Genuine Senate reform offers a way to ease regional tensions and unite Canada

Written By Guest User, Posted on January 4, 2020

The issue of what to do with the Senate of Canada is a thorny one that has plagued both Liberal and Conservative governments for decades.

Since the early 1970s, 28 attempts at adjusting the makeup and formation of the Senate have been made and all of them have failed. While it has always been challenging for Senate reform advocates to achieve a consensus on what particular reforms should be implemented, the 2013 Supreme Court ruling on Senate Reform made the task that much harder. 

In order to make any substantial changes to the Senate, like term limits, consultative elections, or even abolition of the chamber itself, any bill passed by the federal government would also require the approval of at least 7 provinces representing 50% or more of the population. 

To fully abolish the Senate, you would need the approval of Parliament as well as all 10 provinces – a nearly impossible feat. 

While the current government under Justin Trudeau has made efforts in this area, first releasing senators from the Liberal Party caucus and then setting up the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, an allegedly “non-partisan” group comprised of three federal appointees and two from the provinces, they have proven to be an absolute farce. 

The Independent Senators Group, the largest voting block in the Senate, has voted with Trudeau’s government 95% of the time, even more so than senators who formally identify with the Liberal Party. Additionally, it was also reported last year that Trudeau was using the partisan database “Liberalist ” to vet prospective Senate candidates before appointing them on the advice of the “non-partisan” advisory board. 

However, just because the task is difficult does not mean it is not worth completing. 

The Senate is designed to act as a check and balance against the House of Commons, a place of “sober second thought” as our founding father Sir John A. Macdonald so eloquently put. While the House of Commons is divided up by population (every riding is supposed to represent approximately 100,000 people), the Senate was built to represent the broader regional interests within the country. 

Currently, there are 105 Senate seats in the Red Chamber. Ontario and Quebec each have 24, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have 10 apiece, all the western provinces have 6 each, PEI has 4, and each of the territories receives 1. Each of these senators is appointed by the Prime Minister (technically via the Governor-General) and can serve in the Senate all the way to the maximum age of 75 when they are forced to retire. 

Current levels of Senate representation by population. Sourced from Wikipedia.

Current levels of Senate representation by population. Sourced from Wikipedia.

In his latest book, media baron and longtime Canadian political commentator Conrad Black makes some interesting Senate reform suggestions that, in my humble estimation, are worth considering as they present a possible solution to the rising regional tensions here in Canada. 

Black proposes a number of things: 

  • Make the Senate a partially elected body, with 30 senators elected (or appointed if the province prefers) by provincial population, 33 senators elected (or appointed if the province prefers) across the country with each province getting three senators and each territory one. 

  • Provide meaningful Indigenous representation by having Indigenous people across the country elect three Indigenous senators, having the provinces jointly name one (alternating between provinces with high Indigenous populations), and having the federal government name one. 

  • Have the federal government appoint an additional 30 senators, 15 of which must be primarily English-speaking and the other 15 primarily French-speaking. 

  • Implementing five-year terms that are renewable for the appointed senators and allow the elected senators to run for the office again. 

  • Lifting the retirement age of 75 and allowing senators to serve as late into their life as they like, provided they pass a yearly medical examination once they turn 75. 

  • Nominees for the Senate will have to appear before an Elections Commission to demonstrate a particular area of expertise relevant to public policy development

These reforms would create a much more balanced, improved, and legitimized Senate that would be a formidable force in checking the power of a majority government. The total number of senators would decrease to 98 but the quality and effectiveness of the senators would improve tremendously. 

A body comprised as such would be an excellent venue for regions that feel under-served, like Western Canada right now, for example, to voice their concerns and exert pressure on the federal government to make the necessary policy changes. 

The same case can be made for Indigenous Canadians looking to have more of a say in federal proceedings. Instead of the endless cycle of consultations and platitudes they currently receive, Indigenous Canadians could elect some of their own to serve as senators with a real say over what legislation the government of Canada can pass. 

Although these suggestions will not solve all of the Senate’s problems, I believe they would go a long way to fixing many of them and increasing the parity of regional voices in the Senate. 

While it certainly won’t be easy to get any of these reforms passed, given the high bar the Supreme Court has set, a bold and creative federal government with the strong mandate could definitely make it happen. 

Whether it will or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Senate continues to exist in a state of stagnation, awaiting much-needed changes.

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