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As I understand it, the Canadian Senate can refer bills to a Senate Committee to be studied in more detail. Once a bill is referred:

  • How is the schedule for reviewing the bill determined? (Who makes the decision to put a meeting on the Senate Committee's agenda, and when/where is the decision made?)
  • Is there a legal limit for how long a Senate Committee can consider a bill, or can they essentially "sit" on a bill forever?
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How is the schedule for reviewing the bill determined? (Who makes the decision to put a meeting on the Senate Committee's agenda, and when/where is the decision made?)

The decision to send a bill to committee is made in the Senate by the Senators. The Canadian Senate has a set of rules, called the Rules of the Senate, which lay out parliamentary procedure (they are in many ways similar to Robert's Rules of Order). Specifically, rule 12-8(1) provides that "any bill, message, petition, inquiry, paper or other matter may be referred to any committee as the Senate may order." In order for a Senator to get that bill to committee, he or she need simply follow the rules (obtain the floor, make a motion, and have that motion carried by a majority of Senators present). In practice, virtually every non-appropriation bill goes to committee. The committees exist to be small and consist of relative experts on the subject at hand, which help speed up the process of getting them through the Senate.

Perhaps it would be clearer to simply read a Senate debate in which a bill is referred to committee:

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable senators, when shall this bill be read the third time?

...

Hon. Ratna Omidvar: Honourable senators, I move that the bill be referred to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

...

(On motion of Senator Omidvar, bill referred to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, on division.)

[Emphasis added.]

Once the bill is referred to a committee, it is up to the chair of that committee to determine its place on the agenda.

Is there a legal limit for how long a Senate Committee can consider a bill, or can they essentially "sit" on a bill forever?

A committee must report on a bill, but there is no rule as to when. Although they could technically sit on a bill, doing so is unlikely for a few reasons. First, there is no filibuster procedure that allows one member to hijack the discussion. The chair can shut down debate as needed. Second, the makeup of the committee will likely mirror the composition of the Senate. This means that if a majority of the committee wants to see the bill pass, the majority of the Senate likely will, as well. There simply isn't a procedure that exists to permit the minority to hold off an issue indefinitely (and even if they manage to in committee, the Senate can simply refer the bill to a different committee, if needed).

  • Thanks! When you say "it is up to the chair of that committee to determine its place on the agenda", any insight into typical timelines / what would be considered unacceptable/unusual? E.g. according to parl.gc.ca/SenCommitteeBusiness/… Bill C-6 was referred in mid-December, but clicking on "Meeting Schedule" does not reveal any meetings to discuss it, now that a month and a half has passed. – EugeneO Jan 27 '17 at 16:46
  • There is a large degree of trust and responsibility put in the Senate committees. The rest of the Senate may give a cursory look at the bill, whereas the committee is expected (in fact, largely required) to go through it clause by clause to inspect it and ensure it reads how they want and intend. When they report back to the Senate, they may report it without amendment (in which case it's adopted and moves to third reading), reported with amendments (in which case it's placed on the Orders of the Day for future discussion), or recommended not to proceed (the Senate decides what to do). – Geoff Ball Jan 27 '17 at 17:30
  • The very nature of the Senate (no rush to accomplish an election promise, decisions do not face the scrutiny of voters, and Senators tend to have expertise) makes it the perfect chamber of Parliament in which to conduct extended examination of bills. Since a bill amended by the Senate (whether by a committee or not) must go back to the House of Commons, the lower chamber can use the Senate as a means of critical analysis without worrying about tying itself (or its committees) up. – Geoff Ball Jan 27 '17 at 17:30
  • To directly answer your question, it is entirely possible that a committee could take more than a month to return a bill to the Senate. Some bills have faced meetings, debates, and interviews, to the degree of hundreds of hours. In 2008, Bill C-10 was held up in committee for seven months over one clause (eventually dying when Parliament was dissolved). Other bills are reviewed in committee and returned to the Senate days later. The hold up of C-6 is likely because it is politically charged and gets to the core of Canadian culture and the tenet of multiculturalism—they want to get it right. – Geoff Ball Jan 27 '17 at 17:45

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