Without question, one of the most frequently raised concerns that I hear from citizens of Okanagan-Coquihalla, pertains to the Canadian Senate, and by extension– senators. Recently I have had several requests to write about the Senate in a weekly MP report. Although I have covered this particular topic previously, it has been suggested that some may have missed that report. As this is a topic of concern for many, I have included further information on the subject of our Canadian Senate that I also discussed in February of this year.
The two Senate questions I hear most often are directly related to each other: “Why isn’t the Senate abolished?” and “Why not just stop appointing Senators and get rid of the Senate?”. The answer to these questions is complex as it involves the legal status of the Senate and the obligations of Government to comply with legislation that, in some cases, is well over one hundred years old. The Senate, it should not be forgotten, is part of our Constitution. When the founders of Canadian Confederation created the Senate, they did so by essentially dividing Canada into five different regions: The Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec, Western and “Additional”. Additional includes Newfoundland, Labrador, NWT, Yukon and Nunavut. By design the Senate is not based on a representation by population model as is the House of Commons but rather on the principle of “equal” regional representation where the first four regions each have 24 seats while the “Additional” regions have 9 of the 105 seats in the Senate. All of this was re-affirmed in 1982 with the repatriation of the Constitution and a new constitutional amendment process was adopted.
Consequently the constitutionally mandated Senate representation arrangement means that regions of Canada are legally entitled to the number of seats as defined within the Constitution Act of 1867. To date every Prime Minister elected in Canada’s history has by legal obligation, appointed Senators when vacancies arise, most often created when a Senator reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75. In addition, the Prime Minister may, in exceptional circumstances, temporarily appoint 4-8 additional Senators if there is a deadlock that must be broken. One of the challenges to the Senate “equal” representation model is that it conflicts with representation by population. As an example, the current Senate model ensures there are actually 30 Senate seats east of Quebec – that is six more Senate seats than the 24 in all of Western Canada combined. Likewise for Ontario in spite of having a larger population than Quebec, Ontario has the same number of Senate seats as Quebec. This senate imbalance was summarized recently by Justin Trudeau who made the comment that “We have 24 senators from Quebec and there are just six from Alberta and six from B.C.… That’s to our advantage.”. Given that some regions in Canada, from a population perspective, are under-represented compared to others, when it comes to the discussion of Senate abolishment, many in western Canada are strongly in favour while regions of Canada such as Quebec are just as strongly opposed as demonstrated by Mr. Trudeau.
Many constituents are surprised that the legislation to reform the Senate, enabling Provincial elections and establishing for the first time, term limits, have been held up in Provincial courts. In order to be able to move on Senate reform, and rather than wasting years and potentially millions of taxpayer dollars in legal wrangling, our Government has posed a series of six questions to the Supreme Court of Canada requesting a ruling on how the Senate can be legally reformed or abolished in accordance with our Constitution. One of the many questions one on the need to determine if there is a requirement to have a Canadian constitutional debate involving all of the Provinces and Territories. Although many have expressed a desire to see action taken on the Senate, few have expressed interest in opening up a Canadian constitutional debate that could potentially pit different regions of the country against each other at a time when national unity is critical. This will be the first time in over three decades that our Supreme Court will look at the issue of Senate reform and/or abolishment in a review process that will ideally provide more clarity on how action can be taken on our Canadian Senate.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.