Resources & Insights

The Canadian Senate

Who is the Senate? Did I vote these people in? What role do they play in making my laws? These are questions often asked by those who are even politically involved enough to know that we have a Senate in Ottawa. This blog will look at what the Senate is, why they are there and the role that it plays in the Canadian political arena.

What is the Senate?
The Canadian Senate is an appointed body of individuals who are there to provide extra checks and balances on the peoples elected government. When the House of Commons wants to pass a law, it must also be approved by the Senate before receiving royal assent and becoming good law.

Senators are appointed by the Governor General of Canada on recommendation by the Prime Minister. Essentially, the Prime Minister chooses who they want to appoint. An appointed Senator then holds that position until they are the age of 75.

The Canadian Senate
The Senate, otherwise known as an upper chamber, can look different from country to country. Here in Canada we have a Senate but over across the pond in the UK their upper chamber is called the House of Lords.

In Canada, one of the main functions of our Senate is to review legislation being passed by the House of Commons. Once legislation goes through the House of Commons the Senate gets to inspect it; they can then either give it the okay and send it on for royal assent, or send it back to the House of Commons with recommended changes.

Often overlooked, is another role of the Senate, as a primary legislature. This means the Senate can also create its own laws. This legislation goes through a similar process where if it starts in the Senate, it then goes on to the House of Commons to be reviewed. Senate legislation often looks out for, and supports, specific groups in society that are not always on the minds of The House of Commons. For example, a current bill in front of the senate is S-203 which seeks to develop a federal framework to support autistic Canadians and their families.

It is also interesting to look at a current shift away from a caucused senate. Historically, Senators have always had party affiliations. In 2014 Justin Trudeau removed all the Senators from the Liberal party caucus. This was in an attempt for the Senate to vote for bills on their own conscience rather than just along party lines. On the other hand some have criticized this move because more legislation is now being turned back to the House of Commons creating a so called ‘ping-pong’ effect between the two houses. It really is a fine line between allowing the Senate to effectively fulfill their duties in reviewing bills, and allowing the peoples elected representatives to effectively pass the legislation that they wish to.

Why a Senate?
The main reason the Senate is there, is to provide a steady system of checks and balances on the elected government in the House of Commons; essentially, there to make sure the House of Commons does not get too out of hand. This can include, but is not limited to, protecting minority group’s rights in the political arena. When a political party achieves a majority government in Canada, the process to passing a law becomes much easier. This means they won’t always look at how a law effects those smaller groups in society who do not have as much political pull. An example of the Senate looking to protect minority groups is the aforementioned s-203 legislation.

Many people ask, why can’t we just have an elected Senate? In theory this makes sense, right? We elect a House of Commons to draft legislation and then elect a Senate who will keep the government in check, in essence democratizing the Senate. There are some practical reasons why this may not work as well in practice. Whatever way people are going to vote in the House of Commons, odds are, they are going to vote the same way in the same way in the Senate. This will essentially create a Senate that almost directly mirrors that of the House of Commons. If this turned out to be the case, we might as well have no Senate at all. Elected Senators would merely vote along party lines and a majority government would get away with minimal checks and balances.

The problem that the Senate runs into is anything viewed as ‘undemocratic’ in the political arena is almost always equated with being negative or bad. This is the reason that the Senate lacks substantial political legitimacy and faces backlash if they interfere with a bill from the House of Commons. Rather, the mindset towards the Senate could shift towards a direction that the unelected Senate can enable our democratic system to function to the very best of its abilities.

In conclusion, the basic idea of our Canadian Senate is to provide a healthy and consistent system of checks and balances on the ever changing House of Commons. Laws that elected legislatures want to pass are reviewed by a body of unelected individuals. There are both negatives and positives regarding this nature of the Canadian Senate today. One possible reform, an elected Senate, is outlined above with corresponding pros and cons. Really, it is up to you to decide what version of our Senate you think can help our government function in its best possible way.

– Written by Wyatt Shipley and Josh Valler