When it comes to government bills - laws, or changes to existing laws, proposed by Cabinet - the Senate serves some very useful functions. One of these is akin to a safety net. The Senate is adept at finding technical problems with bills, such as translation or drafting errors.
The Senate also adds another
layer of public consultation on legislation, giving
smaller groups or individuals affected by them a chance
to discuss and review them. And these groups sometimes
find that the bill will affect Canadians in a way no one
expected. The Senate is usually the last chance to find
and fix such unintended consequences and make sure that
the bill does what it was meant to do.
But senators' ideas also often end up in government legislation. The Senate is a crucible for policy areas that are not politically immediate or that affect minorities who otherwise have little political influence. Senators can bring up an issue credibly and repeatedly - until it gets the attention it deserves.
Legislation considered by the Senate, Fiscal Year 2008-09
Reported with amendments or observations by a Senate committee
Private senator's bills
Private member's bills
PROFILES: COMMITTEE SPECIAL STUDIES
Breaking the Specific Claims Logjam
Honourable senators, we are keeping close track of the
54 specific claims resolved in 2007-08. As a committee,
we feel it is our responsibility. . . . We were in
conversation with [Indian Affairs and Northern
Development] Minister Strahl last night as a group of
committee members, and this subject was part of the
conversation as well. We are well aware of the
importance of not allowing these claims to languish on
Senator Gerry St. Germain, Chair of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, Debates of the Senate, May 15, 2008
Back in 2003, the Committee on Aboriginal Peoples
considered a government bill called the Specific
Claims Resolution Act. The bill had proposed a new
tribunal to deal with the enormous backlog of First
Nations specific claims - claims to land or other
benefits that may have been taken illegally, badly
managed by the state, or promised but never delivered.
The bill drew great opposition from First Nations
groups, who felt they had not been properly consulted.
Responding to their concerns, the committee made six
amendments. The bill passed into law in November of
that year, but was never implemented.
Three years later, the same Senate committee reported on the continuing logjam of specific claims, then estimated at over 800 - and the anger and desperation this caused among First Nations. It urged the government to address the problem and gave concrete recommendations for moving forward. In June 2007, the government announced that it accepted this new way forward, and began by consulting First Nations. In 2007, it introduced Bill C-30 to implement the committee's recommendation for a new, effective tribunal to deal fairly with specific claims, lauded by the Assembly of First Nations. The bill arrived in the Senate in May 2008 and senators were proud to see it pass into law on June 18, 2008.
Defending Language Rights
[T]he rejection of both amendments perplexes me. I
acknowledge that amendment number 1 required judges to
personally inform the accused of their linguistic
rights. However, would this not be a positive measure
in terms of our linguistic rights and an active offer
of service? I acknowledge that amendment number 3,
which was also rejected, may be problematic in that
provinces and territories do not keep statistics to
report on the operation of the language of trial
provisions. But would this not be an ideal opportunity
to implement such practices?
Senator Maria Chaput, Debates of the Senate, May 1, 2008
The rights of our French and English minorities have
many champions in the Senate, such as the members of
the Committee on Official Languages. But it was the
Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs
that handled Bill C-13. Considered by the Senate in
winter and spring 2008, this bill aimed to reform the
court trial process.
When the bill was sent to the Legal Affairs Committee, Quebec's Bar Association asked to appear to provide its point of view. While it supported most of the bill, the association felt that the changes in the process of choosing the language of trial could breach the rights of an accused Anglophone in Quebec.
The committee agreed. Among its six amendments, two addressed this problem: one to increase reporting by the courts about trial language; and one to require the trial judge to personally inform the accused of their language rights. The House accepted the other four amendments. But it felt these two would add excessively to the courts' administrative load and the bill proceeded to Royal Assent without them.
I am thrilled, as I know are people on all sides of
this house, that this bill . . . is finally coming to
its conclusion. . . . Our Canadian Armed Forces, while
wonderfully trained and capable, now must rely on the
support of their reserve force brothers and sisters
when our military's presence is invited or needed
around the world in armed conflict, or here at home to
assist with disaster relief. Faced with these
challenges for which they volunteered, reservists need
not face the choice now of serving their country or
losing their jobs upon return.
Senator Hugh Segal, Debates of the Senate, April 16, 2008
Until recently, military reservists were in a bind when
called to active service: they could stay home and keep
their civilian job, or they could go, and risk having
no job when they return. Senator Hugh Segal felt that
Canadians called to serve their country should be
treated better. In 2006, he introduced a motion calling
on the government to bring into force the job
protection provisions of the Public Safety Act,
2002. The Senate passed it unanimously. In
September 2007, the federal labour minister emphasized
the importance of Senate support of reservists' right
to their jobs, and the government committed to solving
the dilemma in the Throne Speech of October 2007.
To keep momentum building in the public domain, Senator Segal went one step further. In October 2007, he introduced Bill S-202, which aimed to legally trigger those sections referenced in his motion. The bill never reached third reading in the Senate. But Senator Segal was proud to rise in the chamber on February 26, 2008, to speak to the government's Bill C-40 (examined by the Senate in March and April). Though it approached the problem from a different angle, the bill had the same objective as Senator Segal's: to secure the jobs of reservists in federal jurisdictions who are called to active service in emergencies and other situations designated by the Minister of National Defence. The bill received Royal Assent on April 17, 2008.
Studying the Budget 2009
What a terrible situation we find ourselves in. If we
do our job to give careful consideration to
legislation, which is at least supposed to receive some
review in [the House of Commons], more and more
families will suffer. As the depression deepens . . . I
am not prepared to add to the difficulties already
faced by so many Canadians.
Senator James Cowan, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Debates of the Senate, March 12, 2009
The bill to implement the Federal Budget 2009 arrived
in the Senate on March 4. Knowing it could immediately
help Canadians caught in the recession, senators
quickly referred to the Senate Committee on National
Finance. Many senators, however, had received letters
and emails from Canadians objecting to some of the
bill's measures, like changes to the Navigable
Waters Protection Act. Since they felt these
measures were not as urgent, senators considered
splitting the bill. They argued that this would allow
them to quickly pass the stimulus package but give
those with concerns time to explain their position on
When it became clear the bill could not be split, the National Finance Committee created a schedule for 40 hours of meetings to hear from Canadians; it aimed to pass the bill by March 31. But in its first meeting, it found that if the Senate did not quickly approve the bill, additional EI benefits would not be available to anyone eligible as of March 1. Not willing to risk these benefits to Canadians who needed them, the committee quickly reported the bill without amendment.
When the Senate passed the bill on March 12, it ordered certain Senate committees to scrutinize the non-stimulus-package parts of the bill in more depth. These four separate studies gave Canadians who protested these measures a chance to voice their opinions. The committees were ordered to report by June 11.
* Passed third reading in the Senate between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009. Please note that other bills considered may have passed third reading after the end of the fiscal year.