Senate Reform

7 01 2010

Senate Chamber

The Harper Government has announced its intention to re-open the issue of Senate Reform. I have a few quick thoughts about this.

1)      The Governments of Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba, which have nearly half the country’s population, are in favour of the outright abolition of the Senate. Unicameralism seems to work well for the provinces. The last province to abolish its unelected upper house was Quebec. No province is considering reintroducing bicameralism at the provincial level. We should consider Senate abolition. Senate abolition has been discussed more or less continuously since the 1920s. Let’s act.

2)      According to the amending formula entrenched in the 1982 constitution, changing the Senate will require the consent of the provinces. What will the provinces ask for in return for going along with this?

3)      Canada’s House of Lords Senate is only one of the more objectionable parts of our constitutional inheritance from Britain. As I showed on this blog, the visit of Prince Charles prompted a great deal of discussion about the future of the monarchy in Canada. Most young Canadians think that Canada should become a republic. One could argue that changing our head of state is more important than changing the upper house. Senate reform is a largely symbolic issue, but the head of state is far more important symbolically. We don’t have pictures of the Senate on our coins. If we are going to scrap or change the Senate, maybe we should deal with the monarchy at the same time.

Update: Jeffrey Simpson has a very good article on this issue in today’s paper.

Women’s History Month

15 10 2009

In honour of women’s history month, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper published this quiz designed to test your knowledge of ‘heroines’ from Canadian history. The image associated with this article features the Famous Five, the five women who fought in the 1920s for the opening of Canada`s unelected upper house (the Senate) to women. (See here also).

PM King with Famous Five

Mackenzie King with the Famous Five

I have mixed feelings about the uncritical praise that has been lavished on the Famous Five rather than on the millions of other women who have lived in Canada. This is, in part, because I favour abolishing Canada’s upper house and moving to a unicameral legislature. (I understand why some people incline towards the Guy Fawkes school of parliamentary reform). I certainly believe that if Canada is going to have an unelected upper house, then women should be allowed to sit in it!  The question, however, is whether eliminating the ban on female Senators in the 1920s served to delay the abolition of a fossil institution by eliminating its most egregiously anachronistic feature.  Senate abolition was proposed in the 1920s by Prairie populists and others on the political left and is still supported by the NDP. This is one of the few issues on which I agree with the NDP. All of the provinces now have unicameral legislatures- Quebec abolished its unelected upper house in 1968. Unicameralism seems to work well at the provincial level. As far as I know, no province has proposed re-introducing bicameralism.

As well, I’m not a big fan of the “living tree” doctrine of constitutional interpretation that Lord Sankey used to arrive at his decision in Edwards v. Canada, the case commonly called the Persons Case. It seems to me that it has made it easier for judges to read their own values into constitutional texts. Whether the living tree doctrine and the consequent judicialization of Canadian politics will be good for women or Canadians more generally remains to be determined.

Let’s abolish the Senate and then focus on getting more women into the House of Commons the PMO, where the real power is.

P.S. The Ottawa Citizen quiz mentions Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Montreal slave executed for arson in 1734. The students in my pre-Confederation course are currently writing an essay about her trial and execution.

Image Source: Library and Archives Canada.