The Senate and our alienated regions

A vaguely persuasive argument for keeping the Senate

Adrian Wyld/CP

Brian Lee Crowley argues that we need an elected Senate for the sake of regional representation. This argument seems to require accepting three premises: 1) that regional alienation is a real thing with real consequences, 2) that Canada has somehow made it this far without an elected Senate fulfilling this role and 3) that an elected Senate would mostly solve the problem of regional alienation.

One of Canada’s great political and constitutional weaknesses has been the inability of the Canadian Senate to play this vital role of providing a credible community counterweight to the rep by pop-based power of the Commons. Appointed senators simply can never have the democratic horsepower to be a real counterweight to the Commons. The federal government’s legislation therefore lacks the legitimacy of the double-majority system that other federations have found so indispensable, and this is at the root of many of the problems of regional alienation and suspicion of the national government that has plagued this country since 1867.

When Roger Gibbens explained last year why he felt that Senate reform was no longer the priority it used to be, he ventured that western alienation wasn’t much of a concern anymore (or at least for now).

The push for Senate reform initially came at a time when western Canadians lacked an effective voice in the national Parliament, and thus Senate reform was proposed as a part of the solution. It was also pointed out that well-functioning federations all had upper houses that were based on regional representation, and that Canada’s Senate was a growing international embarrassment.

However, the proponents of Senate reform found no political traction, and the notion was repeatedly dismissed with a mixture of scorn and ridicule by governments of the day. But, as the movement for reform stalled, the world changed. The West grew in economic and demographic power, and then in 2006 a national government was elected with strong representation from western Canada.

So at least until someone representing a riding in Montreal or Toronto becomes prime minister, the West is apparently okay.

Meanwhile, as Stephane Dion has argued, moving to an elected Senate with the chamber’s current distribution of seats would actually work against the interests of British Columbia and Alberta.

Second, such an act would be against the interests of two of our provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Here is why: practically speaking, an elected upper chamber would carry more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form. The problem is that both western provinces are better represented in the House than they are in the Senate, and both provinces have only six senators, while some provinces have 10 with a population four or six times smaller.

So what to do? If regional representation is a good enough reason to have a Senate, then we probably have to do something about the distribution of seats. For perfect representation, an equal number of seats per province (two?) would likely be necessary. So could we redistribute the seats without alienating some of the provinces that benefit from the current arrangement without inflaming regional grievances? Or, put another way, which is more likely to drive us apart as a people: abolishing the Senate or reconstituting the Senate?

The argument for a second chamber that balances regional representation is at least more persuasive than the other usual defences of the Senate (It periodically catches problems with legislation! Its committee studies are super interesting!). But is the need for a second chamber predicated on regional representation so great that we need to bother? Is the benefit of a second chamber predicated on regional representation so great that we should aspire to it? Or could we basically carry on without a Senate of any kind? I still tend to believe we’d be fine without a Senate.

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