Canadian Senate reform: What has been happening?

Recent changes for the Senate

The Senate of Canada has moved to a former train station, where it will sit during the Ottawa Parliament’s own restoration and renewal programme. But this is not the only change that has affected Canada’s second chamber in recent years. The architecture of its appointments process has also been undergoing an overhaul.  

Changes to the appointments process: the journey so far 

Much like the House of Lords, the Senate of Canada is an appointed second chamber in a bicameral system in which an elected House of Commons holds primacy. Unlike in the UK, however, members of Canada’s second chamber have a mandatory retirement age of 75. Historically, Canadian prime ministers have rarely appointed senators from other parties or independents. They have instead tended to only make political appointments to the benefit of their party. 

Earlier attempt at reform 

Debates about Senate appointments are almost as old as the Canadian Parliament itself. In the present century, however, in 2011, the Government of then Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed the introduction of consultative elections for appointments. Three years later, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected these plans and ruled that major constitutional reforms, such as introducing elections for senators or abolishing the Senate entirely, would require the consent of the provinces. An informal moratorium on appointments followed for what Mr Harper termed the “unelected, unaccountable Senate”.  

Moving towards a more independent chamber 

On taking office in 2015, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke with tradition on the hitherto partisan appointments process in line with his party’s campaign pledges on the issue. This reflected a political acceptance after the Supreme Court’s decision that reforms to how senators were appointed would have to be less ambitious in scope than earlier proposals. Mr Trudeau established an Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments that has since been making non-binding recommendations for nominees to fill vacant Senate seats. Any Canadian citizen meeting the assessment criteria can now apply to the advisory board to be considered for nomination.  

The result of the change has been that independent senators now outnumber those with a political affiliation. Mr Trudeau has made 52 independent appointments since the advisory board was established. Independent senators sitting in an ‘Independent Senators Group’ now occupy over half of the Senate’s 98 filled seats.  

What has this meant for the Senate? 

The Senate has become more representative of Canadian society than before in terms of gender and cultural and/or indigenous background as a result of the revised appointments process. Its changing composition has also been a major factor in it having been more assertive in its legislative scrutiny role in recent years. Meanwhile, the Canadian Government has noted that the public’s perception of the Senate is now less negative than at the outset of the reforms, and that nearly three in five Canadians now think the changes adopted “will improve” the Senate in the longer term.  

Where next?  

While some commentators have said the recent changes are working to make the Senate more effective, not everyone agrees that the reformed system should be maintained. For example, Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, said during the 2019 Canadian general election campaign that he was in favour of returning to a process of largely political appointments. Others have repeated long-standing calls for the Senate to be abolished entirely. 

In the meantime, however, the new process is likely to continue following the result of the 2019 election. The Liberal Party remains in office, although in a minority position. Its policy programme promised that it would “continue to move forward with the new, non-partisan and merit-based Senate appointment process”. The party also undertook to legislate to entrench the “Senate’s new, non-partisan role”, though it remains to be seen whether this latter ambition will now be realised.  

Canada’s red chamber: background in brief 

Unlike the House of Lords, the Senate has a fixed number of seats allotted on a regional basis. Its 105 seats are distributed between the provinces and territories of Canada as follows:  

  • Ontario (24) 
  • Quebec (24) 
  • Maritime Provinces (24)—Nova Scotia (10); New Brunswick (10); Prince Edward Island (4) 
  • Western Provinces (24)—Manitoba (6); British Columbia (6); Saskatchewan (6); Alberta (6)
  • Newfoundland and Labrador (6) 
  • Territories (3)—Yukon Territory (1); Northwest Territories (1); Nunavut (1) 

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, ‘Canadian Senate Divisions’, November 2008) 

Further information on the role of the Senate of Canada, its history, and proposals for reform over time can be found in the following Library briefing:  

Image by DEZALB from Pixabay