Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: The Canadian Senate Reconsidered

By Joyal, Serge | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview
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Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: The Canadian Senate Reconsidered

Joyal, Serge, Canadian Parliamentary Review

Three years ago, in an article published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, I commented on the general nature of the debate on Senate reform, which seemed to be based principally on empty slogans and simplistic criticisms. For too many public commentators, denigration has become a substitute for rigorous analysis. The tide of this facile approach to public policy discussion, which Pierre Elliott Trudeau once called "la nouvelle trahison des clercs," has even swept away some of those journalists usually recognized as keen and astute observers of the political scene.

To find a way out of this dead end debate, which invariably serves only to engender public cynicism about the political process and distrust of Parliament, it seemed appropriate to explore the potential for non-constitutional avenues to Senate reform that could provide real, immediate and substantial benefit to the institution.

To develop this option thoroughly, I sought the support of several scholars, as well as a fellow senator, all of whom have knowledge of the history of our parliamentary system. I asked them to reconsider the longstanding dogmas on the Senate. The end product is a 500 page volume containing many challenging ideas and assessments that completely overturn the familiar and erroneous caricature of the Senate drawn by so many of our political pundits and commentators. The Canadian Centre for Public Management has taken the initiative to publish the results of these revealing observations and conclusions. The book was written without the benefit of any funding grant but with the generosity of time and knowledge provided by all the contributors and with the support and the help of a large group of individuals who joined together to assemble a wealth of information.

Each of the nine contributors presents aspects of the Senate, its origins, development and operations that add to our understanding of this institution and how it can be effectively improved to better serve our parliamentary democracy. Janet Ajzenstat, Professor of History at McMaster University and co-editor of The Founding Debate, explains that the Fathers of Confederation were more astute and creative than is often acknowledged when they devised our bicameral Parliament. They understood that an Upper Chamber based on the federal principle would better secure the protection of minority, sectional and regional interests, within a majoritarian political culture that caters to the most powerful interests in society.

According to Professor Gil Remillard, author of Le federalisme canadien and former Attorney General for Quebec, it was clear from its inception that the Senate would not be a replica of the House of Lords, despite any similarities. The fundamental purpose of the Canadian Senate was to serve a federal principle totally unknown to the House of Lords of the United Kingdom, a body conceived to serve a unitary state. In fact, the Canadian Senate is sui generis--uniquely adapted to serve the socio-linguistic and geo-economic diversity of a territory that soon spanned an entire continent.

In the last thirty years, twenty-eight proposals to reform the Senate were introduced by federal and provincial governments, as well as by national political parties. All of them failed. In reviewing each of them, Dr. Jack Stillborn, senior researcher at the Library of Parliament, comes to a compelling conclusion: every reform scheme lacked an adequate conceptual understanding of the institutional nature of Parliament. These reforms failed because they were developed in isolation from the system of checks and balances through which Parliament operates.

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