Where the provinces stand on Senate reform

An elected or abolished Senate is going to need provincial support. So here’s what the provinces have to say.
Chris Wattie/Reuters
Chris Wattie/Reuters

So what of the Senate? This depends not only on the party that forms government in Ottawa after this fall’s election, but on the governments in 10 provincial capitals.

The Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals present three basic ideas for the upper chamber. The Conservatives would like to see an elected upper chamber, though they’re not willing to expend much effort in that regard (the government’s current position seems to be that the provinces should volunteer to work it out amongst themselves). The New Democrats would prefer to see the Senate abolished entirely. The Liberals would establish an independent process for nominating senators (and senators would not sit with the Liberal caucus).

Those party positions are then set against the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Senate reference.

While the Liberals would arguably be able to implement their reforms unilaterally, both the Conservatives and New Democrats would need provincial consent to amend the Constitution. The Conservatives would need the agreement of at least seven provinces constituting 50 per cent of the national population. To abolish the upper chamber, the New Democrats would need the unanimous agreement of all 10 provinces.

With that in mind, I emailed the offices of nine premiers to ask about where the provinces stood on the Senate—Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall had already made his view clear in a statement posted to Facebook. And so, for the record, here are the views of all 10 provinces.

Ontario (statement from the office of Premier Kathleen Wynne)

“Any abuse of taxpayers’ dollars is unacceptable. Any discussion about Senate reform is about more than the behaviour of certain individuals. We believe that the Senate plays a valuable role as a chamber of sober second thought, and that any changes made to it must be consistent with this function.‎ The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that the federal government must work with provinces on any fundamental changes to the Senate. Ontario is ready to participate if the federal government decides to lead collaborative pan-Canadian discussions about Senate reform.”

Quebec (translated comments from Premier Philippe Couillard at a news conference this week)

“Quebec is and always will be against the abolition of the Senate. It is in Quebec’s interest. The people who created the Canadian federation wanted to bring a balance to the demographic reality of the country. ‎Because Quebec’s demographic weight decreases every year, and because other regions have faster ([demographic] growth, there needs to be a balance of regional interests. It was in this spirit that the Senate was created. I think everyone agrees that it is dysfunctional these days. But I repeat that it would be against Quebec’s political interests to abolish it. We will oppose this motion.”

British Columbia (statement from Attorney General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton)

“I am aware that concerns have been raised about the inappropriate use of tax dollars by many in the Senate, as stated in the auditor general’s report. Our government agrees with the recent Supreme Court reference case that the provinces deserve to have their opinions heard.

“We believe that options for the Senate should be examined – with everything from changes to abolishment discussed. In British Columbia, we’re focused on economic growth to create jobs. Our goal is to provide the best services to British Columbians and we cannot let the debate about the Senate take us away from this important work.”

Alberta (statement from the office of Premier Rachel Notley)

“The issue of the Senate is one that will be debated in the next federal election. The position of the next federal government on the Senate will help determine whether this issue is a priority for us or not.”

Saskatchewan (statement by Premier Brad Wall)

“Today’s report just reinforces Saskatchewan’s position that the Senate should be abolished. If the Senate was necessary to the proper functioning of Canadian democracy, I would say clean it up and getting it working properly. But it isn’t necessary and it isn’t making any sort of a positive contribution.

“I Iike to restore old cars. But that’s only worth doing if, when you get finished, the car is going to run properly and it’s at least worth the money you put into it. The Senate is never going to run properly and it’s never going to be worth the money we put into it. So it should be scrapped.

“I’m not going to actively campaign for the Senate to be abolished. Everyone knows Saskatchewan’s position. I would like to see other provinces come on board but if they don’t, even in light of this latest mess, then it’s not really worth the effort to try to change their minds.”

Manitoba (statement from Premier Greg Selinger)

“It is the long-standing position of the NDP that the Senate should be abolished, just as Manitoba abolished its upper house in 1876. All too often, it serves partisan interests rather than the public interest.

“In 2013 the Manitoba Legislature passed a motion urging the federal government to engage the provinces in consultation toward the ultimate goal of finding consensus to abolish the Senate.

“While we do acknowledge the good work of some individual Manitoba senators like Maria Chaput on French-language rights, any confidence Manitobans had in the upper house has been shaken from the revelations of the past several years.”

New Brunswick (statement from the office of Premier Brian Gallant)

“While the Senate is getting plenty of headlines these days, it’s not the top issue on the minds of most New Brunswickers. The provincial government’s priority is job creation. The government’s focus is on the province’s finances and ensuring social programs can be funded into the future.

“The premier has said he’s open to discussing changes that would not affect New Brunswick’s level of representation in Parliament.”

Nova Scotia (statement from Premier Stephen McNeil)

“I’m prepared to have a conversation about change in the Senate, but it must be on the condition that we, as Nova Scotians, continue to have the same voice we have now in the upper chamber. We need to remember what the intent was when the Senate was created as an institution, to ensure equal representation for smaller provinces, along with being a chamber for sober second thought.”

Newfoundland (statement from the office of Premier Paul Davis)

“Clearly reform of the Senate is needed‎, and Premier Davis would support a comprehensive review and discussion on Senate reform.”

Prince Edward Island (statement from the office of Premier Wade MacLauchlan)

“The Senate contributes regional balance and voice in our national institutions. Prince Edward Island supports these values and does not favour abolishing the Senate.”

By my count, that’s at least four provinces that seem to see some value in the Senate: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Only two provinces—Saskatchewan and Manitoba—are resolutely in support of abolition. Alberta, the only province to ever conduct Senate elections, is ambiguous.

For the record, I have also asked the office of Pierre Poilievre, still minister of state for democratic reform, how many times Mr. Poilievre has met or spoken with an official in a provincial government about Senate reform since the Supreme Court’s reference on Senate reform. I have yet to receive a response to that question.

Of course, we can’t know what impact public debate and private negotiation might have on provincial positions. But you might at least consider these to be the opening bids in whatever negotiations are to come.