Nunavik senator pins future hopes on a fully non-partisan Senate
“We have to renew it in order for the Senate as an institution to gain back it’s credibility"
OTTAWA — After getting over the shock of hearing that he and his Liberal colleagues had been turfed out of the Liberal party caucus, Charlie Watt said he caught his breath and realized it was the right thing to do.
“I’ve been in the Senate for the last 30 years and I’m always bogged down. Every time I start to make headway in certain given issues, files I’m dealing with, it always gets bogged down in partisanship,” said Watt, from his Ottawa office.
Those personal files include issues around Arctic sovereignty, he said, and aboriginal rights still not realized under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
“These are issues that need to be pushed forward,” he said, “and hopefully they won’t get bogged down now in the partisan issue.”
Surprising everyone from media to Ottawa insiders, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced Jan. 29 that senators in the upper chamber could no longer pin the word “Liberal” to their name and will, from now on, no longer form part of the Liberal parliamentary caucus.
Watt said it would have been nice to hear it from Trudeau himself instead of in the media, but he decided to focus on the implications of the decision, not how it was delivered.
The one-time political activist who helped negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement when he was barely 30 years old, and the founding president of what is now Makivik Corp., Watt said he welcomes a new non-partisan era in the Senate.
“Three years after I got into the Senate, I realized that the institution was controlled, but not too heavily, by partisan stuff. That’s when the Liberals were in power,” he said. “In fact, I have taken on my own party a hell of a lot more than I ever did with the Conservative government.”
Watt said Justin Trudeau had to do something to respond to the growing public discontent over the petty partisanship, and recent expense fudging, of Canada’s senators, in order to return credibility and respect to the institution.
It remains to be seen what the prime minister will do. Until all parties agree to make the Senate non-partisan, the chamber will continue to be scandal-ridden and ineffectual, Watt said.
“We’ll probably have to wait for an election. Maybe Justin will decide to put it on his platform and I hope the other two parties will have very clear positions like the Liberal one,” he said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is on the record as wanting to abolish the Senate altogether. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised Senate reform but details of that plan have yet to emerge as he awaits the Supreme Court to rule on whether Parliament can unilaterally order that Senators be elected, and also under what circumstances the Senate can be abolished.
Watt says that while some people may be discouraged with the way some senators have been improperly benefiting from their positions, the Senate is still a necessary chamber of “sober, second thought,” which balances the power of the elected House of Commons.
“We cannot allow the House of Commons to pass laws and that be it. Then we’ll be facing left and right legal actions and challenges,” he said. “A lot of times when the legislation is passed, it’s not bullet-proof. So usually we have to find a way to make it better.”
He also said the Senate provides a voice to certain constituencies in the country that don’t have a voice, such as Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
“We have to renew it in order for the Senate as an institution to gain back it’s credibility. There are some people in the senate, rightly or wrongly—they were appointed and they don’t seem to know their residency. It’s beyond me. I know where I come from. I know where I go when I’m not in Ottawa. I live in Kuujjuaq.”
Senators Patrick Brazeau (PC) and Mac Harb (Lib) were charged by the RCMP Feb. 4 with one count each of breach of trust and fraud in relation to the recent senate expense scandal.
Brazeau was kicked out of the Conservative party caucus recently along with fellow Conservatives Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, who are also under RCMP investigation related to their Senate expense claims.
Canada’s Auditor General is currently reviewing Senate spending, including the expenses of senators.
Watt was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1984 when he was 39 years old and this month, he celebrated 30 years in the chamber. Watt represents the province of Quebec and the Quebec senatorial division of Inkerman.