Senate needs reputation intervention

On March 24, 2005, at the request of Prime Minister Paul Martin, I was asked to serve in the Senate.

Dear Editor:

On March 24, 2005, at the request of Prime Minister Paul Martin, I was asked to serve in the Senate. There were nine of us appointed that day: Retired General Roméo Dallaire, Claudette Tardif, Nancy Ruth, Elaine McCoy, Art Eggleton, Lillian Dyck, Bob Peterson, Grant Mitchell and I.

Two of our number were longstanding Progressive Conservatives and one a member of the NDP. Roméo Dallaire’s continuing contribution to Canada and the international community is widely recognized. Claudette Tardif came to the Senate as a strong advocate for minorities, informed by a lifetime working for the rights of minority francophone communities in Alberta. Lillian Dyck is a scientist who was a professor in the Neuropsychiatry Research Unit of the University of Saskatchewan. She is a proud member of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Each of the senators with whom I was appointed that day was chosen because they provide Canadians with a unique combination of expertise and experience, and deep connections to groups and communities whose voices have not always been heard.

Senator Dallaire travels across Canada and around the world, advocating for the rights of children forced to become soldiers. He stands regularly in the Senate to hold the government to account on behalf of the many Canadian veterans who call upon him, knowing he will listen and that he understands, very profoundly, the issues they face.

Senator Dyck has been a determined voice for the hundreds of murdered and missing aboriginal women, demanding that a public inquiry be held to bring justice for their families and communities. On issue after issue, she has worked closely with Canadians who find themselves cut out of the national dialogue, giving voice to their concerns and perspectives at the federal level.

The Senate was designed to do exactly what these colleagues of mine are doing. The House of Commons, whose members are elected, understandably will primarily reflect the views of the majority. The Senate was intended to provide a balance to the potential problems of a “tyranny of the majority,” by providing for the appointment of individuals to represent minority views that otherwise may not be heard, or could be overwhelmed by the power of the majority.

Do Canadians believe it is important to have these voices represented in the federal legislative process? Whom do they want to see in the Senate, and how do they want those people chosen? What powers should the Senate have — the same as the House of Commons, or different? If there are conflicts between the two chambers, how should they be resolved? Right now, the Senate normally defers to the House, as the elected chamber. If the Senate also becomes elected, which House prevails?

We are long overdue for a serious national discussion about the Senate. The Senate is one of our two Houses of Parliament. Regrettably, its reputation — and that of all of us who serve there — has been terribly damaged by recent events. These events have also prompted more Canadians to question whether the Senate serves a useful purpose. Others ask whether changes could better meet the legitimate expectations of Canadians. That is the discussion that The Chronicle Herald has invited me to join, from the perspective of an active senator for Nova Scotia.

The Fathers of Confederation first and foremost intended the Senate to represent the “regions” (now the provinces and territories) in the federal Parliament.

Some commentators argue this role is no longer needed, as premiers effectively represent their province’s interests to the federal government.

I am not convinced. I appreciate that premiers are more powerful than senators, and when they choose to weigh in on an issue, their voices can have considerable impact. But premiers are busy running their respective provinces, focusing on issues within provincial jurisdiction. Their job is full, without also needing to scrutinize and speak out on all pieces of federal legislation.

And what happens when, as we have seen in recent years, a prime minister chooses not to hold first ministers meetings? Or when a prime minister meets with certain premiers, while ignoring others?

It was a senator who discovered in 2008, buried deep in an omnibus budget bill, that the federal government wanted to give itself the ability to censor Canadian films.

It was the Senate — in a welcome cross-partisan initiative a few months ago — that stopped Bill C-377, a patently unconstitutional bill that would have forced an unprecedented level of public disclosure of private information about Canadians who happen to work for or do business with a labour union. We succeeded where the NDP failed in the House of Commons. Small wonder the leader of the NDP would prefer the Senate did not exist.

The Senate also produces policy reports (and happily, at a small fraction of the cost of a royal commission Senate reports have pushed public debate — and government action — repeatedly for decades. The Senate’s 2002 report on marijuana has been downloaded more than 49,000 times since 2006. It was a Senate report that resulted in the creation by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

I wholeheartedly welcome a public discussion about whether we need a second chamber, what powers it should have, how its members should be selected and what role Canadians expect it to fulfill in the 21st century and beyond.

The Senate can make an important contribution, complementing the role of the House of Commons. But any institution is only as good as its members. Those of us who serve in the Senate, who know firsthand the good work that it has done and can do, are the most concerned by the actions of those who betray the trust given to us. “Honorable” is not a title; it is a standard to uphold and live up to, every day.

James S. Cowan, a Liberal from Nova Scotia, is Leader of the Opposition in the Senate