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Canadian Senate

The Senate of Canada, part of the Parliament of Canada in the capital city of Ottawa, is an unelected governing body, usually with 105 members:

This arrangement means that Ontario and the West, the fastest growing regions of Canada, are severly underrepresented, while Quebec and the Martimes are substantially over represented.

There is provision also for four or eight extra Senators: one —or two —from each of the Maritime provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the West; but this has been used only once, in 1990 by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Under Canada's Constitution, the Prime Minister alone appoints all members of the Senate. His/her decision does not require the approval of anyone else and is not subject to review. Once appointed, Senators hold office until age 75 unless they miss two consecutive sessions of Parliament. Until 1965, they held office for life.

The Senate can initiate any bills except bills providing for the expenditure of public money or imposing taxes. It can amend or reject any bill whatsoever. It can reject any bill as often as it sees fit. No bill can become law unless it has been passed by the Senate.

In theory these powers are formidable. But for over 40 years the Senate did not reject a bill passed by the House of Commons, and very rarely insisted on an amendment that the House of Commons rejected. Then, in 1988, it refused to pass the "Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement," forerunner and basis for the North American Free Trade Agreement until it had been submitted to the people in a general election. In 1989-90, the Senate insisted on amendments to an unemployment insurance bill, amendments the Commons rejected; the Senate eventually passed the bill as submitted by the House. And in 1991, the Senate simply defeated a Commons bill respecting abortion. In other cases, the Senate has not adopted bills before the end of a session, thereby effectively stopping them from becoming law.

Most of the amendments the Senate makes to bills passed by the Commons are clarifying or simplifying amendments, and are almost always accepted by the House of Commons. The Senate's main work is done in its committees, where it goes over bills clause by clause and hears evidence, often voluminous, from groups and individuals who would be affected by the particular bill under review. This committee work is designed to be effective because the Senate is supposed to have many members with specialized knowledge and long years of legal, business or administrative experience. Their ranks include ex-Cabinet Ministers, ex-Premiers of provinces, ex-mayors, eminent lawyers, experienced farmers, and others.

In recent decades, the Senate has taken on a new job: investigating important public problems such as poverty, unemployment, inflation, the aged, land use, science policy, aboriginal affairs, relations with the United States, and the efficiency (or lack of it) of government departments. These investigations are designed to produce valuable reports, which can lead to changes in legislation or government policy.

Table of contents

Why the Seante was Created

The Seante was created to be weaker than the Houe of Commons[?], but it quickly became far more impotent than its designers had planned. The Senate was given two major functions in the constitution. Firstly it was to being the chamber of “sober second though. ” It was to be a limit to prevent the elected House of Commons from turning Canada into a “mobocracy,” as the fathers of confederation saw the United States. The Senate was thus given the power to overturn many types of legislation introduced by the house and also to delay any changes to the constitution, thus preventing the commons from committing any rash actions. This ability quickly disappeared as even the conservative Canadians of the nineteenth century saw the Senate as not having the same legitimacy as the elected Commons. This lack of legitimacy has continued today, especially since its members are often chosen for reasons of patronage, and not for any skill or wisdom. As Canada has become more liberal and democratic since confederation the idea of an appointed Senate rejecting a bill approved by the elected House of Commons has become unpalatable to Canadian sensibilities.

The second original function of the Senate was to provide regional representation. This is still the case, with representation in the Senate allotted on a provincial basis. The ability of Senators to represent their regions is muted, however, by the fact that almost all Senators have been appointed by a Prime Minister from either Quebec or Ontario, and are thus are people who usually reflect the central Canadian view, even if they come from one of the regions.


Though it has many positive traits, the Canadian Senate is nevertheless one of the most unpopular political institutions in Canada. It is seen by many as blatantly undemocratic, grossly unequal, and largely useless. Since the prime minister gets to single-handedly appoint whoever he chooses, the Senate is often criticised as being little more than a "country club" for friends of the prime minister, and convenient source for political patronage[?]. The senate is rarely a prominent player in Canadian politics, partially due to its well-founded reputation of "rubber stamping" all bills passed by parliament. In recent years, this has made it a very indiscreet presence; numerous polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Canadians are unable to name a single sitting Senator.

The Senate tends to only exercise its power when the House of Commons is ruled by a rival party, as occurred during the infamous GST[?] debate in the late 1980s. At the time, the Senate was controlled by the Liberal Party and the House by the Conservatives[?]. The GST bill was very important to then-Prime Minister Mulroney, and he was determined to prevent the Senate from rejecting his party's motion. Rather than face certain defeat, he quickly began a flurry of Senate appointments, filling all vacant seats with Conservative supporters (many with dubious political backgrounds) and evoked an emergency clause in the Constitution which allowed him to increase the Senate's size, and appoint even more Senators than previously allowed. In a few short weeks, Mulroney was able to create a Conservative majority in the Senate, and the GST bill was easily passed. This episode has since served as the most prominent example of the Senate's weak nature, and general subordination to the will of the prime minister.

Senate Reform and the "Triple E" Senate

Senate reform has been a topic raised numerous times in Canadian political debates. While some politicians favor the outright abolishment of Canada's upper house, many other believe political reforms to the existing institution would be more beneficial. One popular proposal for reform has been the "Triple E" Senate. Originally championed by the Reform Party of Canada, a Triple E senate would feature three proposed improvements over the existing model: Number one, it would be fully Elected, meaning no more prime ministerially-appointed senators. Number two, it would be Equal, meaning all provinces would have the same number of senators. Finally, proponents argue that such reforms would make the new senate much more Effective.

Implementing Triple E Senate reforms would require massive constitutional reforms, and has never been seriously attempted. Mild reforms to the Senate were proposed as part of Prime Minister Mulroney's Charlottetown Accord[?] package, but were rejected in a referendum.

Deamnds for Seante reform have mostly been centered in the west. The western political culture, especially in Alberta, has always been more populous then in other areas of the country. It is thus no surprise that the West is also the center of popular dislike for the unelected nature of the Senate. A second upper house, and one that seems to mostly be a waste of money also runs contrary to the common western belief in the superiority of smaller more efficient government. The Senate also has no recall feature. For instance two members closely associated with the embezzlement scandal that affected many members of Gary Filmon’s Manitoba government continue to sit in the chamber today. As well Senators who only attend for a few sessions per year can also continue to be members. These abuses are yet another problem with the Senate that is felt more acutely by the populist political culture prevalent in the West. It is thus not a surprise that many of the most radical ideas for Senate reform, and the largest support for these ideas, has come from the West. While the majority of Canadians everywhere support altering the senate, only in the west has it been a major issue.

Attempts at Senate Reform

For most of its history the Liberal Party was the main advocate of Senate reform. In 1978 the Liberals issued a proposal booklet A time for Action calling for substantial senate reform. This was echoed by a number of Canada's premiers.

Trudeau’s then tried to effect this proposal, outlined in bill C-60, but it was ruled ultra vires by the Supreme Court in 1979. It would have created a Senate that was somewhat responsible and somewhat more equal between the provinces, but still had few powers. This proposal was rejected by most of the premiers, who were themselves divided over the power and the composition of the Senate.

Going into the November 1981 meeting to finally determine the make up of Canada’s new constitution one of the Premiers’ top demands was for Senate reform. Trudeau had earlier expressed his wish for only minor reform that would not limit the power of the House of Commons to any great extent. In the long period of debate and compromise leading up to the 1982 Constitution Act the entire idea of reforming the Senate was rejected. Agreement between the Federal government and between the various premiers would have been almost impossible to achieve.

The Supreme Court ruled that any change to teh composition of the senate needed unanimous support from the provincial permiers. Since the composition of the Senate would have to be changed in any important revision the inclusion of Senate reform in the 1982 constitution would have forced it to have the unanimous approval of the provinces to be enacted. The federal government and the premiers thus reached a compromise, the Premiers giving away their senate demands in exchange for an amending formula to their liking. The only change to the Senate was in the new amending formula. The change eliminated the Senate's constitutional veto giving it the power to merely delay any amendment for 180 days.

Meech Lake

The Meech Lake[?] accord once again had no major Senate reform initiatives. This was despite Alberta Premier Don Getty[?] promising to have his acceptance of any deal hinge on the issue. The issue was once again too difficult to be resolved by the provinces. Mulroney succeeded in appeasing Getty with a small change that would see the Prime Minster select every nominee from a list drawn up by the provincial governments. A promise was also included to discuss the issue of the Senate again at a later date.


In the negotiations over the Charlottetown accord the federal government could only maintain the momentum and possibility of an agreement by giving to the provinces on many issues. One of these was Senate Reform. The proposed deal finally gave in to the western demands for a triple ‘E’ Senate. (elected, effective, and equal) It did have some compromises, however. The proposed Senate would have total equality among provinces. Each would have six Senators, along with one from each territory. Other provinces would have wished for representation similar to the House of Federation proposed in 1978, but the complete equality of provinces hoped for by the West and Maritimes prevailed. Agreement on this was reached only by concessions to the provinces that had the most to lose from the equal representation system: Ontario and Quebec. In exchange for losing Senate representation the provinces were given new House of Commons seats, making that chamber more proportionally representative .

What the West had to give up was on effectiveness. The Senate in the original draft was very powerful, it received veto power over all legislation except for monetary matters that were not ‘fundamental policy changes.’ This would have allowed it to veto important matters such as the GST and Free Trade Agreement, as well as bills concerning culture, immigration, and language among others. In the end the Senate received total veto power over only fundamental tax policy changes, all other bills could be approved by the commons alone. One other measures to ensure greater representation for Quebec was the double majority clause. It stated that both Francophone members and the Senate as a whole needed to approve any bills concerning linguistic matters.

The measure also allowed the members of the Senate to be selected by provincial governments. This last measure could have had a drastic effect. Traditionally in Canada provincial elections are in opposition to the Federal ones. For instance today there is only one Liberal governed province: Newfoundland. In comparison at the end of Brian Mulroney’s last term in office there were only two Conservative governed provinces: Manitoba and Alberta. Thus a senate appointed by the Provincial governments would almost always be in opposition to the House of Commons

The accord was rejected on the 26th of October 1992. It was rejected by all four western provinces, who were upset about not getting a fully 'triple E' Senate, but probably more because of the large concessions made to Quebec.


Today no one in Canada desires a new round of constitutional negotiations. But both the Canadian Alliance Party and the Alberta government support electing Senators without major constitutional change, thus elections have been held in Alberta for Senators in waiting who would replace the sitting Senators when they resign. This process has had a number of flaws, the only people who recognized the election were those who supported it, Reformers and Conservatives in Alberta thus the candidates were almost exclusively from this group. The first of these elections was held subsequent to Meech Lake when Stan ‘Muddy’ Waters[?] was elected by the people of Alberta as their Senator in waiting. He entered the Senate in 1990 and became the first and last elected Senator in modern Canadian history . While the elections continued in Alberta Prime Minister Jean Chretein has not acknowledged them and has continued to pick whomever he sees fit to the Senate. This process will almost certainly continue for the duration of Liberals stay in power, but the Canadian Alliance, “will support the election of senators, who would then have a democratic mandate to carry out their constitutional responsibilities.” Their policy declaration also states that they will open discussions with the provinces to negotiate a form of equal representation in the Senate.

Party Standings in
the Canadian Senate

Last updated 26 Jun 2003
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Liberal Party * 3 4 3 3 13 17 7 3 5 4 1 1 1 65
Progressive Conservative Party * 1 3 3 8 6 2 1 4 2 30
Canadian Alliance * 1 1
Independent * 1 1 1 1 4
Vacant * 1 2 1 1 5
6 6 6 6 24 24 10 4 10 6 1 1 1 105

See Also

List of Canadian Senators

External Link

Parliament of Canada (http://www.parl.gc.ca)

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