The Senate is an important branch of government


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 Most Canadians thought that the Senate was “an outdated relic that had outlived its usefulness”.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 scholars.

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 branches.

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 people.

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 and non-partisanship.

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

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.


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