-council until the establishment of the Secretary of State for External Affairs in 1909, despatches are recommendations that address international or inter-governmental matters.

For more information, see the Orders-in-Council Online Research Tool.