fbpx
Connect with us

Opinion

QUESNEL: A Reformed Senate is Needed to Keep Alberta in Canada

There is no silver bullet to repairing the fabric of Canada’s union, but creating a democratic and regionally representative Senate is a critical ingredient if it is to be saved.

mm

Published

on

John Hamilton Gray was a Father of Confederation from Prince Edward Island.  He served as chairman of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, which laid the groundwork for the British North America Act. In supporting federal union and opposing its critics, Gray asked: 

“Is it necessary that we should go into this Confederation with our hearts and minds filled with suspicions? Is it a foregone conclusion with us that all the other provinces will unite to do injustice to one particular section of our common country?” 

Gray went on to declare that these suspicions could not be held by “liberal and enlightened men.”

But with all due respect to Gray, he was not living in Canada in 2020 under the present Liberal government. He did not know Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet who don’t care about jobs in the West, or the long-term health of its energy sector. Gray was speaking from his time and place where good was more plentiful than it is now. 

Canada is in trouble when one region seeks to undermine another region. 

People from the Prairie provinces have reasonable reasons to harbor suspicions. The Liberal government is funding a B.C. group opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion project. An Ontario Liberal MP is using his office to promote an electronic petition aiming to stop the Teck oilsands mine. Finally, the Bloc Quebecois has tabled a motion to kill the Teck mine

If Gray was alive today, he would see how one region of this country is seeking to do clear harm to another one. 

During the confederation negotiations, many framers saw an appointed Senate as a check against such action. The Senate was designed to assure regional equality, especially for regions prejudiced by the rep-by-pop formula of the House of Commons. 

The original distribution of Senate seats involved the four colonies that joined confederation at the outset, and obviously did not include later B.C. and the Prairie provinces. Thus, the four Atlantic provinces, with seven per cent of Canada’s population, have 30 senators. The four Western provinces, with more than 30 per cent of the population, have 24 senators. Alberta alone has twice the population of the four Atlantic provinces, but barely more than half the senators of New Brunswick. 

Sir John A. Macdonald spoke of an active Senate possessing independent power and ability to affect legislation. He argued: 

“There would be no use of an upper house if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the lower house.” 

“It must be an independent house, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch and preventing any hasty or ill-considered legislation.”

Bills C-69, C-48 and C-242 could easily be added to the list of “hasty or ill-considered legislation.” 

Individual senators played a prominent role in speaking out against legislation counter to the West’s economic interests. 

Independent (and elected) Alberta Senator Doug Black introduced S-245, a bill declaring the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project in the national interest. The Senate – through Western members – played a significant role in introducing amendments to Bill C-69, a bill seen by the energy sector as introducing onerous requirements to major projects by adding nebulous criteria to approve future projects. Western Senators – including independent ones – were very vocal in opposing Bill C-48, the oil tanker moratorium bill. Although the Senate committee studying the bill came out opposing the bill – calling it discriminatory – the full Senate voted to pass it, albeit narrowly. Still, many Liberal-aligned Senators (including nominal “independents”) toed the government line.

The only bill that senators were also able to successfully kill was Bill C-242, legislation designed to harmonize laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (U.N.D.R.I.P.). Significant concern was raised over the flaws of the bill, including the lack of a working definition of the right to “free, prior, and informed consent” that appears in U.N.D.R.I.P. itself. This lack of definition concerned senators enough that they allowed the bill to be defeated. 

If the Senate saw its role differently, perhaps Bill C-69 and C-48 would have also been dead in the water. An emboldened Senate focused solely on regional equality could secure a fair deal for the West, or at a minimum act as check against anti-Western legislation. 

Prime Minister Trudeau’s goal of a more non-partisan Senate is positive in theory, but in practice, he has appointed individuals that are ideologically aligned with his liberal agenda, thus explaining why these senators overwhelmingly side with government legislation, even against the interests of their provinces.

The Supreme Court ruled that changing the composition or selection of the Senate would require the consent of the provinces and territories; in short, a verboten constitutional amendment.

However, the Senate can adopt a “gentleman’s agreement” to change their role to one of stronger regional equality. This would involve a joint resolution affirming a suspensive veto. Right now, a gentleman’s agreement is what allows the Senate to delay, but not defeat, legislation.

For the sake of the continuation of the federation, we need political will to reform the Senate into a serious deliberative body that will protect regional equality. An encouraging sign was the announcement of the formation of a Senate caucus to represent regional interests, made up mostly of conservative, Western Senators. 

But real change in the Senate inevitably means reopening the constitution, something that every national politician has been loath to do since the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords of Brian Mulroney. Since then, there has been an unofficial cross-party rule that the constitution is off-limits, but this political consensus only cements the place of the West as a second-tier region. In the name of repairing national-unity, it’s time to break the consensus. 

A new Canadian Senate should first and foremost, rebalance its provincial and regional representation. One option is the American and Australian model, where each state has an equal number of senators, regardless of population. 

More suited to Canada however might be Germany’s upper house, the Bundesrat (federal council). Rather than be appointed by the federal government (as in Canada) or directly elected (as in the U.S. and Australia), they are delegates of the länder (state) governments. The number of seats each state receives is based on “degressive proportionality.” That is, that smaller provinces receive more seats than their population would otherwise grant, but not an equal share. This would solve Ontario and Quebec’s objection to having equal Senate representation as Prince Edward Island. 

A reformed Senate may also include representation for First Nations. In New Zealand, its Maori indigenous people have their own seats in parliament, serving as a kind of quasi constituency. Including First Nation seats alongside provinces could be an important component of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. 

Alberta is the only federation in the democratic world without a democratic upper house to represent the regions, and the only country in the world where smaller areas can have much greater representation that larger regions. 

There is no silver bullet to repairing the fabric of Canada’s union, but creating a democratic and regionally representative Senate is a critical ingredient if it is to be saved. 

Joseph Quesnel is the Indigenous Issues Columnist for the Western Standard

Joseph Quesnel the Indigenous Issues Columnist for the Western Standard. He is a Metis policy analyst and commentator who writes on Indigenous issues as well as energy and resource development policy.

Opinion

BARNES: Albertans deserve the right to make the big decisions in referenda law

Guest column from Drew Barnes says that Alberta’s referendum law should be expanded to allow votes on big constitutional issues.

mm

Published

on

Guest opinion column from Alberta MLA Drew Barnes

“I am and I will remain a populist, because those who listen to the people are doing their job.” Matteo Salvini.

At its core the word populism is the action that government policies should be determined by the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Direct democracy is the institutional populism in action.

There is debate over whether populism should be termed as a movement or an ideology. Since the actions of populist engagement can transcend the ideological spectrum, I believe it should be viewed as a movement, that can sometimes manifest itself ideologically. As a movement, populist participation can take place on all points of the spectrum. Ultimately, that is what is wanted from a democratic society – engagement from all points of the spectrum.

Now more than ever, we need a new grassroots-populist approach to politics. Grassroots politics by its nature suggests that it is a movement that is sparked from the bottom-up. Politicians who came from grassroots movements must never forget where they came from, or lose sight of what they came to do. We need more of the bottom-up approach to politics, and make listening to the people that elected us a priority.

This is taking place in some measure here in Alberta. Political party policy processes allow for constituency associations to generate policy proposals for conventions, where they are voted on by the membership. Every party in Alberta – with the exception of the NDP – uses a ‘one member, one vote’ system.

Another grassroots/populist tool is referenda, that when used the right way are a valuable democratic tool. Referendums however, must stay true to their purpose, and the process for bringing them forward must allow for citizens to craft their own – fair – wording on a question. This is not to say that any question – however subjectively worded – that anyone wants to ask should be put to a referendum. Therefore, the rules on the use of referendums must not be overly onerous, nor overly temperate.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that takes full advantage of referendums, including citizens’ initiative. In their democratic system, referendums can occur up to four times annually. All citizens registered to vote can cast their ballot on issues affecting decisions within both their federal government and their cantons (autonomous provinces). Before each vote, all registered voters receive a package of booklets in the mail which provide details on the coming referendums. Since these referendums began in 1848, just under half of the referendum proposals have passed. Even if they don’t always pass, the process is crucial to starting conversations and keeping citizens involved in debate. Referendums also force political parties to reach beyond partisan lines to reach consensus.

Alberta’s legislature recently passed a bill that guides referendums on non-constitutional matters. While this is a positive step forward, there are issues in this bill that need improvement. 

For example, Albertans initiating a referendum might go through the process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, only to have the cabinet alter the wording the question. While fair wording of the question is critical to the integrity of direct democracy, that issue is not best dealt with by politicians who may have a stake in the result. Instead, clear guidelines should be established in law on question wording, and left to non-partisan officials at Elections Alberta. 

And while the new referendum legislation is a big step forward over the status quo (that is, nothing), it deliberately bans citizens-initiated referendums on constitutional questions. This means that if Albertans wished to force a vote on adding property rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that they would not be allowed. Similarly, Albertans are barred from forcing a vote on reforming the Senate, equalization, or internal free trade. Ominously, Albertans have no right to force a vote over the heads of the legislature on independence or other forms of sovereignty. 

I believe that Albertans can be trusted with the right of citizens’ initiative on all questions, both constitutional and non-constitutional. 

We trust the people to elect a government to run our systems, so why can’t we trust them to bring their own questions forward? 

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

Continue Reading

Opinion

LETTER: Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East

A reader says that Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East.

mm

Published

on

In this ‘Era of Wokeness” along with the ascension of Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, I believe that it would be detrimental to the Conservative Party of Canada to have Erin O’Toole as
it’s leader.

Mr O’Toole recently refused to use the word ‘racism’ and did not answer clearly when pressed on whether he believes it even exists. Erin O’Toole will hand the Trudeau Liberals an easy victory during the next election, should he become Tory leader. Canada cannot afford another four years of Justin Trudeau. 

Like it or not, most people in Ontario and Quebec (where all federal elections are ultimately decided owing to their number of allotted seats), are very much ‘woke’ on the issue of racism, as well as
sexism, homophobia, ect. In my experience, this also includes most Conservative Party of Canada voters in Eastern Canada.

Right-wing populism and social conservatism does well in Western Canada – but centrist Red Toryism is all they are prepared to accept in most of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. CPC members in Western Canada need to keep this in mind when voting for their next leader. 

CPC members need to be sensible and realistic if they want to win the next federal election. 

Gila Kibner 
Edmonton, Alberta

Continue Reading

Opinion

LETTER: While Trudeau mislabels regular guns “military-style”, he is handing real assault weapons to the police

A reader says that Trudeau is militarizing the police while disarming Canadians.

mm

Published

on

RE: Canada’s cops worried Liberal gun ban will hamper training

I enjoyed your article on the gun ban and how it will affect cops. A point of view the CBC would never share.

Perhaps another topic should be brought to the public is this: Although Justin Trudeau said there is no place for these weapons in Canada and Bill Blair said these  weapons have only one purpose – and that is for one soldier to kill another soldier – they gifted more deadly weapons to our local police forces through the Canadian Armed Forces., as was done recently in my hometown of St Thomas, Ontario.

What is the government’s agenda in giving true military assault weapons to the police and banning “military-style” (no legal definition) weapons from civilians. 

John Siberry
St. Thomas, ON

Continue Reading

Sign up for the Western Standard Newsletter

Free news and updates
* = required field

Trending

Copyright © Western Standard owned by Wildrose Media Corp.