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A Senate’s architectural element

“But the very essence of our compact is that the union shall be federal and not legislative. Our Lower Canada friends have agreed to give us representation by population in the Lower House, on the express condition that they shall have equality in the Upper House. On no other condition could we have advanced a step ...”

— The Honourable George Brown, as quoted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, p. 67

“Inasmuch as the Act embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected.”

— Lord Sankey L.C., as quoted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, p. 71

Representing Canadians' Interests
Speaking up for the regions
Representing other voices

“How can senators represent Canadians if they are not elected?”

Speaking up for the regions

The founders of Confederation gave the Senate the important role of protecting regional, provincial and minority interests. They assigned each region the same number of seats in order to guarantee them an equal voice in the Senate. Seats were added as new provinces and territories entered Confederation. Today, the Senate has 105 seats, distributed as follows:

• The Maritimes Division — 24
(New Brunswick — 10, Nova-Scotia — 10, Prince Edward Island — 4)

• The Ontario Division — 24

• The Quebec Division — 24

• The Western Division — 24
(British Columbia — 6, Alberta — 6, Saskatchewan — 6, Manitoba — 6)

• Additional representation — 9
(Newfoundland and Labrador — 6, Northwest Territories — 1,
Yukon Territory — 1, Nunavut — 1)

The Constitution allows the government, with the Sovereign's approval, to expand the Senate temporarily by adding four or eight more seats (just under 8 per cent of the total). A government can use this power to appoint additional senators to break a legislative deadlock. The power has actually been used only once.

There are now 413 seats in Parliament, of which about three-quarters are in the House of Commons (308) and one-quarter in the Senate (105). Their distribution respects the democratic principle: the population basin in Central Canada has 55 per cent of all parliamentary seats and elects about 60 per cent of the members of the House of Commons. However, the distribution of seats also respects the regional principle: the people who live in the less populated parts of the country enjoy a majority of 54 per cent of seats in the Senate

Over the years, provincial governments have played a large role in representing regional interests. However, there are still many ways for senators to fulfil their regional responsibilities. As they examine bills and issues, senators consider the impact of the measures on the provinces they represent. Committees are expected to invite a province or territory to make a presentation whenever they study a bill of special significance to it.

In October 2001, the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance began a study examining the effectiveness of, and possible improvements to, the present equalization policy. The Committee reported in March 2002, recognizing the importance of the Equalization program, which is designed to assist the provincial governments in providing Canadians with comparable levels of provincial services at comparable levels of taxation. Without such a program, essential public services would vary greatly across the country.

Senators on a fact finding mission

Senators also meet in regional caucuses to discuss legislation and policies and to plan strategy. They are in contact with individuals, business people and community groups in their province, and bring the concerns of citizens to Parliament Hill.

The Senate's representational role has been called into service in other ways. For example, there have been times in Parliament's history when a governing party did not manage to elect any members to the House of Commons from one or other of the provinces. In such cases, in order to ensure that there is regional balance, the Prime Minister has appointed senators from that province to Cabinet.

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Representing other voices

Senators help to focus greater attention on those people in our society whose rights and interests are often overlooked. The young, the poor, the elderly, the dying, veterans — these are some of the groups who have reaped the benefits of having a public forum through Senate committee investigations.

In 1999, a Senate subcommittee undertook a study to update Of Life and Death, a 1995 report on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Their report, Quality End-of-Life Care: The Right of Every Canadian was published in June 2000. Various Canadian universities now use both reports as texts for medical ethics courses. Senators found that only an estimated 5 per cent of dying Canadians receive integrated and interdisciplinary palliative care, and that end-of-life care has become a low priority during cuts to health care budgets. The subcommittee published a report calling for a national strategy to guarantee to all Canadians quality end-of-life care as free as possible from physical, emotional and spiritual distress. Senators also recommended that the federal government implement income security and job protection for family members who care for the dying.

Senators on a fact finding mission

In 2006, the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples tackled Canada's painfully slow specific claims process. Its report Negotiation or Confrontation: It's Canada's Choice recommended a fresh new approach to resolving the over 800 claims lodged by First Nations to land or other benefits that they had been promised, but never received. In spring 2007, to the acclaim of First Nations leaders, the government accepted most of the committee's recommendations.

Senators on a fact finding mission

By 2008, the Specific Claims Tribunal — the body recommended by the committee to solve the deadlock between government and First Nations on specific claims — had been created.

When the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights tabled its report Children: The Silenced Citizens in April 2007, Canadians took notice of the Senate's record as a vocal advocate for children. The Committee warned the federal government that Canada is not doing enough to comply with its international and moral obligations to protect children's rights. The report recommended that the government legally bind itself to fulfilling its international human rights commitments. And the Committee strongly recommended establishing an independent children's commissioner to hold the government accountable. Strongly supported by children's rights groups, the report is a call for Canada to fully protect the rights of its youngest citizens.

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