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Canadian Senate

The Senate (French: Sénat) is a component of the Parliament of Canada, which also includes the Sovereign (represented by the Governor General) and the House of Commons. The Senate is an unelected body, consisting of 105 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Senate seats are divided among the provinces, so that Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces are equally represented. Senators serve until they reach the age of seventy-five.

The Senate was established in 1867, when the British North America Act 1867 created the Dominion of Canada. Known as the "Upper House", the Senate is far less powerful than the House of Commons (the "Lower House"). Although the approval of both Houses is necessary for legislation, the Senate very rarely rejects bills passed by the democratically Commons. Moreover, the Government of Canada is responsible solely to the House of Commons; the Prime Minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains the support of the Lower House. The Senate, however, does not exercise any such power.

The Senate meets at Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Ontario.



The Senate came into existence in 1867, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the British North America Act, uniting the Province of Canada (which was separated into Quebec and Ontario), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a single federation, called the Dominion of Canada. The new Canadian Parliament consisted of the Queen (represented by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons. The Canadian Parliament was based on the Westminster model (that is, the model of the Parliament of the United Kingdom). The Senate was intended to mirror the British House of Lords, in that it was meant to represent the social and economic élite. Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, described it as a body of "sober second thought" that would curb the "democratic excesses" of the elected House of Commons. The Senate was also originally intended to provide regional representation.

The body, however, quickly turned into a mere source for political patronage in the eyes of many Canadians. It soon became a body that merely "rubber-stamped" legislation passed by the House of Commons; very rarely did the Senate seek to challenge the will of the democratically elected house of Parliament. Plans for reform, however, chiefly involved amending the appointment process; plans to create an elected Senate did not gain widespread support until the 1980s, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enacted the National Energy Program in the wake of the energy crises of the 1970s. Despite widespread opposition in Western Canada, Trudeau easily secured the Senate's support, as most senators had been appointed by previous Prime Ministers from Trudeau's Liberal Party. Many Western Canadians then called for a "Triple-E Senate," standing for "elected," "equal," and "effective." They believed that allowing equal representation of the provinces would protect the interests of the smaller provinces, and would end the domination of Ontario and Quebec.

The Meech Lake Accord, a series of constitutional amendments proposed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, would have required the federal government to choose a senator from a list of persons nominated by the provincial government; the accord, however, failed to obtain the requisite unanimous consent of the provincial legislatures. A successor proposal, the Charlottetown Accord, involved a provision under which the Senate would include an equal number of senators from each province, elected either by the provincial legislatures or by the people. This accord was soundly defeated in the referenda held in 1992. Further proposals for Senate reform have not met with success, either, especially due to opposition in Ontario and Quebec, the two provinces with the most to lose due to equal representation. In modern politics, the Conservative Party favours a "Triple-E" Senate, while the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois both call for its abolition. The Liberal Party calls for more moderate reform of the Senate.


The Governor General holds the nominal power to appoint senators, though he or she makes appointments only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Prime Ministers normally choose members of their own parties to be senators, though they sometimes nominate independents or members of opposing parties. The Senate normally includes ex-Cabinet ministers, ex-provincial premiers, and other eminent former statesmen.

Under the constitution, each province or territory is entitled to a specific number of seats. A senator must reside in the province or territory for which he or she is appointed. The constitution divides Canada into four "divisions," each with an equal number of senators: twenty-four for Ontario; twenty-four for Quebec; twenty-four for the Maritime provinces (ten for Nova Scotia, ten for New Brunswick, and four for Prince Edward Island); and twenty-four for the Western provinces (six each for Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Newfoundland and Labrador, which became a province only in 1949, is not assigned to any division, and is represented by six senators. Furthermore, the three territories (the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut) are allocated one senator each.

As a result of this arrangement, Ontario and the Western provinces—Canada's fastest growing provinces in terms of population—are severely under-represented, while the Maritimes are greatly over-represented. For example, British Columbia, with a population of about four million, is entitled to six senators, while Nova Scotia, with a population of less than one million, is entitled to ten. Only Quebec is represented by a number of senators proportional to its share of the population.

Since 1989, the voters of Alberta have elected "senators-in-waiting," or nominees for the province's Senate seats. These elections, however, are not held pursuant to any federal constitutional or legal provision; thus, the Prime Minister is not bound to appoint the nominees. Only one senator-in-waitng, Stan Waters, has actually been appointed to the Senate (in 1990 by Brian Mulroney).

There exists a constitutional provision under which the Governor General may appoint four or eight extra senators; the additional senators must equally represent Canada's four "divisions." The Sovereign's direct approval is required for such an action, but would not, by convention, be denied. As in the case of normal senatorial appointments, the Prime Minister actually chooses the senators, and the Governor General's role is purely nominal. This provision has been only used once, in 1990, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sought to ensure the passage of a bill creating the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Senators originally held their seats for life. Under the Constitution Act, 1965, however, members may not sit in the Senate after reaching the age of seventy-five. Moreover, a senator's seat automatically becomes vacant if he or she fails to attend the Senate for two consecutive parliamentary sessions. Furthermore, a senator who is found guilty of treason, felony, or any "infamous crime," is declared bankrupt or insolvent, also loses his or her seat, as does a senator ceases to be qualified (see below),.

Senators are entitled to prefix "The Honourable" to their names for life. The annual salary of each senator, as of 2005, is $119,100; members may receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). Senators rank immediately above Members of Parliament in the order of precedence.


The Constitution Act, 1867 outlines the qualifications of senators. Individuals who are not citizens of Canada, and individuals aged less than thirty years, may not be appointed to the Senate. Senators must also reside in the provinces or territories for which they are appointed.

The Constitution Act, 1867 also sets property qualifications for senators. A senator must possess land worth at least $4,000 in the province for which he or she is appointed. Moreover, a senator must own real and personal property worth at least $4,000, above his or her debts and liabilities. These property qualifications were originally introduced to ensure that the Senate represented Canada's economic and social élite. Now, however, the sum in question is far less valuable due to the effects of inflation. Nevertheless, the property qualification has never been abolished or amended.

The original Canadian constitution did not explicitly bar women from sitting as senators. However, until the end of the 1920s, only men had been appointed to the body. In 1927, five Canadian women ("The Valiant Five") requested the Supreme Court of Canada to determine if females were eligible to become senators. Specifically, they asked if women were considered "persons" under the British North America Act 1867, which provided, "The Governor General shall ... summon qualified Persons to the Senate; and ... every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator." In Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) (commonly known as the "Persons Case"), the Supreme Court unanimously held that women could not become senators. The Court based its decision on the grounds that the framers of the constitution did not foresee female senators, as women did not participate in politics at the time; moreover, the pointed to the constitution's use of the pronoun "he" when referring to senators. On appeal, however, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (effectively Canada's highest court at the time) ruled that women were indeed "persons" in the meaning of the constitution. Four months later, the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King appointed Canada's first female senator, Cairine Wilson of Ontario.


The presiding officer of the Senate, known as the Speaker, is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Speaker is assisted by a Speaker pro tempore, or temporary Speaker, who is elected by the Senate at the beginning of each parliamentary session. If the Speaker is unable to attend, the Speaker pro tempore presides instead. Furthermore, the Parliament of Canada Act , passed in 1985, authorizes the Speaker to appoint another Senator to take his or her place temporarily.

The Speaker oversees the day-to-day running of the Senate, and controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a senator believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order," on which the Speaker makes a ruling. The Speaker's decisions, however, are subject to appeal to the whole Senate. When presiding, the Speaker remains impartial, though he or she still maintains membership of a political party. The current Speaker of the Senate is The Honourable Daniel Philip Hays.

The member of the Government responsible for steering legislation through the Senate is Leader of the Government in the Senate. The Leader is a senator selected by the Prime Minister. The Leader manages the schedule of the Senate, and attempts to secure the Opposition's support for the Government's legislative agenda. The Opposition equivalent is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Canada)|Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who is selected by his or her counterpart in the House, the Leader of the Opposition. However, if the Official Opposition in the House is a different party than the Official Opposition in the Senate (as was the case, for example, from 1993 to 2003), then the Senate party chooses its own leader.

Officers of the Senate who are not members include the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the Law Clerk, and several other clerks. These officers advise the Speaker and members on the rules and procedure of the Senate. Another important officer is the Usher of the Black Rod, whose duties include the maintenance of order and security on the Senate's premises. The Usher of the Black Rod bears a ceremonial black ebony staff, from which the title "Black Rod" arises.


The throne and chair in the background are used by the Governor General and his or her spouse during the State Opening. The Speaker of the Senate employs the chair in front.
The throne and chair in the background are used by the Governor General and his or her spouse during the State Opening. The Speaker of the Senate employs the chair in front.

Like the House of Commons, the senate meets on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Senate Chamber is lavishly decorated and coloured red, in contrast with the more modest green Commons Chamber. There are benches on two sides of the Chamber, divided by a centre aisle. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the Chamber; in front of it is the Table of the House. Various clerks and other officials sit at the table, ready to advise the Speaker on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, while members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left.

The Senate Chamber is the site of the State Opening of Parliament, a formal ceremony held at the beginning of each new parliamentary session. During the State Opening, the Governor General, seated on the throne in the Senate Chamber and in the presence of both Houses of Parliament, delivers a speech outlining the Government's agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session. If the Sovereign is present in Canada, he or she may make the Speech from the Throne instead.

The Senate normally sits from Mondays to Fridays, but not on weekends. Sittings of the House are open to the public. Debates are broadcast on the radio, and on television by CPAC (Cable Public Affairs Channel, a consortium of Canadian cable companies). They are also recorded in Hansard, the official report of parliamentary debates.

The Constitution Act, 1867 establishes a quorum of fifteen members (including the member presiding) for the Senate. Any senator may request the Speaker to ascertain the presence of a quorum; if it does not appear that one is present, the Speaker orders bells to be rung, so that other senators on the parliamentary precincts may come to the Chamber. If a quorum still does not appear, the Speaker must adjourn the Senate until the next sitting day.

During debates, the first senator to rise is entitled to make the next speech. The Speaker may settle disputes over which senator rose first, but his or her decision may be altered by the House. Motions must be moved by one senator and seconded by another before debate may begin; some motions, however, are non-debateable.

Speeches may be made in either of Canada's official languages (English and French). Members must address their speeches to the other senators as a whole, using the phrase "honourable senators." Individual members must be referred to in the third person, not as "you." The Speaker enforces the rules of the Senate during debate. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a severe breach of the rules of the Senate.

No senator may speak more than once on the same question (except that the mover of a motion is entitled to make one speech at the beginning of the debate and another at the end). The Standing Orders of the Senate prescribe time limits for speeches. The limits depend on the nature of the motion, but are most generally about fifteen minutes. However, the Leaders of the Government and Opposition in the Senate are not subject to such time constraints. Debate may be further restricted by the passage of "time allocation" motions. Alternatively, the Senate may end debate more quickly by passing a motion "for the previous question." If such a motion carries, debate ends immediately, and the Senate proceeds to vote. Debate may also end if no senator wishes to make any further remarks.

When the debate concludes, the motion in question is put to a vote. The Senate first votes by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question, and members respond either "yea" (in favour of the motion) or "nay" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but two or more senators may challenge his or her assessment, thereby forcing a recorded vote (known as a division). First, members in favour of the motion rise, so that the clerks may record their names and votes. The same procedure is then repeated for members who oppose the motion, and thereafter repeated again for those who wish to abstain. In all cases, the Speaker holds a vote; a tied vote results in the motion's failure. If the number of members voting, including the presiding officer, does not total fifteen, then a quorum is not present, and the vote is invalid.


The Parliament of Canada uses committees for a variety of purposes. Committees consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. Other committees scrutinize various Government agencies and ministries.

The largest of the Senate committees are the Committees of the Whole, which, as the name suggests, consist of all senators. A Committee of the Whole meets in the Chamber of the Senate, but proceeds under slightly modified rules of debate. (For example, there is no limit on the number of speeches a member may make on a particular motion.) The presiding officer is known as the Chairman. The Senate resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole only to discuss legislation; a Committee of the Whole does not hold hearings or oversee Government agencies.

The Senate also has several standing committees, each of which has responsibility for a particular area of government (for example, finance or transport). These committees oversee the relevant government departments, and may hold hearings and collect evidence on governmental operations. Standing committees may also consider and amend bills. Most standing committees consist of between twelve and fifteen members each, and elect their own chairmen.

Some bills are considered by legislative committees, each of which consists of up to twelve members. The membership of each legislative committee roughly reflects the strength of the parties in the whole Senate. A legislative committee is appointed on an ad hoc basis to study and amend a specific bill.

The House may also create ad hoc committees to study matters other than bills. Such committees are known as special committees. Other committees include joint committees, which include both members of the House of Commons and senators; such committees may hold hearings and oversee government, but do not revise legislation.

Legislative functions

Although legislation may be introduced in either House, most bills originate in the House of Commons. For the stages through which the legislation passes in Parliament, see Act of Parliament.

In conformity with the British model, the Upper House is not permitted to originate bills imposing taxes or appropriating public funds. This restriction on the power of the Senate is not merely a matter of convention, but is explicitly stated in the Constitution Act, 1867. Otherwise, the power of the two Houses of Parliament is theoretically equal; the approval of each is necessary for a bill's passage. In practice, however, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber of Parliament, with the Senate very rarely exercising its powers in a manner that opposes the will of the democratically elected chamber. The last major bill defeated in the Senate came in 1991, when a bill passed by the Commons restricting abortion was rejected in the Upper House by a tied vote.

The Senate is rendered especially powerless by a clause in the Constitution Act, 1867, that permits the Governor General to appoint up to eight extra senators. Brian Mulroney invoked this clause in 1990, advising the Governor General to appoint an additional eight senators in order to secure the Upper House's approval for the Goods and Services Tax.

Current composition

Affiliation Senators
  Liberal Party 64
  Conservative Party 23
  Progressive Conservative Party 5
  New Democratic Party 1

See also


Last updated: 10-18-2005 21:54:13
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