On February 16, 2016, the Quebec Superior Court upheld the Succession to the Throne Act, 2013, an Act of the federal Parliament that gave Canada’s assent to an Act before the Parliament of the United Kingdom that changed the rules of succession for the British monarchy such that the system of male preference primogeniture under which a younger son could displace an elder daughter in the line of succession was to be ended and also such that the rule that rendered anyone who married a Catholic became ineligible to succeed to the Crown was similarly removed. In Motard v. Procureur general du Canada et al., 2016 QCCS 588, Justice Claude Bouchard examined the question as to whether the amendments to the royal succession, and Canada’s assent to them, were changes to Canada’s constitution and, if so, whether Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 was therefore engaged.
On January 19, 2016, the Honourable Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, announced the appointment of first members of the non-partisan panel that is charged with the task of coming up with qualified candidates for Senate vacancies. The panel, which has three federal representatives, two Ontario provincial representatives, two Quebec provincial representatives and two Manitoba provincial representatives, is supposed to come up with five qualified candidates for each Senate vacancy for those three provinces. The recommendations are not binding on the Prime Minister who ultimately submits his choices to the Governor General. The nine members of this initial panel are all eminently qualified. But there is criticism of the process. Some of the criticism has merit.
Last year, when Prime Minister Trudeau announced that he would press ahead with his plans for a non-partisan advisory panel to assist in choosing candidates for the Senate, BC’s Premier, Christy Clark, immediately slammed the proposal. She retorted that BC would not participate. On the same day as the Prime Minister’s announcement, she tweeted that the “Senate has never represented BC’s interests at the national level”. Later, she issued a statement: “[The proposed] changes do not address what’s been wrong with the Senate since the beginning. It has never been designed to represent British Columbians or our interests”. She has argued that BC is grossly under-represented, only getting 6 seats in the 105 seat Senate, and Mr. Trudeau’s changes would only serve to the Senate to think that it is somehow legitimate and that this would allow it to think that it could make decisions on behalf of the country. She stated that the Senate does not have that power and should not have it.
Premier Clark is both right and wrong. Furthermore, in my opinion, British Columbia is not the only party that should be seeking structural changes to the Senate. Specifically, I believe that the indigenous peoples of Canada should be included in any discussions involving revisions to the Senate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government face a unusual dilemma. They have an ambitious legislative agenda. They have a majority in the House of Commons. But they do not control the Upper House, the Senate. In that legislative chamber, the Conservative Party have 47 members. The Liberals cast their senators, now numbering 29, from their caucus. There are 7 independent senators. And 22 vacancies. Because the Liberal senators are no longer subject to party discipline, their votes cannot be controlled. One can imagine nevertheless that Liberal senators would be inclined to vote for the Liberal Party’s legislative agenda. But the Conservative Party Senators, however, have been strictly whipped, at least under the leadership of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference was entitled “Time for Boldness on Senate Reform”. Its opening speaker was the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada. She delivered a thoughtful review of her experience both as a minister under Brian Mulroney’s government and as prime minister and her recollections about how the Senate had acted in response to both the Progressive Conservative’s government’s proposal for free trade with the United States and to the Mulroney government’s later proposal for the Goods and Services Tax (“GST”). The conference ended with the eminent professor and scholar Roger Gibbins reviewing the results of the various speakers and summarizing his experience at the conference. Professor Gibbins asked himself two questions. First, he asked whether the conference participants had been successful in living up to the conference’s : were they “bold” in their suggestions for Senate reform. He answered that question with a “No”. Then, he asked whether he learned whether Canada had to be bold in reforming the Senate. To that, he responded “Yes”.
Today, the Supreme Court of Canada denounced the federal government’s plans to reform the Senate by unilaterally imposing term limits for senators and by holding non-binding “consultative” elections for the selection of future senators. The Court also decried the proposal that, by use of the general amending formula, the Senate could be abolished. The decision, Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, was rendered by “the Court” without any one of the eight justices who heard the appeal identified as the author of the reasons for judgment. In making these pronouncements, the Court did no more than its job: it upheld the Constitution of the country and held the federal government (and provincial governments) to the letter, spirit and intent of the supreme law of the land. For that, we all owe the Court a debt of gratitude.