The Canadian Senate III - Constitutional Implications



If Senate reform is such an obviously good thing to do, why haven't we done it yet? Well, to do it, we'd have to reopen our constitution. After the struggle to bring over our Consitution from Britain in 1982, after the controversial Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, after a fair amount of political wrangling, acrimony, and a sense that the country was going to fall apart, we're a little gun shy. The last ten years has been a breather for us.

The bulk of our constitutional debates in the eighties and the nineties centred around Quebec's place in Canada and powers distinctive to that region. While, the elected Senate proposal has not been the cause of much debate, or toppled any accords, it is not without its own controversies.

Proponents of an elected Senate generally propose a "Triple-E" model: elected, effective and equal. Western Canada is the region most firmly behind this ideal. This means that all senators must be elected by the Canadian public, that the Senate should wield as much clout as the House of Commons, and that representation within the Senate must be divided equally among the provinces -- just as the U.S. Senate seats are divided evenly among the states.

The Senate is already effective, in theory. It has the power to introduce legislation, and it's responsible for passing (or defeating) all legislation passed through the House. It doesn't live up to its effectiveness because its members are appointed by the Prime Minister, and it is thus unwilling to do more than just rubber stamp the decisions of the House. Making the Senate elected would make it more effective in practise.

However, changing the nature of the Senate has gotten a lot harder. In the past, senators were appointed for life, until 1965 when federal legislation forced senators to relinquish their seats at age 75. Then along comes the Constitution Act of 1982, which not only took Canada's constitution out of the hands of Britain's parliament, but also rearranged the powers of Confederation. The method of selecting senators was no longer solely a Federal responsibility and had to be approved by the House and the Senate and seven Canadian provinces comprising in total 50% of Canada's population. This means negotiation.

And then there is Equal. How should the seats in the Senate be divided? Should it be by population, as the House now is? Or, in the interests of granting the smaller provinces of Canada more influence on the political scene, should representation be split evenly? This is the current arrangement:

British Columbia: 6 seats
Alberta: 6 seats
Saskatchewan: 6 seats
Manitoba: 6 seats
Ontario: 24 seats
Quebec: 24 seats
New Brunswick: 10 seats
Nova Scotia: 10 seats
Prince Edward Island: 4 seats
Newfoundland: 6 seats
Yukon Territory: 1 seat
Northwest Territories: 1 seat
Nunavut: 1 seat

This is especially galling to Alberta, which is more prosperous and has more people than Nova Scotia. In terms of corresponding with population distribution, and granting provinces equal representation, the Senate seat arrangement does neither. Alberta, strongly favouring equal representation to the provinces, wants ten seats assigned to every province.

But wait, says Ontario and Quebec: this grants 1 resident of Prince Edward Island (the smallest province in Canada with 150,000 residents) the theoretical clout of 80 Ontarians (the province of Ontario has 12 million residents). There is something to be said for granting smaller provinces louder voices, but surely this is taking things too far? Instead of an Equal Senate, how about an Equitable one, where we divide up Canada into five regions (BC, the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland) and grant them 20 seats each. Isn't this an effective compromise?

It's interesting to note that the Canadian Senate is set up on a region-equal model, based upon out-of-date regions. Consider the makeup:

Western Canada (BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba): 24 seats
Ontario: 24 seats
Quebec: 24 seats
The Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island): 24 seats

This is because the current Senate arrangement was established before 1949, when Newfoundland entered Confederation. At the time, Newfoundland was granted six Senate seats (considered to be the minimum for any province, excepting PEI, which would have had more Senate seats than House seats otherwise). At the time, Newfoundland was not considered part of the Maritimes; there is some argument that this is now the case. At the time, British Columbia was considered part of Western Canada, but now B.C. has clearly evolved into its own distinctive region of Canada.

This is, frankly, a good argument for equal representation by province. Regions change, but provinces don't. Installing a region based system runs the risk of that system becoming obsolete and difficult to change.

The redistribution of seats in the Senate also requires approval by the majority of the members of the House and the Senate, and by the legislatures of seven provinces comprising 50% of the population of Canada. Unlike Senate elections, there are going to be winners and losers, here, and this is where discussions will bog down. Quebec will probably refuse to have its power reduced in the Senate; Ontario is not going to like it either, the West will get frustrated, and our national headaches begin again. Despite the Prime Minister's ability to launch the process of bringing an elected Senate about through an act of parliament, it hasn't been done because the "Equal" part of the Triple-E parcel requires strenuous negotiations, while the other two parts don't.

I may be an Ontarian, but I understand the benefits of granting the provinces equal representation in the Senate, and I don't feel any threat. If the Senate were elected by proportional representation, it's not like regional blocs would form as readily.

That's a lot of 'ifs', I know, and we would be risking waking up out of our sleep back into our national headache when we're not ready for it, but the question of seat distribution aside, making the senate elected could be an easier thing to agree on. So let's go with that. Sure, an elected Senate with the current seating arrangement may not please certain provinces as much as they would like, but it would be better than what we have. Why shoot for a distant target and miss when we could just as easily take slow steps forward, and get there in the end?

While composing this article, I had an e-chat with Therese and she asked me a fair question: why bother? And it is a fair question. Isn't the Canadian system working well enough as it stands now? Most people would say 'yes'. Isn't it a bother to change the constitution? Again, that is true. And will this make any difference?

That's a good question. At the end of the day, I have no guarantee that electing senators will make Canada's parliament more accountable to the people. But don't you want to find out? I think that the Canadian government works okay, but there are those out there who don't, and the response of these individuals has been, by and large, to turn away from the system and to leave the future to the dogs.

This is an understandible, but unfortunate response. If these individuals think that turning aside helps themselves, let alone their friends and neighbours, they're wrong. A country where the public and the government don't relate to each other is poorer and less stable. If the trend is allowed to continue, the government will grow even more incompetent and malignant. Rights will be threatened; the country will be more seriously mismanaged, and the ability of the people to make a good life for themselves will be hampered.

There is nothing magical or demonic about government. Government is nothing more than a reflection of the people it governs. If the people don't care about their government, the government responds in kind. It is only by staying active, even if it is only to keep an eye on the news and vote, that a government remembers that it is there at the behest of the people.

Maybe we shouldn't shoot for the moon as we did with the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown, but neither should we give up. Staying active, staying involved, and just plain caring is the key to making a system work.

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