Senator Serge Joyal loved the place where he worked, but he
realized that Canadians did not. Appointed to the Senate of
Canada in 1997, he discovered that it was “likely the least
admired and least well known of our national political
institutions.” Most Canadians thought that the Senate was “an
outdated relic that had outlived its usefulness.” It attracted
little interest from the media, scorn from the public, scant
respect from elected politicians, and next to no curiosity from
When the Senate gets attention, it’s almost always negative: the
appointment of another batch of senators who will cost the
taxpayers millions; exposés of privileges; very public scandals
(including a senator who lived in Mexico); prime ministers
putting their lackeys in the Senate to do as they are told; or,
conversely, senators delaying legislation sent to them by the
democratically elected members of the House of Commons.
This was not what the founders of the country had in mind. The
Senate was established as an indispensable branch of the
Canadian parliamentary system, along with the House of Commons
and the Governor General, who acts on the advice of the prime
minister and cabinet. No law can be enacted without the consent
of all three parties.
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister saw the
Senate’s role as both ambitious and modest. It was to be a
safeguard against hasty legislation coming from the House of
Commons, but it must never violate the clear wishes of the
The Senate was a crucial element in the negotiations that
brought together the British North American colonies to create
Confederation in 1867. Central Canada had so many people that it
was bound to dominate the House of Commons, based on the
principle of representation by population. The Senate was to
protect the smaller provinces and ensure a voice for regional
concerns, at the same time guaranteeing French-speaking Quebec a
fixed number of senators. Without the Senate, there would have
been no Canada.
The founders designed the Senate as a place of calm second
thought: stable, independent, and conservative. Senators were
appointed for life by the Governor General on the advice of the
prime minister. Only men of property, owning land in the
province they represented, could be considered for membership.
The Senate was soon dismissed. Senators, the critics said, were
unelected friends of the government. They were out of touch —
two senators managed to pass the age of 100. The cabinet and the
courts turned out to be better protectors of the regions and the
provinces. It seemed an almost universal view that the Senate
was a backwater that ought to be abolished, or at least reformed
to reflect the popular will of Canadians.
“I have today signed my warrant of political death,” said a once
powerful cabinet minister about to disappear in the Senate.
Today, there are 105 seats in the Senate, representing seven
regions: 24 members each from Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes,
and the western provinces; six from Newfoundland and Labrador;
and three from the north. Women have served since 1930, and as of 1965, senators
must retire at the age of 75.
The Senate is not powerful, but it is important. This is
demonstrated in a study of recent Senate activities by C. E. S.
Franks, a noted authority on Canada’s Parliament. Franks
uncovered a Senate where House of Commons legislation was
carefully revised and improved in committees. Nor is the Senate
a swamp of privilege. Its banking committee responds as often to
the concerns of consumers as to big business and industry.
“I found myself time and again surprised and even taken aback,”
Franks concluded, “by the thoroughness, level-headedness,
insight, and thoughtfulness of the Senate’s review of
legislation and investigations into a wide range of social,
economic, and other issues.”
Franks distinguishes between the dismal public image of the
Senate, which has undermined its credibility, and the real work
of the institution, characterized by efficiency, responsibility,
Embedded in a constitution that is very difficult to amend, the
Senate is likely to be with Canadians for a long time. Senator
Joyal insists that senators take very seriously the
responsibilities given them by the country’s founders. The record suggests that he is closer to the truth than
the Senate’s many critics.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs
at Carleton University. Further Reading: Serge Joyal and C. E.
S. Franks defend the Senate in Joyal’s Protecting Canadian
Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew (Montreal and Kingston:
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), while the case for the
prosecution is made by Larry Zolf, Survival of the Fattest: An
Irreverent View of the Senate (Toronto: Key Porter, 1984) and
Claire Hoy, Nice Work: The Continuing Scandal of Canada’s Senate
(Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999).
Next Instalment: The Canadian Constitution
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