The Senate of Canada

The Senate Chamber

The Senate Chamber has lush red carpeting and considerably grander decorations than the House, in order to convey its aristocratic airs.

In the previous chapter, we looked at the Canadian House of Commons and its role in the lawmaking process. Though the House is the most important part of Canada’s Parliament, the institution also has a second chamber, known as the Senate. After the House of Commons passes a bill, it must also pass a vote in the Senate before it becomes law.

By far the most controversial institution in the Canadian system of government, the Canadian Senate has very few supporters. Modeled after the British House of Lords, it was originally supposed to allow representatives of Canada’s wealthy elite to veto legislation passed by politicians representing the common people — an idea which has not aged particularly well, as you might imagine. It’s thus hard to talk about the Senate in modern Canada without also mentioning either the word “reform” or “abolishment,” but neither has been seriously attempted to date.

What is the Senate?

Canada’s Senate consists of 105 politicians, known as senators, who have been appointed by various Canadian prime ministers. They used to serve for life, but in 1965, this was reformed to merely make their terms last until their 75th birthday (though the last life-term senator did not retire until 1999). They can’t be fired by the PM, but they can be impeached if found guilty of committing what the Constitution describes as an “infamous crime.”

Whenever a senator dies, retires, is removed, or reaches the age limit, the sitting PM gets to appoint a replacement, meaning at any given time the Senate is a hodge-podge of various appointments dating back several different prime ministerial administrations. It should go without saying that prime ministers always appoint senators from their own political party.

Like the House, the Senate’s seats are divided up between the various provinces, but the Senate uses a weird system to decide how many senators each province gets. It’s not based on population, but is rather broadly correlated to the length of time that province or territory has spent as part of Canada. So, the two oldest Provinces (Quebec and Ontario) have 24 senators each, while the provinces that joined later have less. Here is the actual breakdown of seats, along with party standings:

PROVINCE / TERRITORYSEATSConservativesLiberalsOther
British Columbia6320
Alberta6321 Ind.
Saskatchewan6321 Ind.
Manitoba6310
Ontario241542 Ind.
Quebec241472 Ind.
Newfoundland6420
New Brunswick10640
Nova Scotia10440
Prince Edward Island4031 Ind.
Yukon1100
Northwest Territories1010
Nunavut1100
TOTAL105 (9 vacancies)57326

And here is the breakdown of appointment by prime minister:

PRIME MINISTERSENATORS APPOINTED
Stephen Harper (Conservative, 2006- )52
Paul Martin (Liberal, 2003-2006)14
Jean Chretien (Liberal, 1993-2003)23
Brian Mulroney (Conservative, 1984-1993)10
Pierre Trudeau (Liberal, 1968-1984)4
TOTAL104 (one vacancy)

Note: Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed three Conservative senators and one independent. Prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Stephen Harper appointed the other independents, though some have may not been independents at the time.

You sometimes hear the Senate’s seat distribution justified on the basis that it represents all “regions” of Canada equally, even if not the provinces. So, if you count Ontario as one region, Quebec as one region, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia as one region, and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI as one region, then yes, the “regions” of Canada are equally represented, with 24 senators each. Of course, this theory does not explain the seats given to Newfoundland and the three Territories. Likewise, these “regions” are quite arbitrarily defined, with no consistent political or geographic logic. And therein lies the controversy.

What does the Senate do?

Bert Brown

Alberta is the only province that holds Senate elections, but the results are only sometimes respected by prime ministers. Seen here, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959) with Bert Brown (b. 1938) who became Canada's second-ever elected senator after winning a 2004 Alberta election.

The short answer is not much. Formally, the Senate must vote on all bills that pass the House of Commons before they can become law, but in practice, the Senate has become a bit of a rubber stamp that automatically agrees with everything the House wants. Since the Senate is not elected, it’s become very controversial for the Senate to veto the decisions of the democratically-chosen House of Commons, so most of the time they don’t bother. Only in the rare cases where the Senate is controlled by a different party than the House, and there is a very, very controversial piece of legislation before them, would a rejection of a bill even be considered.

These days, senators busy themselves mostly with committees and reports, in which they make suggestions and give advice to other levels of government that may or may not be followed. Before approving a bill, for example, they may refer it back to the House along with a long list of “recommendations” on how to improve it, or they may churn out some big study with a title like “The Demographic Time Bomb: Mitigating the Effects of Demographic Change in Canada” that can be published in a handsome bound volume.

It would be fair to describe the Senate as a fairly insecure body. As one Canadian writer put it, the most common speech heard in the Senate is “Why the Senate Is Important.” A lot of Senate work thus revolves around ensuring the institution maintains a positive, respectable image in the minds of Canadians, to counter the flurry of anti-Senate rhetoric that tends to dominate the rest of Canadian life.

Who are the Senators?

Emily Murphy

The Constitution of Canada declares that "persons" may be appointed to the Senate, and for a long time "persons" was taken to mean "men." Emily Murphy (1868-1933) was an early Canadian feminist who fought to have the sexist definition of "person" overturned by the courts, and in 1929, it finally was. The first female senator was installed a year later.

As mentioned, the original purpose of the Senate was to provide an elite veto on potentially harmful legislation passed by the democratic rabble of the House of Commons, in the same way the hereditary aristocrats of the British House of Lords would often refuse legislation in their country. But since Canada lacked an aristocracy of its own, the Senate quickly became a hotbed of patronage, and a place where prime ministers could stick friends and allies as a reward for loyal service.

This is still largely the case today. The majority of senators tend to be career politicians from the prime minister’s party who have recently retired, such as cabinet ministers, mayors, premiers and, in some cases, even fundraisers or staffers. Other senators are usually plucked from the ranks of “accomplished Canadians” who have achieved some modest level of success in science, education, journalism, sport or art, but not so much success that a political career would be an obvious step down. Reflecting a combination of the Senate’s unpopularity and their own modest backgrounds, Canadian senators tend to have very low profiles, and the average Canadian would probably be hard-pressed to name even a single sitting senator.

By law, senators are required to be landowners in the province they represent, and have a personal net worth of at least $4 000. This is hardly the vast fortune it was in 1867, but the rule remains just the same.

The Debate over the Senate

In the 1980s, the Senate’s unpopularity reached a peak, and it became mainstream to openly advocate reforming or abolishing the institution. The main complaints have always been fairly straightforward:

  1. It’s grossly undemocratic to have a chamber of parliament that is appointed single-handedly by the prime minister in order to exercise an elitist veto on the legislation of elected politicians, and
  2. The Senate needs to have a less arbitrary system for distributing Senate seats to the provinces
Nice Work by Claire Hoy

"Nice Work" (1999) was a scandalous exposé of the Senate written by Toronto journalist Claire Hoy (b. 1940). Among other things, he revealed that many Canadian senators didn't even bother to show up to votes, but still happily collected their paycheques.

A popular reform proposal from this era was dubbed the “Triple E” plan: Senators should be elected by voters and each province should have an equal number of Senate seats, making the body far more effective as a result. The main problem with this proposal, however, is the extreme disparity between the sizes of Canada’s provinces. The two smallest provinces, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, have populations under 600 000 and are more than 10 times smaller than powerhouses like Ontario and Quebec, which have over seven million residents each. The large provinces would thus have to sacrifice a great deal of their own power to make Triple E work, and so far interest has been predictably minimal.

The other suggestion is that the Senate be abolished outright, which is a position that tends to be favoured more by Canadian progressives, particularly those in the New Democratic Party. While this is certainly an easier solution, it’s also quite cynical and pessimistic. Few modern democracies have only one chamber of parliament, and some worry that getting rid of the Senate altogether would simply consolidate greater power in the hands of the House of Commons and the prime minister — both of which are already quite powerful to begin with.

Canada’s current government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959), is nominally in favour of Senate elections, but little has been done to date. To seriously reform the Senate would require amending the Canadian Constitution, and as we discuss in the Constitution of Canada chapter, getting constitutional amendments passed in modern Canada is an agonizingly complicated ordeal, to say the least.

Links About The Canadian Senate:

Quick Facts:

  • The Canadian Senate is the second chamber of the Canadian Parliament, but is mostly powerless and irrelevant.
  • Senators are appointed by the prime minister and serve until they reach age 75.
  • Though the Senate must approve all legislation before it becomes law, the Senate in practice almost always "rubber stamps" decisions of the House of Commons.
  • The Senate is one of the most controversial institutions in the Canadian government, and many suggest it should be significantly reformed or abolished.