Excerpt: Envisaging a People’s Senate

April 1, 2015

Photo credit: "Canadian Senate Chamber" © Saffron Blaze - Own work. Via Wikimedia Commons.

With the Mike Duffy trial beginning this month, we can expect proponents of Senate abolition and other constitutionally difficult reforms to be out in force. Helen Forsey believes there is a better choice, one that requires no constitutional change. Her forthcoming book, A People's Senate for Canada – Not a Pipe Dream (Fernwood), makes the case for why our democracy needs an Upper House, examines what has gone wrong with the one we have, and proposes how the people could start right now to create a workable and desirable alternative. In the following excerpt, Forsey describes what that People’s Senate would look like, and what it could do for our beleaguered country.


What if we had a Senate that was independent of the maneuverings of party politics, truly committed to sober second thought and dedicated to the common good? What if Senate appointments dependably incorporated experience, integrity and creativity, and flowed from a participatory process based on merit, devoid of partisanship and reflective of our country's diversity? What if senators were able to fully devote themselves to their proper legislative and investigative work, protecting our democracy, co-operating wherever possible, free of party control or electoral worries, and financially accountable to the auditor general?

Stop the eye-rolling. If Canadians get behind this idea, we can make it happen.

What would such a People's Senate look like? Its members would be women and men of diverse cultures and perspectives, from every part of the country. They would come from all sorts of backgrounds and many walks of life: teachers, trade unionists, homemakers, artists, shopkeepers, co-op managers, farmers and more. Some would have experience in electoral politics and policy-making at different levels of government, others would come from the grassroots of civil society. Compassion, competence and community service would be key qualifications for a Senate seat, together with a critical mind and the courage to stand up and speak out on important questions.

Most of the new senators would have made their mark, not on the national stage but within their own localities and regions. They would include many who have never been part of the establishment or partook of privilege: a human rights activist from Toronto's Jamaican community; the president of an inshore fishery co-operative in outport Newfoundland; a gay singer-songwriter and food security activist from Quebec's Bas St-Laurent; a single mother and Idle No More activist from a Prairie First Nation; a recently retired whistleblower scientist; a municipal councillor from Iqaluit; a paraplegic Acadian priest; a public health worker on Vancouver's Lower Eastside. There would be no shortage of remarkable, responsible, highly capable men and women to be named to the people's Red Chamber.

Relatively few of these notable individuals would be politicians or active party people (preferably in any sense of the term!) and many would have deliberately steered clear of "politics" in its partisan form. They would keep this non-partisan focus in their Senate work, building co-operation and supporting policies and people on their merits, regardless of party affiliations. Those involved with a political party would give up their formal partisan activities.

That is not to condemn political parties or suggest that they have no part to play in our parliamentary system. But party politics predominate in the House of Commons, and there is a need to balance that with a different emphasis in the Upper House. The People's Senate would complement and enhance the work done by the elected House, providing our legislative process with the kind of independent sober second thought that is non-partisan and connected to the grassroots. Indeed, the Supreme Court has cited this impartial and complementary role as a vital part of the Senate's original purpose.

How would the People's Senate actually work? It would retain the Senate's present constitutional mandate, and continue to carry out its three main functions: legislative, investigative and protective. But it would be able to do so much more effectively and democratically, without the hindrances that have plagued the institution for years. Its functioning would reflect three essential differences from the way the Senate works now. 

First, the quality of the women and men chosen to sit in the Upper House would be consistently high. A citizen-based pre-appointment process would seek and identify individuals worthy of the honour and ready and able to do the work involved. The result would be a richly diverse assembly of appointees, reflecting the recognition, by the people of each province and region, of outstanding character and abilities. Internal pressures and lobbying from within corporate or party structures would no longer play any role, eliminating the risk of having party hacks, bagmen, sycophants and big-time donors claiming a Senate seat as reward for services rendered.

This broad-based Red Chamber could no longer be seen as the purview of the elite or a waste of taxpayers' dollars. Salary and pension provisions for its members would permit a person from any economic level to make the commitment involved. Beholden to no one, senators would be able to fully contribute their knowledge and experience to the tasks at hand. Their long-term tenure, independent of parliamentary cycles and election campaigns, would free them to take the longer view necessary for future well-being and planetary survival.

The second major factor in the new Senate's effectiveness would be its deliberate and structured independence from partisan pressures. With party affiliations sidelined, neither the government nor the opposition parties would be able to distort the priorities of the People's Senate, skew or restrict its committee work, or control the voting. Like other citizens, many senators might personally support one party or another in accordance with their political beliefs, but they would not hold office in any party, nor would they fundraise, campaign or represent it in any way. For senatorial purposes they would all be independents both in name and in practice, as my father, the late Eugene Forsey, recommended more than 30 years ago.

Dissent is the lifeblood of a free society, and healthy governing happens when legislators speak and vote according to the merits of a given bill or policy, not simply in obedience to party dictates. While MPs in the House of Commons usually feel obliged to toe their party line, the Senate was deliberately set up to do things differently—to engage in real dialogue on behalf of the citizenry, raising questions, assessing answers, exploring pros and cons, refining points of view, challenging, persuading and finally casting their votes in light of the whole discussion. Unhampered by party discipline, debates in the People's Senate would lead to major improvements in many laws and policies, and could sometimes change the outcome altogether.

The people's senators would take seriously both their mandate of independent sober second thought and the limitations imposed by their unelected status. They would have practical mechanisms and procedures for guiding legislation through the chamber and its committees, structuring debate and getting questions answered. Consequently, governments would still be able to get most bills debated and passed in an orderly fashion without undue delay, with the Senate doing what the Senate at its best has always done—reviewing and, if required, amending and improving the legislation before it becomes law. At the same time, in extreme cases, it could use its constitutional veto power to force a general election on an exceptionally important issue.

Actual obstruction by the Senate would remain a relative rarity, and so it should. Canadians, including those appointed to the People's Senate, rightly want citizens to have the final say on major issues, normally through our elected representatives in the House of Commons. But voting in the Commons is heavily controlled by the executive government, and may not reflect the view of the electorate, a failure that is currently all too common thanks to our flawed "first past the post" electoral system. So a People's Senate could be a vital instrument for checking abuses of power. If a future government tried to flout the people's will on a crucially important and controversial issue, it would face an Upper House willing, ultimately, to exercise its veto, forestall this betrayal of democracy and hand the power back to the people.

In fact, the Senate has always had that protective role, using its veto power on rare but critical occasions, as it did with the Free Trade bill in 1988. That potential, though, becomes inoperable when the governing party has a majority in both houses and does whatever it can to control how its own party members vote. A People's Senate made up of independents could not be so controlled; it would assess each situation on its merits and act accordingly.

A final difference from the way the Upper House functions now would be the modality of its operations, with its processes being primarily collaborative rather than adversarial and competitive. In the past, the Senate did often function co-operatively, with senators working together across party lines to achieve what they felt was in the public interest. That co-operative modality would be reinforced in the People's Senate by its composition, its independence and its rules of operation.

Naturally, there would continue to be strong disagreements, lively arguments and even stinging debates. But they would take place among thoughtful and conscientious individuals, not competitively between parties. Moreover, as in consensus-style models of decision-making, the shared purpose would be to search for truth and reach agreement, not to exert control, compete for points, or defeat those with different views.

Competition may have a role to play in politics, although "outside the box" thinkers like Alfie Kohn offer a compelling critical view of the damaging effects of competition in practically every aspect of society. Kohn argues that, far from ensuring productivity and building character, the focus on competitiveness subverts our values and warps our institutions. But whatever its flaws, competition is likely to persist, especially in the context of elections.

In the People's Senate, however, rather than opposing sides striving for dominance, the sense would be more that of a circle—a recurring image in feminist culture as well as in many Indigenous traditions. Circles offer an alternative to the oppositional "either/or" models that underlie so much of Western patriarchal thought and practice. Round dances, talking circles, healing circles, medicine wheels—all these are very different from football games, criminal court, the "war on drugs" or Question Period in the House of Commons!

What could the People's Senate do for Canada? In a country where many citizens have effectively given up on Parliament and politics in general, a reconfigured Senate could play a key role in reshaping our democracy and restoring our faith in it. Constitutionally, the Upper House already has the power to do a great deal, but it is hamstrung by partisanship and Machiavellian manoeuvering. The People's Senate would be free of those constraints. Here are a few examples of what it would be able to do for us:

  • Omnibus bills—Instead of being bamboozled by the executive government into passing huge "omnibus bills" with outrageous provisions hidden in their hundreds of pages, the People's Senate could demand that the legislation be broken down into separate bills so as to give each one the serious attention needed for it to be passed, amended or rejected.
  • Electoral reform—The People's Senate could develop and introduce, after comprehensive nationwide consultation and hearings, a bill to replace our present undemocratic "first past the post" electoral system with one that would reflect the popular vote (some form of proportional representation, preferential ballot, etc.).
  • Committee hearings and witnesses—Instead of allowing partisan interests to silence dissent by keeping particular witnesses or testimony out of hearings on legislation or other public issues, the people's senators could counteract the restrictions on public participation, ensuring that all relevant voices are heard and many not-so-obvious potential consequences examined.
  • Curbing executive power—A Senate veto is one of the few remaining mechanisms capable of acting as a check on the power of the executive government—essentially the Cabinet, the Prime Minister and the PMO. If a majority government railroaded highly controversial legislation through the Commons in the face of widespread public dissent, an independent People's Senate could block the bill, forcing the government to drop it, negotiate needed changes or, if all else failed, put the issue to the public in an election.
  • Investigations—The people's senators could strengthen the "royal commission" role of the Upper House in conducting investigations into crucial, complex and controversial public issues such as climate change or the murder and disappearance of Aboriginal women.
  • Our children's future—The People's Senate could actively defend the environment by investigating and publicizing problems and initiating legislation to strengthen and enforce long-term environmental protection. It could also expose and block any legislative measures that would subordinate human and planetary well-being to vested interests or the dictates of the market economy.
  • Regional and minority interests—The People's Senate could continue the tradition of the Upper House in this regard, highlighting the human rights implications of legislation and policies, and defending other important causes that may be seen as of marginal interest to most voters (e.g., farm marketing systems, the rights of refugees or Aboriginal people, services in remote communities, fisheries management, etc.).
  • Public institutions—Instead of remaining compliant or powerless in the face of the evisceration of vital national institutions like Library and Archives Canada and the CBC, the People's Senate could expose and combat destructive policies like defunding and privatization. If implementing legislation or budgetary measures were involved, it could object to passing them. It could also offer a fair hearing to whistleblowers or other public servants who incur the government's disfavour.
  • International agreements—The People's Senate could explore options for limiting the power of the Cabinet to ratify binding international agreements, such as today's "next generation" trade and investment treaties, without Parliament's approval.
  • Prorogation—A People's Senate could push for a change in the conventional procedure for prorogation, so that the elected House of Commons would have to agree to the shutdown by a formal vote. Never again must a prime minister be allowed to do what Stephen Harper did in December 2008—convince the governor general to suspend Parliament to prevent it from voting him out of office.

These are just some of the ways in which the People's Senate, liberated from partisan control, could effectively carry out its established mandate: independent work on legislation, in-depth investigation of public issues, and protection of the people from government and corporate abuse. In the process, the renewed Upper House would provide greatly increased access for citizens to formally challenge policies and programs, to propose alternatives and to have them taken seriously. It would also be a place where creative initiatives could be brought forward that might never otherwise get a proper hearing on Parliament Hill.

Our reborn Senate, responsive to the people and unencumbered by partisanship, would able and willing, in Eugene Forsey's words, to "do much good," while remaining "politically too weak to do any serious harm." Combining its qualities of independence, continuity, experience and responsibility with a healthy awareness of its limitations as an unelected body, it would be an integral element in how we govern ourselves, functioning as a necessary and effective complement to the House of Commons, as the Supreme Court has insisted it should.

This is no pipe dream: it can be done—and without opening the Pandora's Box of constitutional change. So let's get at it.

Helen Forsey is a writer-activist and the daughter of the late labour researcher and constitutional expert, Senator Eugene Forsey. She is based in rural Eastern Ontario and Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula.