Introduction: The Throne Speech, Leaders’ Day, National Identity and History 403/803

Raymond B. Blake

The Speech from the Throne is one of the most important moments in the Canadian Parliamentary calendar. The Throne Speech itself is an occasion that can be traced to the 14th century, if not earlier, and is filled with tradition, and pomp and ceremony, as old as the parliamentary system that emerged first in the United Kingdom and later adapted to Canada’s constitutional monarchy. The Speech from the Throne signals the beginning of a new Parliament, and it lays out the government’s agenda for the upcoming session. Until the Speech from the Throne has been read, the members of the House of Commons, elected by popular vote, and the Senate, the Upper House in Canada’s bicameral parliamentary whose members are appointed by the Crown on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, cannot begin the nation’s business. No bills can be introduced, no debate can take place and, even as the elected members of Parliament, they cannot vote on any measures or begin the people’s business.

In the British tradition on which Canada’s Parliamentary system is based, the reigning Queen or King, or their representative, reads the Speech from the Throne, but it is the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and their close advisors who craft the Speech. In Canada, the Queen has read the Speech from the Throne on only two occasions — on 14 October 1957, while John G. Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, and on 18 October 1977, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister. On all other occasions the Speech from the Throne has been read by the Governor General who is the Head of State in the Queen’s absence.

In Canada, the Queen or her representative reads the Speech because, constitutionally and formally, Parliament is convened and sits at the pleasure of Her Royal Majesty. When the Governor General, or Queen, arrives to the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill, the Speaker of the Senate asks the Usher of the Black Rod, the senior parliamentary protocol officer and the personal attendant of the Queen as well as her messenger when she is in Parliament, to summon the Members of the House of Commons to hear the Throne Speech, which is sometimes called the King or Queen’s Speech. As is tradition, when the Usher of the Black Rod arrives at the door of the House of Commons from the Senate, MPs slam the door in her face, an act to symbolize the independence of the elected members from Her Majesty and the appointed members of the upper chamber. The Usher then knocks three times on the main door with the base of the Black Rod and, although he is ceremonially challenged by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, he is granted approval by the Speaker of the House to enter. He then informs the Speaker of the House that members of the House of Commons are requested in the Senate Chamber. The Sergeant-at-Arms then leads a procession of elected members to the Senate Chamber where the Governor General or Queen is waiting. Once the Speech from the Throne has been read, the Usher leads the members back to the House of Commons. The Speech from the Throne is always read in the Senate.

Once the Speech from the Throne has been read, both the Senate and the House of Commons introduce “pro forma” bills (Bill S-1 in the Senate and C-1 in the Commons) to accept or reject the Throne Speech. Such protocol demonstrates their independence from the Crown and shows they are not simply following the wishes of Her Majesty. The Prime Minister usually introduces a motion to consider the Throne Speech either, later on the day it is delivered in the Senate, or at the next sitting of the House of Commons. As important to the Parliamentary process as the Speech is, the Reply to the Address and the debate that follow are equally important. The traditions around the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne has evolved since 1867, but since the early 1950s, the first day of debate is known as “Leaders’ Day”. It is the tradition that the Leader of the Opposition speaks first and moves an amendment to the main motion, often offering criticism of the governing party. The Prime Minister follows and his speech is then followed by that of the leader of the second largest party in opposition. Other parties which have official status in the House of Commons traditionally participate as well.

The chapters that follow in this book focus on those Throne Speeches and the Prime Ministers’ Leaders’ Day speeches. The Speech from the Throne and the Leaders’ Day speeches are much more than ceremonial moments, steeped in history, tradition, and pomp and ceremony.  They address the issues, priorities, and policies of the Government of Canada and provide to Parliamentarians and to the Canadian people, more generally, the policies the Government intends to pursue and the laws it plans to table in the coming sitting of Parliament. The speeches are often lengthy, something acrimonious, and the Prime Minster normally attempts to situate the Government’s political objectives within the economic, social, cultural and political challenges that the country may be facing at the time. It is through speeches such as those that Prime Ministers discursively define and shape Canada by articulating a set of policies and a vision that works to strengthen, shape and even reconstruct the national identity and change the national narrative. Speeches can be nearly as important – some might contend more important – than policies and the government’s legislative agenda in constructing a national identity. Prime Ministers have often used rhetoric and speech as one means of encouraging citizens to adjust the nation and its identity to meet the challenges of a changing and complex world. In the view of some, to say something often enough is to make many believe it has been done and is the new reality.

The chapters in this book were written by senior undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Regina in the fall of 2020 who were enrolled in my History 403/History 803, a hybrid course on the Political History of Canada. The whole of 2020 was an uncertain time, of course, perhaps unparalleled in the life of many universities and certainly in the life of the students enrolled in those courses, when the Covid-19 pandemic created havoc for everyone. The University of Regina had resorted to remote learning for the fall semester and we all missed terribly the wonderful experience and intellectual engagement and stimulation of the small seminar room that remains, perhaps, the most intellectually engaging of any in a student’s university career. But this was no ordinary class. Although we met for three hours each week by ZOOM, the discussion was as good as any I had ever experienced. Our focus was on Canada’s Prime Ministers since the start of the Second World War and our primary goal was to think about the vision they held for Canada. We read widely, especially from history and political science texts, wrote short papers about what we had read, delved into primary documents, and then the students presented their preliminary findings to each other. Finally, they submitted the work that you will read here. We even had a visit from a former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, who zoomed into the class in mid-October.

The students, all extremely engaged, articulate, and tremendously talented had ideas I soon realized should not end with research papers presented to me to be graded and then perhaps gather dust in their personal archives or simply disappear into some virtual and inaccessible realm. Each of them developed interesting perspectives on Canada’s Prime Ministers and they articulated ideas that I believed should be shared with others. The result is this Open Press Book. The book itself would not have been possible without the able and enthusiastic assistance of Isaac Mulolani, an Instructional Designer in the Flexible Learning Centre at the University of Regina, who offered sage advice at the beginning of the process and shepherded us through the technical process to the release of this electronic book.

It is the students whose hard work and intellectual gifts that make this book possible, however. When I asked them midway through the term if they were interested in making a book from their research essays, to a person they were enthusiastic. Theirs may well be the first book to emerge from an undergraduate and graduate seminar in the Department of History at the University of Regina, and it has been a real delight for me as their professor to be a part of their project. I encourage others to consider such publications with their students. It is because of students like those I encountered in my classes this year – and especially those that attended my History 404/803 class, and in an uncertain and troubled world, besieged with Covid – that I continue to enjoy engaging with bright young women and men at our university each semester. I only hope that I have introduced them to the wonderful world of discovery, research, history, and publishing and that all of those pursuits will be a passion they may pursue, regardless of the road they choose once they have graduated.

December 2020


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Canada and Speeches from the Throne Copyright © 2020 by Raymond B. Blake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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