Canada’s Senate

Published September 9, 2017 by A.J.B. Johnston

The transformation taking place in Canada’s Senate is nothing short of remarkable. Where before — for nearly 150 years — the Senate had always been a place of partisan appointments made by the party in power, it has under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau become an imaginative experiment in gender balance and non-partisanship. Both aspects are, in my opinion, well worth celebrating.

It is the recent appointment of New Brunswick writer David Adams Richards to the upper house that prompts me to write this note. That appointment, plus a host of others preceding it — including those made about one year ago to place Wanda Thomas Bernard and Dan Christmas in the Senate to represent Nova Scotia — have the potential to create a quite different kind of politics in Canada, in the Senate at least. Independent-minded and thoughtful Canadians from their regions are starting to outnumber the earlier partisan appointments. Though journalists don’t pay much attention to Senate debates, maybe they should.

It is not only a matter of time for the Senate to achieve gender parity. The process is well under way. Moreover, since it has become a condition of eligibility to be non-partisan, the Senate has the potential to avoid the kind of petty squabbling that surfaces all too often in the House of Commons. Issues can be debated on their merits, and only their merits, in a chamber of independent Senators. I’m sure a cynic will call that naive, and maybe it is. But I like to think of it as more of an ideal to work toward.

Another potential virtue of the upper house as it is coming to be, is that it could evolve into a chamber of long-range thinking on behalf of Canada and its regions. Senators do not face elections, so they should be able to look beyond the pressing short-term issues that are the primary focus of the House of Commons and its MPs. Canada is facing many long-term issues — from climate change and rising seas to income inequality to demographic shifts. Having an institution of our Parliament looking at long-term trends and consequences could bring enormous benefits.

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