Senate of Canada

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Senate of Canada
Sénat du Canada
42nd Parliament
Coat of arms or logo
George FureyLiberal
Since December 3, 2015
Claude CarignanConservative
Since November 5, 2015
Seats 105
Current Structure of the Senate
Political groups
  Independent PC (1)
  Independent (8)
  Vacant (22)
Appointment by the Governor-General on advice of the Prime Minister; non-binding elections are held in Alberta.
Meeting place
The Senate of Canada sits in the Centre Block in Ottawa
Centre Block
Parliament Hill
Ottawa, Ontario

The Senate of Canada (French: Sénat du Canada) is a component of the Parliament of Canada, along with the House of Commons and the Monarch (represented by the Governor General). The Senate is modeled after the House of Lords and consists of 105 Members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.[1] Seats are assigned on a regional basis, with each of the four major regions receiving 24 seats and the remainder of the available seats being assigned to smaller regions. The four major regions are Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces. The seats for Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut are assigned apart from these regional divisions. Senators may serve until they reach the age of 75.

The Senate is the upper house of Parliament and the House of Commons is the lower house. This does not, however, imply that the Senate is more powerful than the House of Commons, merely that its Members and Officers outrank the Members and Officers of the Commons in the order of precedence for the purposes of protocol. As a matter of practice and custom, the Commons is the dominant chamber. The approval of both chambers is necessary for legislation and, thus, the Senate can reject bills passed by the Commons. Between 1867 and 1987, the Senate rejected fewer than two bills per year, but this has increased in more recent years.[2] Moreover, Members of the Cabinet are responsible solely to the House of Commons. While the Prime Minister and the rest of Cabinet remain in office only while they retain the confidence of the Commons, Senators are not beholden to such control. Although legislation can normally be introduced in either chamber, the majority of government bills originate in the House of Commons with the Senate acting as the chamber of "sober second thought" as it was called by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister.[3]

Chamber and symbols

The Senate of Canada and the House of Commons of Canada sit in separate chambers in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, located in Ottawa, Ontario.

The Chamber in which the Senate sits is sometimes called the red chamber, due to the red cloth that adorns the Chamber, as well as the Throne. The red Senate chamber is lavishly decorated, in contrast with the more modest, green Commons chamber. This decorative scheme, consistent with the Canadian conception of the Westminster system, is modeled on the British Houses of Parliament, where the lords chamber is a lavish room with red benches, whereas the Commons chamber is more sparsely decorated and is furnished in green.

There are chairs and desks on both sides of the chamber, divided by a centre aisle. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the chamber; in front of it is the Clerk's table. Various clerks sit at the table, ready to advise the Speaker and the Senators on procedure when necessary. Members of the governing party sit on the benches to the Speaker's right, while Members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left.

There are three seats in the front of the chambers

  • The vice-regal or the Queen of Canada uses the seat with the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom
  • The second chair to the left is for the consort or spouse of the vice-regal spouse. The seat has a simplified royal coat of arms (no helm, ribbon or motto; the escutcheon is a shield rather than a cartouche with inescutcheon within and consort crown instead of the St Edward crown)
  • The first two seats are vacant but presenting during the regular sitting of the Senate.
  • The Speaker of the Senate uses the third seat with the Arms of Canada and is removed during the throne speech.

At either end of the chamber, on the second floor, are the visitors galleries, with total seating in stadium arrangement for 350.[4] The north gallery's lower seating area, or tribune, is reserved for journalists.

The Canadian Heraldic Authority on April 15, 2008, granted the Senate, as an institution, a heraldic achievement composed of a depiction of the chamber's mace (representing the monarch's authority in the upper chamber) behind the escutcheon of the Royal Arms of Canada (representing the Queen herself, in whose name the Senate deliberates).[5]


The Senate Chamber of Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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The Governor General holds the power to make normal senatorial appointments, although, in modern practice, they make appointments only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Senators originally held their seats for life; however, under the British North America Act, 1965 (now known as the Constitution Act, 1965), Members, save for those appointed prior to the change, may not sit in the Senate after reaching the age of 75. Prime ministers normally choose members of their own parties to be Senators, though they sometimes nominate independents or members of opposing parties. In practice, a large number of the Members of the Senate are ex-Cabinet ministers, ex-provincial premiers, and other eminent people. The first aboriginal Senator was James Gladstone, who sat as an independent conservative.[2]

Under the constitution, each province or territory is entitled to a specific number of Senate seats. The constitution divides Canada into four areas, each with an equal number of Senators: 24 for Ontario, 24 for Quebec, 24 for the Maritime provinces (10 each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and four for Prince Edward Island), and 24 for the western provinces (six each for Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Newfoundland and Labrador, which became a province in 1949, is not assigned to any division and is represented by six Senators, while the three territories (the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut) are allocated one Senator each. Quebec Senators are the only ones to be assigned to specific districts within their province. Historically, this was adopted to ensure that both French- and English-speakers from Quebec were represented appropriately in the Senate.

Like most other upper houses worldwide, the Canadian formula does not use representation by population as a primary criterion for Member selection, since this is already done for the House of Commons. Rather, the intent when the formula was struck was to achieve a balance of regional interests and to provide a house of "sober second thought" to check the power of the lower House when necessary. Therefore, the largest province (Ontario) and two Western provinces that were not populous at their accession to the federation and that are within a region are currently under-represented, while the Maritimes are the opposite. For example, British Columbia, with a current population of about four million, sends six Senators to Ottawa, whereas, Nova Scotia, with a current population of fewer than one million, is entitled to 10 Senators. Only Quebec currently has a share of Senators approximate to its share of the total population. For comparison, Canada has roughly one Senator for about 300,000 citizens, while the United States Senate has one elected Senator for about 3,000,000 citizens.

Province or Territory Senators Population per Senator
(April 2013)
% senators % population seats,
House of Commons
% seats,
 British Columbia 6 775,001 5.7% 13.1% 42 12.4%
 Alberta 6 660,890 5.7% 11.7% 34 10.0%
 Ontario 24 565,988 22.9% 38.5% 121 35.8%
 Quebec 24 337,462 22.9% 23.0% 78 23.1%
 Manitoba 6 212,890 5.7% 3.6% 14 4.1%
 Saskatchewan 6 182,313 5.7% 3.2% 14 4.1%
 Nova Scotia 10 94,502 9.5% 2.6% 11 3.3%
 Newfoundland and Labrador 6 85,595 9.5% 1.5% 7 2.1%
 New Brunswick 10 75,404 9.5% 2.1% 10 3.0%
 Northwest Territories 1 43,349 0.9% 0.1% 1 0.3%
 Prince Edward Island 4 36,441 3.8% 0.4% 4 1.2%
 Yukon 1 36,418 0.9% 0.1% 1 0.3%
 Nunavut 1 34,023 0.9% 0.1% 1 0.3%
Total/Average,  Canada 105 334,681 100% 100% 338 100%

There exists a constitutional provision—Section 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867—under which the sovereign may approve the appointment of four or eight extra Senators, equally divided among the four regions. The approval is given by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, and the Governor General is instructed to issue the necessary letters patent. This provision has been successfully used only once: in 1990, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sought to ensure the passage of a bill creating the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The appointment of eight additional Senators allowed a slight Tory majority. The only other attempt to use Section 26, by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1874, was denied by Queen Victoria, on the advice of the British Cabinet.[6] This clause does not result in a permanent increase in the number of Senate seats, however. Instead, an attrition process is applied by which Senators leaving office through normal means are not replaced until after their province has returned to its normal number of seats.

Since 1989, the voters of Alberta have elected "senators-in-waiting", or nominees for the province's Senate seats. These elections, however, are not held pursuant to any federal constitutional or legal provision; thus, the Prime Minister is not required to recommend the nominees for appointment. Only three Senators-in-waiting have been appointed to the Senate: the first was Stan Waters, who was appointed in 1990 on the recommendation of Brian Mulroney; the second was Bert Brown, elected a Senator-in-waiting in 1998 and 2004, and appointed to the Senate in 2007 on the recommendation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper; and the third was Betty Unger, elected in 2004 and appointed in 2012.[7] In May 2008, the government of Saskatchewan announced plans to hold similar elections.[8]

The base annual salary of a Senator is $142,400 CAD as of 2015.[9] and Members may receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the title of Speaker). Most Senators rank immediately above Members of Parliament in the order of precedence, although the Speaker is ranked just above the Speaker of the House of Commons and both are a few ranks higher than the remaining Senators.


The Constitution Act, 1867 outlines the qualifications of Senators. Individuals must be both citizens of Canada and at least 30 years of age to be eligible for appointment to the Senate. Senators must also maintain residency in the provinces or territories for which they are appointed.[1] In the past, this criterion has often been interpreted quite liberally, with virtually any holding that met the property qualification, including primary residences, second residences, summer homes, investment properties or even lots of undeveloped land, having been deemed to meet the residency requirement;[10] as long as the Senator listed a qualifying property as a residence, no further efforts have typically been undertaken to verify whether they actually resided there in any meaningful way.[10] Recently, residency has come under increased scrutiny, particularly in 2013 as several Senators have faced allegations of irregularities in their housing expense claims.[11]

The constitution also sets property qualifications for Senators. A Senator must possess land worth at least $4,000 in the province for which he or she is appointed. Moreover, a Senator must own real and personal property worth at least $4,000 (which, even in 1916, would have been equivalent to $75,700 in 2021) above his or her debts and liabilities.[1] These property qualifications were originally introduced to ensure that Senators were not beholden to economic vagaries and turmoil. Now, however, the sum in question is far less valuable due to the effects of inflation. Nevertheless, the property qualification has never been abolished or amended and initially caused problems with the 1997 Senate appointment of Sister Peggy Butts, a Catholic nun who had taken a vow of poverty.[12] (The situation was resolved when her order formally transferred a small parcel of land to her name.[12])

Under s. 31 of the Constitution Act, 1867, a Senator will be disqualified where he or she:

  1. fails to attend two consecutive sessions of the Senate;
  2. becomes a subject or citizen of a foreign power;
  3. is declared to be bankrupt or insolvent, applies for protection in such cases, or becomes a public defaulter;
  4. is convicted of treason or a felony; or
  5. ceases to be qualified in respect of property or of residence (except where required to stay in Ottawa because they hold a government office).

S. 33 of the Act provides for the Senate to determine any questions of qualification or vacancy.

The original constitution of Canada did not explicitly bar women from sitting as Senators. However, until the end of the 1920s, only men had been appointed to the body. In 1927, five Canadian women—The Famous Five—requested the Supreme Court to determine whether women were eligible to become Senators. Specifically, they asked whether women were considered "persons" under the British North America Act, 1867, which provided: "The Governor General shall ... summon qualified Persons to the Senate; and ... every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator." In Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) (commonly known as the Persons Case), the Supreme Court unanimously held that women could not become Senators. The Court based its decision on the grounds that the framers of the constitution did not foresee female Senators, as women did not participate in politics at the time; moreover, they pointed to the constitution's use of the pronoun he when referring to Senators. On appeal, however, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (Canada's highest court of appeal at the time) ruled that women were indeed persons in the meaning of the constitution. Four months later, the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King recommended the appointment of Canada's first female Senator, Cairine Wilson of Ontario. There was, in 2001, a greater proportion of women in the Senate (35.6%) than in the House of Commons (20.6%).[2]

Current composition

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Party Senators
  Conservative 45
  Independent Liberal1 29
  Independent 8
  Independent Progressive Conservative2 1
  Vacant 22
 Total 105


1On January 29, 2014, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau announced all Liberal Senators had been removed from the Liberal caucus and would henceforth sit as independents. According to Senate opposition leader Jim Cowan, the Senators will still refer to themselves as Liberals, even if they are no longer members of the parliamentary Liberal caucus. The Senate website continues to refer to the Senators as Liberals, although independent of the national Liberal caucus.[13][14]
2Elaine McCoy was appointed as a Progressive Conservative in 2005 and joined several Progressive Conservative Senators who refused to join the Conservative Party of Canada when it was formed in 2004. Currently, the Progressive Conservative designation does not meet the requirements to qualify as an official party within the Senate, therefore McCoy effectively sits as an independent.


There is some debate as to whether there is any requirement for the Prime Minister to advise the Governor General to appoint new Senators to fill vacancies as they arise. Opposition leader Tom Mulcair has argued that there is no constitutional requirement to fill vacancies. Constitutional scholar Peter Hogg has commented that the courts "might be tempted to grant a remedy" if the refusal to recommend appointments caused the Senate to be diminished to such a degree that it could not do its work or serve its constitutional function.[15]

Vancouver lawyer Aniz Alani has filed an application for judicial review of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apparent refusal to advise the appointment of Senators to fill existing vacancies, arguing that the failure to do so violates the Constitution Act, 1867.[16]

On July 24, 2015, Harper announced that he will not be directing the Governor General to fill the 22 vacancies in the Senate, preferring that the provinces "come up with a plan of comprehensive reform or to conclude that the only way to deal with the status quo is abolition." He declined to say how long he would allow vacancies to accumulate.[17] Under Canada's constitution, Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. If no such advice is forthcoming, according to constitutional scholar Adam Dodek, in "extreme cases, there is no question that the Governor General would be forced to exercise such power [of appointment] without advice".[18]

On 5 December 2015, the new Liberal government announced a new merit-based appointment process, using specific new criteria as to eligibility for the Senate. Independent applicants, not officially affiliated with any political party, will be approved by a new five member advisory board (to be in place by year end), a reform that was intended to begin eliminating the partisan nature of the Senate.[19] At the time there were 17 vacancies.


The presiding officer of the Senate is the Speaker, who is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Speaker is assisted by a Speaker Pro Tempore ("Current Speaker"), who is elected by the Senate at the beginning of each parliamentary session. If the Speaker is unable to attend, the Speaker Pro Tempore presides instead. Furthermore, the Parliament of Canada Act authorizes the Speaker to appoint another Senator to take his or her place temporarily. Muriel McQueen Fergusson was the Parliament of Canada's first female Speaker, holding the office from 1972 to 1974.[2]

The Speaker presides over sittings of the Senate and controls debates by calling on Members to speak. If a Senator believes that a rule (or standing order) has been breached, he or she may raise a point of order, on which the Speaker makes a ruling. However, the Speaker's decisions are subject to appeal to the whole Senate. When presiding, the Speaker remains impartial, though he or she still maintains membership in a political party. Unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Speaker of the Senate does not hold a casting vote, but, instead, retains the right to vote in the same manner as any other. Following the death of Senator. Pierre Claude Nolin in April 2015, Senator Leo Housakos is the current Speaker of the Senate.

The Member of the government responsible for steering legislation through the Senate is the Leader of the Government in the Senate. The Leader is a Senator selected by the Prime Minister and serves in Cabinet. The Leader manages the schedule of the Senate and attempts to secure the opposition's support for the government's legislative agenda. The opposition equivalent is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who is selected by his or her counterpart in the House of Commons, the Leader of the Opposition. However, if the Official Opposition in the Commons is a different party than the Official Opposition in the Senate (as is currently the case), then the Senate party chooses its own leader.

Officers of the Senate who are not Members include the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the Law Clerk, and several other clerks. These officers advise the Speaker and Members on the rules and procedure of the Senate. Another officer is the Usher of the Black Rod, whose duties include the maintenance of order and security within the Senate chamber. The Usher of the Black Rod bears a ceremonial black ebony staff, from which the title "black rod" arises. This position is roughly analogous to that of Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons, but the Usher's duties are more ceremonial in nature. The responsibility for security and the infrastructure lie with the Director General of Parliamentary Precinct Services.


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The throne and chair in the background are used by the Queen and her consort, or the Governor General and his or her spouse, respectively, during the opening of Parliament. The Speaker of the Senate employs the chair in front.
George VI, King of Canada, and his consort, Elizabeth, occupy the thrones in the Senate, while the king grants Royal Assent to laws, May 19, 1939

The Senate chamber is the site of the opening of parliament, a formal ceremony held at the beginning of each new parliamentary session. During the event, the Sovereign or the Governor General, seated on the throne in the Senate chamber and in the presence of both Houses of Parliament, delivers the Speech from the Throne (or, more colloquially, the throne speech), outlining the government's agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session.

Under the rules of the Senate, the Senate sits Mondays to Fridays. Sittings of the Senate are open to the public and are transcribed verbatim in the Debates of the Senate, although, at times, matters of particular interest have been broadcast. The Constitution Act, 1867, establishes a quorum of 15 Members (including the Member presiding) for the Senate. Any Senator may request the Speaker to ascertain the presence of a quorum; if it does not appear that one is present, the Speaker orders bells to be rung, so that other Senators on the parliamentary precincts may come to the chamber. If a quorum still does not appear, the Speaker must adjourn the Senate until the next sitting day.

During debates, the first Senator to rise is entitled to make the next speech. The Speaker may settle disputes over which Senator rose first, but his or her decision may be altered by the Senate. Motions must be moved by one Senator and seconded by another before debate may begin; some motions, however, are non-debatable.

Speeches may be made in either of Canada's official languages (English or French). Members must address their speeches to the other Senators as a whole, using the phrase "Honourable Senators" (Honorables Sénateurs), without directly addressing an individual Senator. This is similar to the process in the House of Lords, where all speeches and comments are addressed to "my lords". It differs slightly from the practice in the Canadian House of Commons and similar bodies in other countries, where all comments are addressed to the Speaker of the House. The Speaker enforces the rules of the Senate during debate. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a severe breach of the rules of the Senate.

No Senator may speak more than once on the same question; however, a Senator who has moved a substantive motion, proposed an inquiry, or sponsored a bill holds a right of reply that enables them to speak again at the close of debate. In the case of a bill, this right of reply can only be exercised at the second reading debate. The rules of the Senate prescribe time limits for speeches. The limits depend on the nature of the motion, but are generally about fifteen minutes. However, the leaders of the government and opposition in the Senate are not subject to such time constraints. Debate may be further restricted by the passage of time allocation motions. Alternatively, the Senate may end debate more quickly by passing a motion for the previous question. If such a motion carries, debate ends immediately and the Senate proceeds to vote. Debate may also end if no Senator wishes to make any further remarks.

When the debate concludes, the motion in question is put to a vote. The Senate first votes by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question and Members respond either "yea" (in favour of the motion) or "nay" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but, two or more Senators may challenge his or her assessment, thereby forcing a recorded vote (known as a division). First, Members in favour of the motion rise, so that the clerks may record their names and votes. The same procedure is then repeated for Members who oppose the motion and thereafter repeated again for those who wish to abstain. In all cases, the Speaker holds a vote (which is not usually exercised) and votes first when a recorded division is called; a tied vote results in the motion's failure. If the number of Members voting, including the presiding officer, does not at least total 15, then a quorum is not present, and the vote is invalid.


The Parliament of Canada uses committees for a variety of purposes. Committees consider bills in detail, and can make amendments. Other committees scrutinize various government agencies and ministries.

The largest of the Senate committees is the Committee of the Whole, which, as the name suggests, consists of all Senators. The Committee of the Whole meets in the chamber of the Senate, but proceeds under slightly modified rules of debate. (For example, there is no limit on the number of speeches a Member may make on a particular motion.) The presiding officer is known as the Chairman. The Senate may resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole for a number of purposes, including to consider legislation or to hear testimony from individuals. Nominees to be officers of parliament often appear before Committee of the Whole to answer questions with respect to their qualifications prior to their appointment.

The Senate also has several standing committees, each of which has responsibility for a particular area of government (for example, finance or transport). These committees consider legislation and conduct special studies on issues referred to them by the Senate and may hold hearings, collect evidence, and report their findings to the Senate. Standing committees consist of between nine and fifteen Members each and elect their own Chairmen.

Senate standing committees[20]

Special committees are appointed by the Senate on an ad hoc basis to consider a particular issue. The number of Members for a special committee varies, but, the partisan composition would roughly reflect the strength of the parties in the whole Senate. These committees have been struck to study bills (e.g. the Special Senate Committee on Bill C-36 (the Anti-terrorism Act), 2001) or particular issues of concern (e.g. the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs).

Other committees include joint committees, which include both Members of the House of Commons and Senators. There are presently two joint committees: the Standing Joint Committee on the Scrutiny of Regulations, which considers delegated legislation, and the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament, which advises the two Speakers on the management of the library. Parliament may also establish special joint committees on an ad hoc basis to consider issues of particular interest or importance.

Legislative functions

The Senate of Canada
The Senate of Canada

Although legislation may be introduced in either chamber, most bills originate in the House of Commons. Because the Senate's schedule for debate is more flexible than that of the House of Commons, the government will sometimes introduce particularly complex legislation in the Senate first.

In conformity with the British model, the Senate is not permitted to originate bills imposing taxes or appropriating public funds. Unlike in Britain but similar to the United States, this restriction on the power of the Senate is not merely a matter of convention, but is explicitly stated in the Constitution Act, 1867. In addition, the House of Commons may, in effect, override the Senate's refusal to approve an amendment to the Canadian constitution; however, they must wait at least 180 days before exercising this override. Other than these two exceptions, the power of the two Houses of parliament is theoretically equal; the approval of each is necessary for a bill's passage. In practice, however, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber of parliament, with the Senate very rarely exercising its powers in a manner that opposes the will of the democratically elected chamber.

The Senate tends to be less partisan and confrontational than the Commons and is more likely to come to a consensus on issues. It also often has more opportunity to study proposed bills in detail either as a whole or in committees. This careful review process is why the Senate is still today called the chamber of "sober second thought", though the term has a slightly different meaning than it did when used by John A. Macdonald. The format of the Senate allows it to make many small improvements to legislation before its final reading. Although the Senate rarely vetoes bills from the House of Commons, minor changes proposed by the Senate to a bill are usually accepted.

The Senate, at times, is more active at reviewing, amending, and even rejecting legislation. In the first 60 years after Confederation, approximately 180 bills were passed by the House of Commons and sent to the Senate that subsequently did not receive Royal Assent, either because they were rejected by the Senate or were passed by the Senate with amendments that were not accepted by the Commons. In contrast, fewer than one-quarter of that number of bills were lost for similar reasons in the sixty-year period from 1928 to 1987.[2] The late 1980s and early 1990s was a period of contention. During this period, the Senate opposed legislation on issues such as the 1988 free trade bill with the US (forcing the Canadian federal election of 1988) and the Goods and Services Tax (GST).[2][24] In the 1990s, the Senate rejected four pieces of legislation: a bill passed by the Commons restricting abortion (C-43),[25] a proposal to streamline federal agencies (C-93), a bill to redevelop the Lester B. Pearson airport (C-28), and a bill on profiting from authorship as it relates to crime (C-220). The Senate also performs investigative functions. In the 1960s, the Senate authored the first Canadian reports on media concentration with the Special Senate Subcommittee on Mass Media, or the Davey Commission,[26] since "appointed senators would be better insulated from editorial pressure brought by publishers"; this triggered the formation of press councils.[27] More recent investigations include the Kirby Commissions on health care (as opposed to the Romanow Commission) and mental health care by Senator Michael Kirby and the Final Report on the Canadian News Media in 2006.[28] From 2000-2013, the Senate rejected 75 bills in total.[29]

In December 2010, the Senate rejected Bill C-311, involving greenhouse gas regulation that would have committed Canada to a 25% reduction in emissions by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050.[30] The bill was passed by all the parties except the Conservatives in the House of Commons and was rejected by the majority Conservatives in the Senate on a vote of 43 to 32.[31] The only session where actual debate on the bill took place was notable for unparliamentary language and partisan political rhetoric.[32]

Historically, before the passage of the Divorce Act in 1968, there was no divorce legislation in either Quebec or Newfoundland. The only way for couples to get divorced in these provinces was to apply to the federal parliament for a private bill of divorce. These bills were primarily handled by the Senate, where a special committee would undertake an investigation of a request for a divorce. If the committee found that the request had merit, the marriage would be dissolved by an Act of Parliament. A similar situation existed in Ontario before 1930. This function of the Senate has not been exercised since 1968.

Relationship with the executive

Unlike the House of Commons, the Senate has no effect in the decision to end the term of the Prime Minister or of the government. Only the Commons may force the Prime Minister to tender his resignation or to recommend the dissolution of Parliament and issue of election writs, by passing a motion of no-confidence or by withdrawing supply. Thus, the Senate's oversight of the government is limited.

Most Cabinet ministers are from the House of Commons. In particular, every Prime Minister has been a Member of the House of Commons since 1896, with the exception of John Turner. Typically, the Cabinet includes only one Senator: the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Occasionally, when the governing party does not include any Members from a particular region, Senators are appointed to ministerial positions in order to maintain regional balance in the Cabinet. The most recent example of this was on February 6, 2006, when Stephen Harper advised that Michael Fortier be appointed to serve as both a Senator representing the Montreal region, where the minority government had no elected representation, and the Cabinet position of Minister of Public Works and Government Services. Fortier resigned his Senate seat to run (unsuccessfully) for a House of Commons seat in the 2008 general election.


The Senate came into existence in 1867, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the British North America Act 1867 (BNA Act), uniting the Province of Canada (which was separated into Quebec and Ontario) with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single federation, a Dominion called Canada. The Canadian parliament was based on the Westminster model (that is, the model of the Parliament of the United Kingdom). Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, described it as a body of "sober second thought" that would curb the "democratic excesses" of the elected House of Commons and provide regional representation.[33] He believed that if the House of Commons properly represented the population, the upper chamber should represent the regions.[34] It was not meant to be more than a revising body or a brake on the House of Commons. Therefore, it was deliberately made an appointed house, since an elected Senate might prove too popular and too powerful and be able to block the will of the House of Commons.

The original Senate chamber was lost to the fire that consumed the parliament buildings in 1916. Subsequently, the Senate sat in the mineral room of what is today the Canadian Museum of Nature until 1922, when it relocated back to Parliament Hill.

While most Senators hold their seat until the mandatory age of retirement, Andy Thompson stepped down 20 months ahead of his scheduled retirement after critics drew attention to his poor attendance record while he continued to draw his salary. It was also the first time that the Senate had voted to suspend one of its Members,[35] which prompted his resignation shortly afterwards.

Change in number of Senators over time
Modifying act Date enacted Normal total §26 total Ont. Que. Maritime Provinces Western Provinces N.L. N.W.T. Y.T. Nu.
N.S. N.B. P.E.I. Man. B.C. Sask. Alta.
Constitution Act, 1867 July 1, 1867 (1867-07-01) 72 78 24 24 12 12
Manitoba Act, 1870 July 15, 1870 (1870-07-15) 74 80 24 24 12 12 2
British Columbia Terms of Union July 20, 1871 (1871-07-20) 77 83 24 24 12 12 2 3
Prince Edward Island Terms of Union as per §147 of the Constitution Act, 1867 July 1, 1873 (1873-07-01) 77 83 24 24 10 10 4 2 3
Alberta Act and Saskatchewan Act September 1, 1905 (1905-09-01) 85 91 24 24 10 10 4 2 3 4 4
Constitution Act, 1915 May 19, 1915 (1915-05-19) 96 104 24 24 10 10 4 6 6 6 6
Newfoundland Act as per ¶1(1)(vii) of the Constitution Act, 1915 March 31, 1949 (1949-03-31) 102 110 24 24 10 10 4 6 6 6 6 6
Constitution Act (No. 2), 1975 June 19, 1975 (1975-06-19) 104 112 24 24 10 10 4 6 6 6 6 6 1 1
Constitution Act, 1999 (Nunavut) April 1, 1999 (1999-04-01) 105 113 24 24 10 10 4 6 6 6 6 6 1 1 1

Senate reform


Reform of the Senate has been an issue for much of Canadian history and, in fact, predates Confederation, being present in the Province of Canada, with most plans for reform chiefly involving amending the selection process; the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada was an appointed chamber from its formation in 1840 until it became an elected house in 1856 and remained as such until it was dissolved in 1867. The federal Parliament of Canada first considered reform measures in 1874 and the Senate debated reforming itself in 1909.[36]

There were minor changes in 1965, when the mandatory retirement age for new Senators was set at 75 years and, in 1982, when the Senate was given a qualified veto over certain constitutional amendments.[37] The last Member of the Senate who served past the age of 75 was John Michael Macdonald, who had been appointed on the advice of John Diefenbaker in 1960 and served until his death, at the age of 91 in 1997.[38] Orville Howard Phillips was the last Senator appointed for life to leave the body: he was appointed on the advice of Diefenbaker in 1963 and served in the Senate until 1999, when he voluntarily resigned a month before turning 75.[39]

Recent debate

In the 1960s and 1970s, discussion of reforming the appointment mechanism resurfaced alongside the Quiet Revolution and the rise of Western alienation, usually with the chief goal of making the Senate better represent the provinces in parliament. It was often suggested that provincial governments should appoint Senators, as was done in the United States before the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Others suggested that Senators should be actual Members of provincial legislatures, similar to the Bundesrat of Germany. The discussions also suggested redistributing Senate seats to the growing western provinces, but formal suggestions for equality of seats between provinces did not occur until 1981. Likewise, schemes to create an elected Senate did not gain widespread support until after 1980, when Parliament enacted the National Energy Program in the wake of the energy crises of the 1970s. Many Western Canadians then called for a "Triple-E Senate", standing for elected, equal, and effective. They believed that allowing equal representation of the provinces, regardless of population, would protect the interests of the smaller provinces and outlying regions.

One of the systems most often proposed is the Triple-E Senate (Triple-E stands for equal, elected, and effective), which would re-align the seats, make senators elected, and give them more powers.[40] Alberta is the only province that holds Senate nominee elections, although Saskatchewan plans to hold their own as well.[41] Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an advocate of an elected Senate, and originally said that he would not appoint any new senators until there is reform.[41] In his first two years as prime minister, he appointed two. One of his appointments was Bert Brown, who was one of Alberta's elected nominees and is the second unofficially elected senator in Canadian history after Stan Waters in 1990.[42]


There have been at least 28 major proposals for constitutional Senate reform since the early 1970s and all have failed.[37] The Meech Lake Accord—a series of constitutional amendments proposed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney—would have required the federal government to choose a Senator from a list of persons nominated by the provincial government; the accord, however, failed to obtain the requisite unanimous consent of the provincial legislatures. A successor proposal, the Charlottetown Accord, involved a provision under which the Senate would include an equal number of Senators from each province, each elected either by the majority in the relevant provincial legislature or by the majority of voters in the province. This accord was defeated in the referendum held in 1992.

The Cabinet while headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved to institute reforms to the process by which Senators are selected and the amount of time they can hold a seat in parliament:[43] On May 30, 2006, Bill S-4 was introduced in the Senate, proposing an amendment to the Constitution Act, 1867, so as to limit the term of a newly appointed Senator to eight years, though sitting Senators would serve out their term to age 75. Further, on December 13, 2006,[44] Bill C-43, for "the consultation of the electors... in relation to the appointment of senators",[44] was tabled in the House of Commons. It was intended to, pending a constitutional amendment, institute in each province direct elections, held concurrently with either provincial or federal general elections, for senatorial candidates who would then be recommended by the Prime Minister for appointment by the Governor General.[45] Both bills died at the end of the first session of the 39th parliament, but were reintroduced in the second session as C-19 (with modifications) and Bill C-20,[46][47] respectively. C-19 was again reintroduced in 2009 as Bill S-7, with one change: Senators appointed between October 14, 2008 and the date the bill was granted Royal Assent would remain Senators for eight years after the law came into force.[48]

On June 22, 2006, Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray and Liberal Senator Jack Austin introduced an amendment to the constitution to alter the makeup of the Senate[49] by enlarging the chamber to 117 Members and giving a greater number to the western provinces of British Columbia (12), Alberta (10), Saskatchewan (7), and Manitoba (7). The amendment would also have increased both the number of divisions to five — by separating British Columbia into its own division—and the number of additional Senators the monarch could appoint to five or ten. The amendment was debated on June 27 and 28, 2006, and then sent to a special committee on Senate reform. That committee considered the amendment and, on October 26, 2006, endorsed it.

Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, seconded by Liberal Senator Larry Campbell, proposed on December 11, 2006, an addition to the proposed constitutional changes that would provide for 24 Senators for British Columbia. The proposal died on the Order Paper when the writ dropped for the 2008 federal election.

Simon Threlkeld, a former Toronto lawyer who writes about democracy, proposes in the National Post that the Senate be chosen by randomly sampled juries of Canadians who meet together face-to-face to make an informed choice after deliberation. He says: "Such a Senate will be independent from political parties, and chosen in a highly democratic, non-partisan and well informed way."[50][51][52]

Party positions

The Conservative Party was committed to the idea of elected senatorial candidates being appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Accordingly, Harper in 2007 recommended the appointment of Bert Brown, who was elected in Alberta's Senator in waiting election,[53] but otherwise followed the standing rules in the absence of other elected nominees.[54][55][56] Harper later stated that the Senate "must either change or—like the old upper houses of our provinces—vanish".[57]

The New Democratic Party (NDP) has consistently called for the Senate's abolition.[58] In 2013, the NDP appeared ambiguous over whether it would appoint Senators if elected to government,[59] although it emphasized its pro-abolition platform.

On January 29, 2014, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that all 32 Liberal Senators would no longer be Members of the party's caucus. Trudeau announced that, as Prime Minister, he would only appoint future Senators as independents chosen by a non-partisan committee.[60] In response, the Senate caucus chose to designate themselves as "Senate Liberals" and continue their own internal caucus.

The Bloc Québécois has alternated between advocating the elimination of the Senate and accepting the status quo, while the Green Party of Canada passed a resolution during its 2010 convention supporting a Senate elected using proportional representation.[61]

The provincial incarnations of the NDP follow the same stance as their federal counterpart[62] and the Saskatchewan Party caucus has also voted to support Senate abolition.[63] A private Member's bill introduced to by Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly John Les to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia on June 2, 2011, with the support of the Premier, sought to have elections conducted for BC Senate nominees.[64] The bill was never enacted as law.

2013 reference to the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Canada was given several reference questions in 2013 to make clear how Senate reform can be undertaken within the current framework of the Constitution of Canada. In their 2014 response, Reference re Senate Reform, the Court declared that the applicable amending procedure depended upon the type of reform sought:[65]

  1. The Parliament of Canada can amend or repeal the s. 23(4) minimum property value requirement on its own;
  2. The s. 23(3) property possession requirement can be fully repealed only when accompanied by a resolution passed by the National Assembly of Quebec, because of its relationship to the special requirements for Quebec senators under s. 23(6);
  3. Under s. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, any change to "the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators" (which would include consultative elections and senatorial term limits) can only be done under the general amending procedure; and
  4. Under s. 41(e), the abolition of the Senate would require the unanimous consent of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of all Canadian provinces, as it would require the removal of the Senate from all aspects of the constitutional amending procedure.

Following the ruling, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that "Significant reform and abolition are off the table,"[66] and many constitutional experts consider abolition to be virtually impossible.[66] In the 2015 general election, the Liberal Party of Canada proposed a reform of the process of appointing senators.[66]

2015 appointment reform

Within a month of the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being sworn in, on 5 December 2015, the Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, with the new House leader Dominic LeBlanc, announced a major overhaul of the appointment process as had been promised during the election campaign. The new system consists of five board members - three federal appointees and two from the provinces - who will pick independent candidates, not officially affiliated with any politcal party, based on merit.[67] This reform is in line with Trudeau's January 2014 announcement that began reducing Senate partisanship by making Liberal senators independent and no longer part of the Liberal caucus.[68]

The stated goal of the December 2015 reform was to improve the effectiveness of the Senate which had been "... hampered by its reputation as a partisan institution,” according to Monsef. She indicated that this reform would not require an amendment to the constitution. Only hours later, the Liberal Premier of British Columbia (BC), Christy Clark, stated that her province would not support the changes because they did "not address what’s been wrong with the Senate since the beginning".[69] BC is under represented in the Senate, based on population size; B.C. with 4.7 million people has only six senators, while the Atlantic Provinces have 24, although their population is below 2 million. Correcting this imbalance would require a constitutional amendment that is agreed to by seven or more provinces with 50 per cent of the population, and that is unlikely to happen. Christy's other objection was that the senators are appointed, not elected, so they are not accountable to the Canadian public;[70] hence this house should not be legitimized in her estimation.[71][72]

The advisory board was expected to have been appointed by the end of December 2015. The criteria for appointment to the Senate will be "... outstanding personal qualities that include integrity and ethics and experience in public life, community service or leadership in their field of expertise". As of 14 December, there were 22 Senate vacancies[73] and these were expected to be filled by the end of 2016.[74]


Outside of Parliament Hill, most Senators have offices in the Victoria Building across Wellington Street.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Franco, 2006, pg. 3–42.
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  6. W.H. McConnell, Commentary on the British North America Act (Toronto: McMillan & Co., 1977), pp. 72–73.
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  17. Steven Chase, "Harper will not appoint more senators", The Globe and Mail. July 25, 2015.
  18. Adam Dodek, "PM's constitutional disobedience a dangerous game to play", The Globe and Mail, July 28, 2015.
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  25. 17 Nov 2013 Toronto Star: "Mulroney-era cabinet documents reveal struggle to replace abortion law thrown out by court"
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  50. Simon Threlkeld, "Let citizen juries choose the Senate," National Post, September 15, 2015, page A11
  51. Simon Threlkeld, "Select senators by jury," National Post online edition,September 14, 2015,
  52. He makes an earlier version of his proposal in the Toronto Star: Simon Threlkeld, "Juries of citizens should select senators," Toronto Star, September 9, 1998, page A17.
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  61. This motion, in calling for the elections of Senators, is more specific than the current policy of holding a referendum on which direction senate reform should take.
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  65. Reference re Senate Reform 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704 (25 April 2014)
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  • Franco, Guida (2006). Canadian Almanac & Directory 2006. Toronto: Micromedia ProQuest, 3–42. ISBN 1-895021-90-1.

External links

sv:Kanadas parlament#Senaten