Senate of Canada

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The Senate of Canada (French: Le Sénat du Canada) is a component of the Parliament of Canada, along with the Sovereign (represented by the Governor General) and the House of Commons. The Senate and the House of Commons sit in separate chambers on Parliament Hill, which is located in Ottawa, Ontario.

The Senate consists of 105 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister. Seats are assigned on a regional basis, with each region receiving 24 seats. The regions are: Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces. The number of seats for Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut are assigned apart from these regional divisions. Senators serve until they reach the age of seventy-five.

The Senate is referred to as the " upper house" of Parliament, and the House of Commons is referred to as the " lower house". This does not, however, imply the Senate is more powerful than the House of Commons. Indeed, as a matter of practice and custom, the Commons is by far the dominant chamber. Although the approval of both Houses is necessary for legislation, the Senate rarely rejects bills passed by the democratically-elected Commons. Moreover, the Government of Canada is responsible solely to the House of Commons; the Prime Minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains the support of the lower house. The Senate does not exercise any such control. Although legislation can normally be introduced in either house, the majority of government bills originate in the House of Commons. Under the constitution, money bills must always originate in the lower house.

The chamber in which the Senate sits is sometimes called the red chamber, due to the lavish decoration and design, and the red cloth that adorns the chamber (and notably, the Throne); it is a stark contrast to the green and more modest style of the House of Commons. This is inherited from the British Houses of Parliament, where the Lords chamber is a lavish room with red benches, whereas the Commons chamber is a sparsely-decorated room with green benches.


The Senate came into existence in 1867, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the British North America Act, uniting the Province of Canada (which was separated into Canada East and Canada West, corresponding, respectively, to what are now the provinces of Quebec and Ontario) and Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single federation, called the Dominion of Canada. The Canadian Parliament was based on the Westminster model (that is, the model of the Parliament of the United Kingdom). The Senate was intended to mirror the British House of Lords, in that it was meant to represent the social and economic élite. Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, described it as a body of "sober second thought" that would curb the "democratic excesses" of the elected House of Commons and provide regional representation.


The Governor General holds the nominal power to appoint senators, although he or she makes appointments only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Prime ministers normally choose members of their own parties to be senators, though they sometimes nominate independents or members of opposing parties. In practice, a large number of the members of the Senate are ex-Cabinet ministers, ex-provincial premiers, and other eminent people.

Under the constitution, each province or territory is entitled to a specific number of senate seats. A senator must reside in the province or territory for which he or she is appointed. The Constitution divides Canada into four "divisions," each with an equal number of senators: twenty-four for Ontario; twenty-four for Quebec; twenty-four for the Maritime provinces (ten for Nova Scotia, ten for New Brunswick, and four for Prince Edward Island); and twenty-four for the Western provinces (six each for Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Newfoundland and Labrador, which became a province only in 1949, is not assigned to any division, and is represented by six senators. Furthermore, the three territories (the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut) are allocated one senator each. Quebec senators are the only ones to be assigned to specific districts within their province. Historically, this was adopted to ensure that both French and English-speaking senators from Quebec were represented appropriately in the Senate.

As a result of this arrangement, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta — Canada's fastest growing provinces in terms of population — are severely under-represented, while the Maritimes are greatly over-represented. For example, British Columbia, with a population of about four million, is entitled to six senators, while Nova Scotia, with a population of fewer than one million, is entitled to ten. Only Quebec has a share of Senators proportional to its share of the total population. It should be noted that many other upper-houses worldwide do not use population as a basis for membership.

Province or Territory Number of Senators Population per Senator (2001 census)
Newfoundland and Labrador 6 85,488
Prince Edward Island 4 33,824
Nova Scotia 10 90,801
New Brunswick 10 72,950
Quebec 24 301,562
Ontario 24 475,419
Manitoba 6 186,597
Saskatchewan 6 163,156
Alberta 6 495,801
British Columbia 6 651,290
Nunavut 1 26,745
Northwest Territories 1 37,360
Yukon Territory 1 28,674

Since 1989, the voters of Alberta have elected "senators-in-waiting," or nominees for the province's Senate seats. These elections, however, are not held pursuant to any federal constitutional or legal provision; thus, the prime minister is not bound to recommend the nominees for appointment. Only one senator-in-waiting, Stan Waters, has actually been appointed to the Senate. He was appointed in 1990 on the recommendation of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, but died in 1991.

There exists a constitutional provision, Section 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867, under which the Queen may appoint four or eight extra senators; the additional senators must equally represent Canada's four "divisions." As in the case of normal senatorial appointments, the prime minister recommends for appointment the senators he has chosen, and the Queen is bound by constitutional convention to almost always follow this advice. This provision has been successfully used only once, in 1990, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sought to ensure the passage of a bill creating the Goods and Services Tax (GST). In this case the Queen followed her prime minister's advice, thereby placing responsibility on he, who had to directly answer to the House, rather than on the Crown. The appointment of eight additional senators allowed a slight Tory majority. The only other attempt to use Section 26, by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1874, was denied by Queen Victoria on the advice of the British Government.

Senators originally held their seats for life. However, under the British North America Act, 1965 (now known as the Constitution Act, 1965), members may not sit in the Senate after reaching the age of seventy-five. (Those incumbents appointed prior to the change could continue to sit past age 75.)

A senator's seat automatically becomes vacant if he or she fails to attend the Senate for two consecutive parliamentary sessions. Furthermore, a senator who is found guilty of treason, indictable offence, or any "infamous crime," is declared bankrupt or insolvent, also loses his or her seat, as does a senator who ceases to be qualified (see below).

The annual salary of each senator, as of 2006, is $122,700; members may receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). Senators rank immediately above Members of Parliament in the order of precedence.


The Constitution Act, 1867 outlines the qualifications of senators. Individuals who are not citizens of Canada, and individuals aged less than thirty years, may not be appointed to the Senate. Senators must also reside in the provinces or territories for which they are appointed.

The Constitution Act, 1867 also sets property qualifications for senators. A senator must possess land worth at least $4,000 in the province for which he or she is appointed. Moreover, a senator must own real and personal property worth at least $4,000, above his or her debts and liabilities. These property qualifications were originally introduced to ensure that the Senate represented Canada's economic and social élite. Now, however, the sum in question is far less valuable due to the effects of inflation. Nevertheless, the property qualification has never been abolished or amended, and initially caused problems with the 1997 Senate appointment of Sister Peggy Butts, a Catholic nun who had taken a vow of poverty. (The situation was resolved when her order formally transferred a small parcel of land to her name.)

The original Constitution of Canada did not explicitly bar women from sitting as senators. However, until the end of the 1920s, only men had been appointed to the body. In 1927, five Canadian women (" The Famous Five") requested the Supreme Court of Canada to determine if females were eligible to become senators. Specifically, they asked if women were considered "persons" under the British North America Act. 1867, which provided, "The Governor General shall ... summon qualified Persons to the Senate; and ... every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator." In Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) (commonly known as the " Persons Case"), the Supreme Court unanimously held that women could not become senators. The Court based its decision on the grounds that the framers of the Constitution did not foresee female senators, as women did not participate in politics at the time; moreover, they pointed to the constitution's use of the pronoun "he" when referring to senators. On appeal, however, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (effectively Canada's highest court at the time) ruled that women were indeed "persons" in the meaning of the Constitution. Four months later, the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King recommended for appointment Canada's first female senator, Cairine Wilson of Ontario.


The presiding officer of the Senate, known as the Speaker, is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Speaker is assisted by a Speaker pro tempore (or Speaker for the time-being), who is elected by the Senate at the beginning of each parliamentary session. If the Speaker is unable to attend, the Speaker pro tempore presides instead. Furthermore, the Parliament of Canada Act, passed in 1985, authorizes the Speaker to appoint another Senator to take his or her place temporarily.

The Speaker presides over sittings of the Senate and controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a senator believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order," on which the Speaker makes a ruling. However, the Speaker's decisions are subject to appeal to the whole Senate. When presiding, the Speaker remains impartial, though he or she still maintains membership of a political party. Unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Speaker of the Senate does not hold a casting vote, but instead retains their right to vote in the same manner as any other senator (see Procedure below). The current Speaker of the Senate is The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella.

The member of the Government responsible for steering legislation through the Senate is Leader of the Government in the Senate. The Leader is a senator selected by the Prime Minister, and serves in Cabinet. The Leader manages the schedule of the Senate, and attempts to secure the Opposition's support for the Government's legislative agenda. The Opposition equivalent is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who is selected by his or her counterpart in the House, the Leader of the Opposition. However, if the Official Opposition in the House is a different party than the Official Opposition in the Senate (as was the case, for example, from 1993 to 2003), then the Senate party chooses its own leader.

Officers of the Senate who are not members include the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the Law Clerk, and several other clerks. These officers advise the Speaker and members on the rules and procedure of the Senate. Another officer is the Usher of the Black Rod, whose duties include the maintenance of order and security within the Senate chamber. The Usher of the Black Rod bears a ceremonial black ebony staff, from which the title "Black Rod" arises. This position is roughly analogous to that of Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons, but the Usher's duties are more ceremonial in nature. The responsibility for security and the infrastructure lie with the Director General of Parliamentary Precinct Services.


The throne and chair in the background are used by The Queen and her consort, or the Governor General and his or her spouse, respectively, during the opening of Parliament. The Speaker of the Senate employs the chair in front.
The throne and chair in the background are used by The Queen and her consort, or the Governor General and his or her spouse, respectively, during the opening of Parliament. The Speaker of the Senate employs the chair in front.

Like the House of Commons, the Senate meets on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Senate Chamber is lavishly decorated and coloured red, in contrast with the more modest green Commons Chamber. There are benches on two sides of the Chamber, divided by a centre aisle. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the Chamber; in front of it is the Clerk's table. Various clerks and other officials sit at the table, ready to advise the Speaker on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, while members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left.

The Senate Chamber is the site of the opening of Parliament, a formal ceremony held at the beginning of each new parliamentary session. During the ceremony, the Governor General, seated on the throne in the Senate Chamber and in the presence of both Houses of Parliament, delivers a speech outlining the Government's agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session. If the Sovereign is present in Canada, he or she may make the Speech from the Throne instead.

Under the Rules of the Senate, the Senate sits Mondays to Fridays. Sittings of the Senate are open to the public, and are transcribed verbatim in the Debates of the Senate. Unlike the House of Commons, the Senate does not regularly broadcast its hearings, although at times matters of particular interest have been broadcast.

The Constitution Act, 1867 establishes a quorum of fifteen members (including the member presiding) for the Senate. Any senator may request the Speaker to ascertain the presence of a quorum; if it does not appear that one is present, the Speaker orders bells to be rung, so that other senators on the parliamentary precincts may come to the Chamber. If a quorum still does not appear, the Speaker must adjourn the Senate until the next sitting day.

During debates, the first senator to rise is entitled to make the next speech. The Speaker may settle disputes over which senator rose first, but his or her decision may be altered by the Senate. Motions must be moved by one senator and seconded by another before debate may begin; some motions, however, are non-debatable.

Speeches may be made in either of Canada's official languages (English and French). Members must address their speeches to the other senators as a whole, using the phrase "honourable senators," without directly addressing an individual Senator. Instead, individual members must be referred to in the third person, not as "you." This is similar, but not identical, to the process in the House of Commons where all speeches and comments are addressed to the Speaker. The Speaker enforces the rules of the Senate during debate. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a severe breach of the rules of the Senate.

No senator may speak more than once on the same question; however, a Senator who has moved a substantive motion, proposed an inquiry, or sponsors a bill holds a right of reply that enables them to speak again at the close of debate. In the case of a bill, this right of reply can only be exercised at the second reading debate. The Standing Orders of the Senate prescribe time limits for speeches. The limits depend on the nature of the motion, but are most generally about fifteen minutes. However, the Leaders of the Government and Opposition in the Senate are not subject to such time constraints. Debate may be further restricted by the passage of "time allocation" motions. Alternatively, the Senate may end debate more quickly by passing a motion "for the previous question." If such a motion carries, debate ends immediately, and the Senate proceeds to vote. Debate may also end if no senator wishes to make any further remarks.

When the debate concludes, the motion in question is put to a vote. The Senate first votes by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question, and members respond either "yea" (in favour of the motion) or "nay" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but two or more senators may challenge his or her assessment, thereby forcing a recorded vote (known as a division). First, members in favour of the motion rise, so that the clerks may record their names and votes. The same procedure is then repeated for members who oppose the motion, and thereafter repeated again for those who wish to abstain. In all cases, the Speaker holds a vote (which is not usually exercised) and votes first when a recorded division is called; a tied vote results in the motion's failure. If the number of members voting, including the presiding officer, does not total fifteen, then a quorum is not present, and the vote is invalid.


The Parliament of Canada uses committees for a variety of purposes. Committees consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. Other committees scrutinize various Government agencies and ministries.

The largest of the Senate committees is the Committee of the Whole, which, as the name suggests, consists of all senators. A Committee of the Whole meets in the Chamber of the Senate, but proceeds under slightly modified rules of debate. (For example, there is no limit on the number of speeches a member may make on a particular motion.) The presiding officer is known as the Chairman. The Senate may resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole for a number of purposes, including to consider legislation, or to hear testimony from individuals. Nominees to be Officers of Parliament often appear before Committee of the Whole to answer questions with respect to their qualifications prior to their appointment.

The Senate also has several standing committees, each of which has responsibility for a particular area of government (for example, finance or transport). These committees consider legislation and conduct special studies on issues referred to them by the Senate, and may hold hearings, collect evidence, and report their findings to the Senate. Standing committees consist of between nine and fifteen members each, and elect their own chairmen.

Special committees are appointed by the Senate on an ad hoc basis to consider a particular issue. The number of members for a special committee varies, but the partisan composition would roughly reflect the strength of the parties in the whole Senate. These committees have been struck to study bills (e.g., the Special Senate Committee on Bill C-36 (the Anti-terrorism Act), 2001), or particular issues of concern (e.g., the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs).

Other committees include joint committees, which include both members of the House of Commons and senators. There are presently two joint committees, the Standing Joint Committee on the Scrutiny of Regulations, which considers delegated legislation, and the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament which advises the two Speakers on the management of the Library. Parliament may also establish Special Joint committees on an ad hoc basis to consider issues of particular interest and/or importance.

Legislative functions

Although legislation may be introduced in either House, most bills originate in the House of Commons. Because the Senate's schedule for debate is more flexible than that of the House of Commons, the government will sometimes introduce particularly complex legislation in the Senate, first. For the stages through which the legislation passes in Parliament, see Act of Parliament.

In conformity with the British model, the upper house is not permitted to originate bills imposing taxes or appropriating public funds. Unlike in Britain but similar to the United States, this restriction on the power of the Senate is not merely a matter of convention, but is explicitly stated in the Constitution Act, 1867. In addition, the House of Commons may, in effect, override the Senate's refusal to approve an amendment to the Canadian Constitution; however they must wait at least 180 days before exercising this override. Other than these two exceptions, the power of the two Houses of Parliament is theoretically equal; the approval of each is necessary for a bill's passage. In practice, however, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber of Parliament, with the Senate very rarely exercising its powers in a manner that opposes the will of the democratically elected chamber.

The Senate at times is more active at reviewing, amending, and even rejecting legislation. During the late 1980s and early 1990s was one of those periods. During this period the Senate opposed legislation on issues such as the 1988 free trade bill with the U.S. and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). In the 1990s, the Senate rejected four pieces of legislation: a bill passed by the Commons restricting abortion (C-43), a proposal to streamline federal agencies (C-93), a bill to redevelop the Lester B. Pearson airport (C-28) and a bill on profiting from authorship as it relates to crime (C-220).

Relationship with the Government

Unlike the House of Commons, the Senate has no effect in the decision to end the term of the prime minister or of the government. Only the Commons may force the prime minister to tender his resignation, or to recommend the dissolution of Parliament and issue of election writs, by passing a motion of no-confidence or by withdrawing supply. Thus, the Senate's oversight of the government is limited.

Most Cabinet ministers are from the House of Commons, rather than the Senate. In particular, every prime minister has been a member of the House of Commons since 1896. Typically, the Cabinet includes only one Senator: the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Occasionally, when the governing party does not include any members from a particular region, Senators are appointed to ministerial positions in order to maintain regional balance in the Cabinet.

Senate Reform

Plans for reform chiefly involved amending the appointment process; schemes to create an elected Senate did not gain widespread support until the 1980s, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enacted the National Energy Program in the wake of the energy crises of the 1970s. Despite widespread opposition in Western Canada, Trudeau easily secured the Senate's support, as most senators had been recommended for appointment by previous Prime Ministers from Trudeau's Liberal Party. Many Western Canadians then called for a " Triple-E Senate," standing for "elected, equal, and effective." They believed that allowing equal representation of the provinces would protect the interests of the smaller provinces, and would end the domination of Ontario and Quebec.

The Meech Lake Accord, a series of constitutional amendments proposed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, would have required the federal government to choose a senator from a list of persons nominated by the provincial government; the accord, however, failed to obtain the requisite unanimous consent of the provincial legislatures. A successor proposal, the Charlottetown Accord, involved a provision under which the Senate would include an equal number of senators from each province, elected either by the provincial legislatures or by the people. This accord was soundly defeated in the referendum held in 1992. Further proposals for Senate reform have not met with success, either, especially due to opposition in Ontario and Quebec, the two provinces with the most to lose due to equal representation.

Today, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois both call for the Senate's abolition. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has voiced his preference for its abolition as well . Although the Liberal party has no formal policy for Senate reform, former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin had stated that he "supports" Senate reform if the provinces are more involved in the process and if it does not "create greater inequality." Some have stated that the issue of Senate reform would have been the litmus test for Martin's policy on Western Canada. The Conservative Party has committed itself to appointing elected senators, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper recommended an unelected person for appointment to the Senate after forming his first Cabinet. Currently, abolition of the Senate is not being widely considered.

Recent developments

In response to observations that an overwhelming Liberal majority in the Senate had compromised its ability to function as intended, Prime Minister Paul Martin took Pierre Trudeau's approach to the Senate, in that he was willing to recommend appointment of opposition senators. Martin, who promised to deal with the so-called "democratic deficit", made over one-third (five of 14) of his appointments from members of opposition parties; two Progressive Conservatives, two Conservatives, and one New Democrat. (The New Democratic Party does not recogize this senator as a representative of their party, as they favour abolishing the senate). Eight of Trudeau's 81 recommendations for appointment were from the opposition. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald recommended for appointment 10 of his 91 appointments from the opposition. Other than these 23 senators, only nie other senators in the history of the country have been appointed to sit in the opposition caucuses of the Senate. This does not include non-partisans.

Harper's plan

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to hold elections to fill any vacancies in the Senate during his term. Unlike most proposed Senate reforms, Harper could fulfill this promise without a constitutional amendment simply by advising the Governor General to appoint the persons elected to their Senate seats. The day of his swearing in as Prime Minister, it was revealed that Québécois Michael Fortier would be a member of the Cabinet, with the expectation that he would be appointed as a Senator and would resign from the Senate at the dissolution of Parliament to run in the next federal election. Mr. Fortier was formally summoned to the Senate on February 27, 2006.

Harper has also promised further reforms, including electing senators, and limits on how long each senator may sit. To that effect, on May 30, 2006, the government introduced Bill S-4 in the Senate, which would amend the Constitution Act, 1867, to limit the term of a newly appointed Senator to eight years. It also provides that current Senators may serve out their term to age 75. However, no indication has been given as to when or how elections for senators will be implemented. While appearing before a senate committee, Harper announced that in the fall of 2006, the government would introduce a bill to allow Canadians to elect senators.

Murray-Austin amendment

On June 22, 2006 Senator Lowell Murray ( PC- Ontario) and Senator Jack Austin ( Liberal- British Columbia) introduced an amendment to the Constitution of Canada to alter the makeup of the Senate. This amendment would enlarge the Senate to one hundred and seventeen members, giving a greater number to the western provinces of British Columbia (12), Alberta (10), Saskatchewan (seven), and Manitoba (seven) each up from six. The amendment would also increase the number of divisions to five by separating British Columbia into its own division, and increase the number of additional Senators the Queen can appoint to five or ten, from four or eight. The amendment has yet to be debated, but Austin, in a letter to BC Premier Gordon Campbell claims to have the support of a majority of the members of the Liberal-dominated Senate.

Current composition

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Affiliation Senators
     Conservative Party1 23
     Liberal Party2 64
     Progressive Conservative Party3 3
     New Democratic Party4 1
95/ 105

As of November 1, 2006.


1 The Conservatives control government business in the Senate due to holding the most seats in the House of Commons.
2Senator Raymond Lavigne has temporarily been removed from the Liberal Caucus but still identifies himself as a Liberal Senator
3 When the Progressive Conservative Party merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004, all but three Progressive Conservative Senators became Conservative Senators. Two additional Senators who have chosen to sit as "Progressive Conservatives" were appointed on the recommendation of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, over one year after the merger occurred. One of the five remaining Progressive Conservative senators died in December of 2005, and another joined the Conservative caucus in March 2006 bringing the total to three.
4 Self-designation by Senator Lillian Dyck. The New Democratic Party opposes appointments to the Senate and does not recognize Senator Dyck as a representative of the NDP or as a member of its parliamentary caucus.

Source: The Parliament of Canada Web Site - Party Standings in the Senate

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