The Canadian Senate and the (Im)Possibilities of Reform

The Senate’s Configuration

Canada’s Parliament houses a lower elected chamber, an upper unelected chamber (the Senate), and the Queen (Constitution Act, 1867, s 17 [CA1867]). The framers of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 had a vision for the Senate as a complementary, deliberative body bringing regional perspectives to national issues and genuine powers of oversight and sober second thought. To realize this vision, the Senate was given the power to initiate legislation (except money bills) and a legislative veto (CA1867, ss 53, 91). At the same time, it was denied a popular mandate. The Governor General appoints all senators and can appoint some additional senators to overcome a deadlock between the chambers (CA1867, ss 24, 26, 32). This method of selection was to signal the Senate’s political subordination, while promoting institutional independence. To reinforce independence, the framers gave senators life tenure and required that they be propertied men of a certain age (30 years) and means (net worth of $4,000) (CA1867ss 23(1),(4), 29). These criteria, still in place today, were to insulate senators from corruption, while giving the country’s elites some control over the popular class.

The Senate was also to be representative. Seats in the House of Commons were distributed by population, but seats in the Senate were distributed equally to Canada’s three (now four) regions (CA1867, s 22). Senators must live in the province for which they are appointed and own property there (CA1867, s 23(3),(5)). This regional equality, a lynchpin of Confederation, reassured the least populous provinces that their interests would be represented at the federal level.

Re-configuring the Senate

The constitutionally entrenched features of the Senate have remained stable since 1867. Calls for Senate reform started just after Confederation, with little success ...

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