“Who are our senators and what do they do?”
Canada's Senate is made up of men and women with a wide range of career experience. Scan the ranks of the Senate and you will find business people, teachers, lawyers, surgeons, aboriginal leaders and journalists. Other senators have experience in fields such as agriculture, the environment, manufacturing, the oil and gas and fishing industries, unions, economics, police, military, and, of course, federal, provincial, territorial and municipal politics. With this expertise, senators can get to the heart of complex bills and committee investigations. They understand the issues, focus on the key points and can respond to the needs of the people and organizations affected.
Former cabinet ministers, senior public servants, provincial premiers and party leaders and other community leaders who serve as senators bring an understanding of lawmaking and the business of government to the Senate.
For example, in 1997 Senator Landon Pearson, former president and chair of the Canadian Council on Children and Youth, was elected co-chair of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access. The Committee spent 12 months studying issues surrounding divorce, child custody, child support and parental access to children. Its members heard from Canadians in every region and completed their report, For the Sake of the Children, in December 1998.
Senator Roméo Dallaire, who was appointed in 2005, has also brought to the Senate his experience as the UN force commander in Rwanda during the weeks of that country's unforgettable genocide. These experiences have pushed him to fight genocide with whatever weapons he can find. His actions have including co-founding a cross-partisan parliamentary group dedicated to preventing genocide; sitting on the Prime Minister's Special Advisory Team on Sudan and the UN Committee on Genocide Prevention; pressing for action from inside Parliament; and speaking at international conferences.
Increasingly, the Senate reflects our multicultural society. Senators come from many different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Canada's First Nations and Black communities are represented in the Senate, as are Canadians of Arab, Asian, Italian, Jewish, Ukrainian and other origins.
Like judges, the mandatory retirement age for senators is 75, providing for continuity and long-term institutional memory. Senators can track issues over time, form lasting working relationships and develop a thorough understanding of Parliament.
The Governor General appoints senators on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. To qualify for a summons to the Senate, the nominee must:
• be a Canadian citizen;
• be at least 30 years of age;
• own $4,000 of equity in land in the home province or territory;
• have a personal net worth of at least $4,000; and
• live in the home province or territory.
Today $4,000 may not seem like much money, but in 1867 it represented a considerable sum. Best estimates are that its present-day value would exceed $70,000, but Parliament has never adjusted this amount and the net-worth requirements in the Constitution ceased long ago to be a practical block to a Senate call for ordinary Canadians. No doubt this is why Parliament has never repealed these provisions.
Follow a senator around for a few days. You'll find yourself hurrying from the Senate chamber to committee rooms to the office, and regularly back to the region of Canada the senator represents as the two of you attend to the varied duties of the job. Part of each week is devoted to debate in the chamber, but most of a senator's work is accomplished in committee. Many senators sit on two or more committees and serve on subcommittees as well. They log long hours in meetings and in preparation, making themselves familiar with bills and pinpointing weaknesses that may need amendment. Caucus meetings and speech writing also fill up already busy days.
Through their committee work and their experience outside the Senate, many senators have developed significant areas of specialization. People identify them with these subjects and turn to them for help or to express their opinions. Senators spend a great deal of their time talking to organizations and individuals, and promoting awareness of the issues of particular concern to them. Children's rights, care for the dying, farm safety and literacy are among the many subjects that have received particular support from individual senators in recent years.
Senators boost Canada's profile on the world stage and strengthen its relationships with other countries through their participation in parliamentary associations. They meet with parliamentarians from around the world to discuss such issues as trade, economics, security, culture and human rights. These meetings also add to the senator's own storehouses of knowledge that will serve them as legislators.
Senators also act as ombudsmen. They handle calls from people looking for information on legislation or help in dealing with the federal government and its bureaucracy.
Five Canadian women took on the Supreme Court of Canada and won a place for their own in Canada's Senate. In 1928, the Court had ruled that women were not eligible to become senators because they were not persons within the meaning of the sections of the British North America Act governing Senate appointments. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby persuaded the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (U.K.), then Canada's highest court, to overturn the decision, which it did in 1929. Today a monument commemorating the struggle and ultimate victory of these five women stands outside the Senate precincts on Parliament Hill.
Canada's first woman senator was Cairine Wilson, appointed in 1930. In 1972, Muriel McQueen Fergusson was named Speaker of the Senate and became the Parliament of Canada's first woman Speaker. In 1974, Renaude Lapointe became the first francophone woman to hold the office of Speaker in Parliament. Later, in 1993, Joyce Fairbairn was named the first woman Leader of the Government in the Senate. In 1999, Senator Rose-Marie Losier-Cool was appointed Speaker pro tempore. Today, one-third of senators are women.