Towards a More Functional Confederation

It is often joked that the first conversation about Senate reform took place on July 1, 1868. Now, it looks like reform is indeed about to happen.

In just one year our country’s leaders have gone from the idea of a triple E senate, to a non-partisan body, and now to abolishing it for good. While it may seem like the Senate’s only contribution to Canadians is as a lively dinner party topic, the principles it was founded upon should not be trivialized.

There is often a misconception about Canada as a confederation versus a federation. The difference between the two has surely been taught, and then immediately forgotten, in every Canadian classroom. A confederation has two meanings. It can either describe the act of coming together to form a federation or it can describe an association of independent states. Canada represents the former, not the latter.

More than anything Canada is a multi-national federation, where two levels of government have constitutionally protected powers. The House of Commons utilizes representation by population whereas the Senate employs the principle of equal representation by region. Ideally, this bicameral system is meant to guarantee that the provinces are represented without regard for their size, economic capability, or political clout.

In addition to this division of power, federal-provincial conferences were created to ensure open discussion of shared responsibilities. One of the most infamous was home to the “Night of the Long Knives”, pitting Québec Premier Rene Levesque against Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Unfortunately, under the leadership of the current government there has been no such conference for six years.

When you clear away the political jargon, what this means for Canada is that the Senate, and the federal-provincial conferences by extension, are meant to serve as a bridge connecting the discussion between two levels of representation – provincial and federal. If the Senate was abolished the concept of dual representation and the channel of communication would be lost, along with the foundational principles of regional representation and accountability.

While this bicameral system in isolation sounds flawless, in practice we have come to know its weaknesses intimately. It would be foolish to deny that the arguments for those who want to reform or abolish the Senate have merit.

Yes, the centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has limited the Senate’s ability to fulfill its mandate.

Yes, it may well be a repository for political cronies.

Yes, it has been home to fraud, scandal, and corruption.

The Senate today is more akin to Frankenstein’s monster than a sober second thought, but that does not mean that the principles, which guided the creation of a second chamber, should be disregarded. What is missing from the senate reform discussion today is the proposal of alternatives.

One of the most polarizing debates surrounding the representation of minority groups in Canada occurred during Pierre Trudeau’s years as Prime Minister. In order to understand the feelings of disunity so many Canadians harboured, Trudeau commissioned the Task Force on Canadian Unity, also known as the Pépin-Robarts Report.

It is no surprise that when the report was presented in 1977, one of the 12 recommendations presented was focused directly on the Senate.  The report concluded that Canada needed a “restructured federalism.” Furthermore, it advised that the Senate should be reconstituted under the name of “Council of the Federation” where provincial governments would send delegations.

To expand this idea further, each province would have equal representation in the “Council of the Federation” as is the case in the United States Senate. However, in the same fashion as the German Bundestrat, individual membership in the Council would change with the election of provincial governments. Upon taking office, the leadership of a provincial government would appoint a delegation of representatives, and these delegations would uniquely be made up of provincial, elected, cabinet-level ministers. In this sense, a continuous federal-provincial conference would be created, where jurisdictional responsibilities of both levels of government would be protected.

The attraction to this model is simple; it would be the legal or constitutional right of state ministers to participate in policy formation. Therefore, acceptance of policy by both the House of Commons and the “Council of the Federation” would almost ensure that an overwhelming majority of Canadians were represented in each decision. Furthermore, by employing elected representatives of each province, it would not be affected by the same patronage seen in the current Senate.

There are obvious roadblocks to any reformation proposal, the prominent questions revolving around popular support and the feasibility of constitutional ratification. While these are valid concerns, the more pressing issue is how to reform, or reinvent, a second chamber that can truly honour the principles of regional representation and accountability.

The debate surrounding Canadian unity which drove the 1977 commission is arguably cyclical, the irony being that it may loom over the political careers of both Pierre Trudeau and Justin Trudeau. Current headlines seen in news outlets may not primarily highlight our system’s flaws regarding representation; however, the issue remains omnipresent.

For example, the pipeline debate can be presented through many different lenses but it is not always seen primarily as a representation issue. It can be a debate about the economy, a debate about the environment, or a debate about natural resources.  No matter what lens one looks through, it is always partially about representation.

Will the creation of a pipeline affect provincial interests and involve provincial governments differently than it will affect national interests and the federal government? Politics and partisanship aside, the answer to this question is unequivocally “yes”.

Debates such as this will arise in the next 10, 20, or 50 years in Canadian politics and will almost certainly include the issue of representation as an underlying theme. Therefore, it is crucial for Canadian unity that our system of governance includes as many effective forms of representation as possible.

Frankly, a Senate that does not fulfill its mandate of representing provincial and regional interests is no use. Yet, a body that can add another layer of discussion, and ensure a second outlet for representation, is invaluable. As demographics and priorities change in the years to come, it is important that these changes reflect the best interests of all Canadians.