Posted by Vi Hughes on Oct 16, 2019
This past Tuesday we were pleased to hear from the Honourable Paula Simons, Senator, who spoke to us about her first year in the Senate of Canada.  She said that Wednesday, the 16th of October, would mark the anniversary of her first year in the Senate. Currently the Senate meets in the beautiful old beaux arts Ottawa train station with their various personal offices spread out in several other buildings, as their original offices in the House of Parliament are under renovation. She said that the Senate was formed in 1867, at the Confederation of the four founding provinces of Canada- Ontario, Quebec New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. She explained that in order to get all four provinces to agree to the confederation they needed to put in place some safeguards to protect the rights of the less populous, but more economically advantaged maritime provinces. They had to guarantee they would somehow have an equal influence on any legislation. They agreed on a bicameral system with two equal governing bodies, one of which, The House of Commons, would be elected by representation by population, and another, The Senate, which would be appointed for life. The approval of both bodies would be required to pass any legislation. The less populous provinces were granted greater influence in the Senate, such that it would counterbalance their lower influence in the House of Commons. As Canada did not have an aristocracy who could be appointed to the Senate, they came up with the next best thing. Any appointees would have to be male, over the age of thirty, owning more than four thousand dollars value in property and having other assets in excess of four thousand dollars. At that time, it meant that the senate would basically be composed of rich, old, white men.
Paula explained that having an appointed Senate that was not beholden to any particular party view and was much less subject to outside influence had several advantages. It acted as a hedge against majority tyranny. It meant that the senate members could take risks in putting forward legislation that would be good for the country as a whole but might not be popular with some groups. It also meant that members of the upper chamber (Senate) would be recruited from a wider sample of the general population and could thus put forward a wider point of view. If the Senate were elected, with strong party affiliations, there could be policy gridlock, with legislation being blocked. The one downside to an appointed for life senate is that there is no mechanism to oust badly behaving members.
In 2014, under the Conservative government of Steven Harper, the Senate came under fire for it’s opposing views and Steven Harper tried to have the Supreme Court limit it’s powers by setting terms of office, creating an elected senate or simply abolishing it all together. The Supreme Court said no to all options, as these would be impossible to do without a vote by the majority of the whole country. Mr. Harper then decided to simply not fill any Senate positions that either were or came open. By the time the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau took office here were fifty unfilled Senate seats (out of one hundred and five). Trudeau decided that the best way to fill all of these empty seats was to set up an arms length panel and an open competition system to select the best candidates. There would be no political party affiliation involved. They set up an online application process that included the requirements of age over thirty, with more than four thousand dollars in property and more than four thousand dollars in other assets. The applicant also had to submit three personal references, answer a few basic skill testing questions and write an essay on what they would do as a Senator of Canada. Paula said that she applied in March of last year and waited until October before hearing that she had been appointed.
Paula said that the Senate is now a much more eclectic group, with fifty-nine independent senators, out of one hundred and five. Some are indigenous, some are immigrants and forty seven percent of them are women. All of these people are leaders in their own fields and each is used to getting their own way, so it is sometimes challenging to get a consensus. They do not vote as a block as the party appointed senators of the past did. They must be individually lobbied for their legislation approvals. This means that the senate has a lot more muscle when it comes to modifications of legislation prior to approval, and in most cases results in improved legislation. In turn, it also means that legislation is often approved much faster than in the past.
Next week’s election may have a big effect on the Senate. The Liberal party with a majority would retain the current system, the Conservative party with a majority would return to the old patronage system for appointments and the NDP party with a majority would abolish the Senate altogether. Any minority government, requiring a coalition of parties would be a mix of any of these possibilities.
She said that our country is facing a lot of challenges both within and outside of our borders. We need to address the effects of a changing climate while at the same time keeping our economy running. We have to deal with the effects of global instability brought about by the free trade and foreign policies of other countries such as the US, the Asian economic slow down and the changes that Brexit will bring along with many other things. We also need to deal with migration challenges and our own reconciliation efforts to go beyond the land acknowledgement we have with our own indigenous groups. We must also deal with the rise of right-wing groups that spread hate and discord.
We do not know what the future may bring, but the Senate is definitely no longer a boring place.  Paula said that she would be glad to come back next year and let us know more about what happened. We would like to thank the Honourable Paula Simons for her very interesting and informative talk and look forward to hearing from her again in the future.