A proposal for Senate reform: Let Canada’s Senate really represent the regions

A proposal for Senate reform: Let Canada’s Senate really represent the regions

👤Phil Burton 🕔Aug 01, 2013

Recent examples of questionable behaviour by some of Canada’s appointed senators have prompted many of us to ask whether we need an Upper House anyway. Maybe it’s not the institution that needs to be trashed, but the sorts of individuals who are given the job and the tasks they are assigned that need reform. If there are benefits to a Senate, how might we instill it with a clearer mandate and more accountability?

 Regional representation was clearly envisioned as a key basis for the existence and organization of the Canadian Senate. The current allotment reserves 24 Senate seats for each of the Maritime provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the western provinces, with nine additional seats distributed among Newfoundland and Labrador and the territories, for a total of 105 current positions. As such, the Senate is expected to counteract the influence of the more populated regions of the country and the representation-by-population (“rep by pop”) basis for the House of Commons.

Some would suggest an equal number of senators for each province (as per the American model) and for provinces to have the responsibility, through their legislatures or elections, to select senators. Yet provincial concerns are now raised at the federal level through regular meetings of the provincial and territorial premiers (the so-called “Council of the Federation”), and similar meetings on behalf of their corresponding ministers (for example, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers).

Cries for reform typically focus on the need for elected senators, as found in the USA and Australia. Democratic elections are part of the “Triple-E”—equal, elected and effective—solution advocated for decades. Alberta has already held senate nominee elections, although Prime Minister Harper has retained his constitutional role in making senate appointments (or, technically, recommending his selections to the Governor General). Those appointments have typically gone to party loyalists and insiders, further accentuating the polarized, partisan culture that defines Ottawa today. Two federal parties, the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois, consider the Senate to be fundamentally undemocratic, an obsolete institution that should never obstruct the will of the elected majority.

So what would be wrong with having just the House of Commons, letting the will of the majority be the will of the land? After all, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden and other countries have abolished their upper houses in support of unicameral (single elected assembly) models.

Well, for one thing, Canada is much larger and more diverse than those countries, with many distinctive regions—which don’t necessarily follow the historical and straight-line boundaries between provinces and territories—and region-specific issues.

Furthermore, I think most northerners would agree that fair treatment to all parts of Canada requires consideration of impacts and priorities that may not be reflected in the will of our predominantly urban population and its representatives. It is the resource-rich but population-poor hinterlands that have generated much of Canada’s wealth and identity, and will be depended on for much of our commodity-focused future. So there would seem to be value in having the regions represented outside the House of Commons, independent of provincial boundaries and provincial government interference.

Indeed, grappling with inter-jurisdictional issues and cross-boundary impacts could be explicitly assigned to senators. And if we want true regional representation, shouldn’t we have discrete Senate ridings, in which you could get to know your senator, rather than a large pool of senators called upon to simultaneously represent the interests of (for example) Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia?

As a landscape ecologist with an interest in sustainable economic development and community vitality, I suggest that senators should represent large physiognomic or biogeographic regions, something like the 194 terrestrial ecoregions of Canada (devised by multidisciplinary committees of scientists in the early 1990s.

Or, if we want to keep the Senate similar in size to its current configuration, let’s see two senators (one woman and one man?) for each of Canada’s 53 ecoprovinces. These biophysically defined regions represent areas of relatively homogenous climate, resources, environmental sensitivities and development challenges.

I further suggest that regionally based senators be charged with exercising “sober second thought” specifically with respect to the long-term sustainability and impacts to our most fundamental resource and our shared heritage—the land itself. This should be the primary role of senators in parliamentary committees, and the dominant issue when voting on or initiating new legislation. With its complex terrain, BC would warrant 10 Senate constituencies modelled on ecoprovinces, seven of them in northern BC, with several of them crossing provincial or territorial boundaries (see map).

Another feature of the Canadian Senate and its origins is that it is modelled after the British House of Lords, retaining a role for the feudal aristocracy that once ruled Europe. Whether titles should rightfully be inherited, awarded, or elected, they are nonetheless associated with particular places, having deep historic and geographic context.

Translated to the Canadian landscape, we might ask who are the hereditary rulers, the long-time stewards of the land? They are, of course, the aboriginal people, who also constitute the dominant demographic in the many isolated ecoregions and resource hinterlands of Canada. Rooted in place, with deep commitment to their traditional territories, it is First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders that we can expect to emerge as logical candidates for a reformed, regionalized senate.

If the Senate of Canada is to have distinctive roles in looking after the land and sustaining its health and vigour, then perhaps it is not so important whether senators are elected or appointed. Let us envision the Upper House functioning more like a Council of Elders, populated by thoughtful, altruistic men and women of experience and insight, who can function above the fray of political competition.

While we like the idea of our representative officials being somehow “answerable” to their constituencies, we may want to avoid the dirty games associated with political parties and partisan politics altogether. There is also the danger of popular individuals and initiatives with short-term benefits being rather incompatible with important long-term values. Could senators, perhaps nominated by regional petitions, be selected by a consensus of party leaders in the Commons?

True regional representation … stewardship of the land … long-term vision … apolitical behaviour and decisions … strong representation by First Nations—what a formula for reinvigorating that stodgy old Red Chamber!