Researching Canadian Government Policy
This guide outlines the stages of researching federal government policies and includes suggestions for finding government publications……
The guide is divided into the following sections:
- Background Research
- Finding Books
- Finding Articles
- Finding Government Publications
- Using Parliamentary Publications
- Citing Government Publications
- Additional Internet Resources
Help is available at the Scott Reference Desk.
When researching government policy, it helps to understand the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. These responsibilities were distributed by the Constitution Act, 1867. The Hon. Eugene Forsey explained the division of powers as follows:
The national Parliament has power “to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Canada,” except for “subjects assigned exclusively to the legislatures of the provinces.” The provincial legislatures have power over direct taxation in the province for provincial purposes, natural resources, prisons (except penitentiaries), charitable institutions, hospitals (except marine hospitals), municipal institutions, licences for provincial and municipal revenue purposes, local works and undertakings (with certain exceptions), incorporation of provincial companies, solemnization of marriage, property and civil rights in the province, the creation of courts and the administration of justice, fines and penalties for breaking provincial laws, matters of a merely local or private nature in the province, and education. (Source: How Canadians Govern Themselves, 4th Edition)
Both the federal and provincial governments have power over certain policy areas including immigration, natural resources, health, and agriculture. For an explanation of how powers are divided between the federal Parliament and the provincial legislatures, consult How Canadians Govern Themselves, 6th Edition.
Governments release policy information through a variety of publications including the Speech from the Throne, the Budget , news releases, background papers, and departmental reports. Often, legislation is required to enact a government’s policies. In these cases, a bill will be considered by Parliament. The publications of Parliament, such as the Debates and committee reports, are a rich resource for policy information.
2. Background Research
Start your research by finding general information on your topic. The Canadian Encyclopedia is a good resource for this type of work. In addition, the Library of Parliament publishes Parliamentary Research Branch Papers (Current Issue Reviews, Backgrounders and Legislative Summaries). Selected reports are available on the Parliamentary Internet. A more extensive collection of reports is available through the Depository Services Program web site. Search the Library Catalogue by keyword for additional Library of Parliament reports.
3. Finding Books
Search the Library Catalogue to find books on your topic.
To start, search by keyword.
Finding too many books? Add the phrase government policy in the subject field. This should locate items about government policy.
4. Finding Articles
Popular Magazines and Newspapers
Articles from newspapers and popular magazines will help you uncover what aspects of a policy were controversial and who opposed or supported the policy. You may also find references to key legislation or bills before the House which relate to the policy area you are researching. Suggested databases include:
Scholarly or academic articles are written for an audience of researchers and students by an expert on the topic. Articles published in scholarly journals usually have abstracts, or article summaries, as well as bibliographies. Scholarly articles offer greater analysis and may have the historical perspective not found in popular works such as newspapers and general interest magazines. Try the databases listed below, or see the full list of subject research guides to find the key databases for a subject area.
For additional help, see the quick guide on how to find journal articles.
5. Finding Government Publications
Government publications are issued by a government or international governmental organizations.
There are a few places to look for Canadian government publications:
- York University Library Catalogue
- Web Sites of Government Departments
- Government Information on the Internet
York University Library Catalogue
Search the Library Catalogue to find government publications.
To start, search by keyword.
Try these tips to limit your search results to government publications:
- Government departments are considered authors. Try a keyword search using key terms from the department’s name in the author field
Microlog: Canadian Research Index
Microlog is an index to Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal government publications published from 1982 to present. All of the government documents found in Microlog are available in microfiche in the Scott Microtext Department (Room 118, 1st floor, Scott Library). Always copy the year and Microlog Number of government documents you would like to consult. You will need this information to find the microfiche. The Library has many of these publications in print so check the Library Catalogue by title as well. Microlog also indexes theses which are not available in the microfiche collection.
Web Sites of Government Departments
Most government departments have web sites that contain useful policy information. Publications available on departmental web sites include news releases, speeches by the Minister, annual reports, and recent background reports. A list of Departments of the Canadian Government is available on the Government of Canada web site.
Government Links Page
Government Information on the Internet is an extensive list of Internet links for Canadian federal and provincial governments as well as foreign governments and international governmental organizations. The following links are included in the Government of Canada section:
Speech From the Throne: Major policy initiatives are announced in the Speech from the Throne. It outlines the Government’s legislative plans for the current session of parliament, and is delivered in the Senate Chamber by the Governor General at the opening of a Session of Parliament. The full text of these Speeches back to 1996 can be found here.
The Budget: The Budget is the Government’s statement of its fiscal, economic, and social policies and is presented once a year to the House of Commons by the Minister of Finance. The budget in brief, fact sheets, and budget speeches from 1995 to present are available on the Department of Finance web site.
Estimates: Every year, a document called the Estimates Part III: Reports on Plans and Priorities (RPPs) is issued for each federal government department. These reports give an excellent overview of the department, its major programs, and its projected spending for the upcoming fiscal year.
Departmental Annual Reports: Annual Reports were published separately for each department from 1867 to 1995. They are an invaluable source of information on government operations and, by extension, government policy. They correspond roughly to the DPRs mentioned above.
1867-1925: Published in the Sessional Papers (CAN2 P2.2 SE77, SC-GOV-REF). To locate a particular report, go to any volume from the year in which you are interested and consult the Alphabetical Index at the front. This will give you a Sessional Paper Number. Next, turn to the List of Sessional Papers, immediately following the Alphabetical Index, to determine the volume in which the report appears.
1925-1929: The Annual Reports were published in a sesparate series entitled Departmental Annual Reports (CAN2 P2.2 SE77, SC-GOV-REF).
1929-1995: Each department published its Annual Reports under separate cover and they will be found using the Library Catalogue (selecting keyword search):
Public Accounts: Public Accounts are annual reports on the financial transactions of the government prepared by the Receiver General for Canada. They contain detailed information on government spending. The Public Accounts from 1995 to present are found on the web site of the Receiver General for Canada. The Public Accounts are available in Scott Government Reference (CAN2 F5.65 P92).
Parliamentary publications are those documents which come from the legislative bodies of government, namely the Senate and the House of Commons.
Using Parliamentary Publications can sometimes be complicated. However, it is much easier if you have done adequate background research. It often helps if you have chosen a specific bill or issue on which to focus and you know when it was considered.
By using Parliamentary Publications, you are trying to uncover what legislators were thinking when they adopted specific policies and laws. This is sometimes called legislative intent. Using the Parliamentary Publications also allows you to uncover the views of the Opposition.
It is important to understand how a bill becomes a law when using the publications of Parliament.
The National Archives of Canada has launched a database called Cabinet Conclusions which summarizes discussions that took place at the meetings of the Federal Cabinet from 1944 to 1976. Cabinet Conclusions documents decision-making at the highest level of the Canadian government and offers researchers a glimpse into Canadian politics.
Key Parliamentary Publications:
For a description of the types of the Parliamentary Publications available at York, consult Finding and Using Canadian Parliamentary Information.
LEGISINFO , created by the staff at the Library of Parliament, allows you to find information on legislation starting with the 37th Parliament, 1st Session (January 2001). This tool organizes the publications listed below, including Legislative Summaries, by Bill number.
You can search for House of Commons or Senate bills from recent Parliaments online or in the Scott Government Reference collection. (CAN2 P23.2 B56). Bills from earlier Parliaments are available at the Law Library. In some cases, a Legislative Summary is also available Legislative Summaries are background reports prepared by the Parliamentary Research Branch to provide Parliamentarians with an explanation of most government bills.
To view the current laws of Canada, visit the Department of Justice web site.
Status of House Business (formerly Status of Bills and Motions) records how far a bill progressed in the House of Commons. It identifies when a bill was debated, which committee examined it, and whether it passed all stages of the legislative process in the House of Commons and received Royal Assent.
Scott Government Reference: CAN2 P23.2 B55 (SC-GOV-REF)
The Progress of Legislation of the Senate records how far a bill has progressed in the Senate. It identifies when a bill was debated, which committee examined it, and whether it passed all stages of the legislative process in the Senate and received Royal Assent.
Debates of the House of Commons:
Indexes to the House of Commons Debates are usually published at the end of each Session. Indexes for recent sessions (1996 to present) are available on the Parliamentary Internet .
Scott Government Reference: CAN2 P23.5 D42 (SC-GOV-REF)
Debates of the Senate:
Indexes to the Senate Debates are usually published at the end of each Session. Indexes for recent sessions (1996 to present) are available on the Parliamentary Internet.
Scott Government Reference: CAN2 P26.5 D42 (SC-GOV-REF)
Committee Minutes of Proceedings and Reports
The House of Commons and the Senate have committees to which they can refer matters for closer examination, including bills. Each committee is comprised of members from all parties. There are four types of committees: Standing Committees (including Standing Joint Committees), Special Committees, Legislative Committees, and Committees of the Whole.
Committees of the House of Commons:
Search the Library Catalogue to find the Minutes and Proceedings and reports of individual House Committees.
Committees of the Senate: Search the Library Catalogue to find the Minutes and Proceedings and reports of individual Senate Committees.
The Parliamentary Guide is an annual publication containing biographies of Members of Parliament and Senators currently sitting and members of the provincial legislatures. It also provides election results from 1867 to present. This information is helpful when you read the Debates. The Canadian Parliamentary Guide is available at the Scott Reference Desk.
The vocabulary used in Parliament is new to many researchers. For example, you may come across the terms white paper, closure, and paired members. Consult the House of Commons’ Glossary of Parliamentary Procedure .
Please consult the Library guide Citing Canadian Government Documents for the proper format of footnotes and bibliographies.
Guides for citing books and articles are available under Style/Writers’ Manuals on the Reference Sources page.
The following Internet sites may provide useful information on government policy: