The Senate

The Senate

Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press\

A brief consideration on the constitutional question

Jonas Cardenas, Logos Editor

Few topics generate as much interest and divisiveness in the Canadian government than the question of the Senate. The institution has seen significant criticism dating back to its founding during the beginnings of Confederation in 1867—and not without good reason. Throughout its history, people in government and broader society have criticized the institution for not fulfilling its formal role, however that role is constitutionally defined depending on the criteria and expectations one has.

The Canadian Senate is often relegated to the sidelines of major political contests, overshadowed and overpowered by its more legitimate and democratically-elected counterpart, the House of Commons. It doesn’t help that national media tends to give the institution the “short end of the stick” when it comes to coverage, and that actions of certain senators inadvertently affect the standing of the entire political body. Criticism and controversies aside, politicians and political parties have made Senate abolishment and reform a part of their political platform across the years to varying degrees of success and failure. The current historical moment within modern political culture has seen a series of events disrupt and chance the international and geopolitical order. Among these trends are democratic backsliding, the rise of populist and nationalist sentiments, and deepening of political polarization and deadlock, all of which are relevant to our democratic condition. I think a preliminary examination on the topic of the Senate is in order if we, as a nation, want to preserve our democratic institutions and see them prosper in the future. 

A brief history of the beginnings of Confederation can be summed up as a compromise between the Canadas, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, to form a political union. Not satisfied with only representation-by-population, the Fathers of Confederation took the British Westminster style Parliament as its model and implemented an upper-house, the Senate, to voice regional interests. This would be the political body that the Atlantic provinces, and later the West, would eventually place their hopes in to represent their concerns, however with little avail. The Senate has also been ascribed the role of being the “sober-second thought” within Parliament, the body envisioned to act as a check and balance to the popularly elected House of Commons, by the Fathers of Confederation. Over time, the Senate would also be ascribed the role of representing certain groups and giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns and interests, where popular democratic institutions and procedures have inhibited such attempts. Categories as diverse as gender, language, indigenous, and religious identity have been input. In reality, the Senate has failed in accomplishing these roles and responsibilities, and the future of its standing remains bleak. 

One such concern that plagues the Senate is its lack of legitimacy and an incapacity to act in government. This is mainly rooted in the fact that it is not democratically elected, as its parliamentary counterpart and appointments are on the behest of the Prime Minister. Though the Senate confers a large deal of power unto the executive, theoretically it lacks the confidence of the people. If the argument that people confer legitimacy in democratic governments, any provision and action taken by the upper-house against the lower-house would be seen as unconstitutional by virtue of it being unelected. I think this issue can be solved by relocating power away from the Prime Minister and into the hands of people in each respective province to elect senators. If the Senate continues to be an ineffective institution that is reluctant to act on the basis of it being unelected, it will turn into a mere symbol of an elitist holdover that continues to exist today. It may be possible that the Fathers of Confederation had good reason for many of their “elite” inclinations with regards to government and having an appointed body that is the Senate. The notion of “Democratic despotism” and the tyranny of the majority is always a danger to a fledgling democracy, and an appointed body of Senators could in theory temper the immediate passions that popularly characterize the democratic process. However, it is one thing to create a safeguard in defending a robust constitutional government, but it is another thing if the safeguard becomes practically irrelevant and symbolic. A powerful quote that comes to mind relating to symbols comes from the writer Flannery O’Connor: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.” In her case she was referring to the subject of the Eucharist in Catholic circles, but the quote can aptly apply to the Senate. If the Senate is merely a symbol, when from its conception it is supposed to embody more, the only resolution seems to be institutional reform or abolishment. 

Another possible solution to the constitutional question is to formally inscribe the roles and responsibilities the Senate has in the Constitution, thus giving it a sense of legitimacy on paper and making it a proper check and balance to the power of the House of Commons. I think the emergence of the Senate as a check and balance to the popularly elected house, if this and other reforms are enacted, is a process that would require a formidable will across the whole political spectrum. Reform would require a consensus reaching all provinces and territories and each centre of power where decision making is located.

I bring up the topic of the Senate because it could be the institution that helps counter antipathetic feelings seen in today’s political culture and thus may be a key to democratic prosperity. This is only speculation can be taken with a grain of salt. It is evident, however, that in order to preserve a healthy liberal democratic order, we require a revitalization of institutions across the board. This includes the institution of the Senate. An integral political system is necessary to help address challenges we face in the twenty-first century in a democratic and humane manner. Until tangible changes and reforms are instituted, the Senate will remain an imperfect political organization, inadequate to affect action within the state.