Nunavut and Nunavik need the Senate
"You have nothing to gain and much to lose if the Senate were abolished"
Who needs the Senate?
If you live in Nunavut or Nunavik, you may not like whoever happens to represent you in the Senate right now. You may not like the arbitrary means by which the prime minister of the day appointed them. And you may be appalled by the Senate expense claim scandals that have tormented Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for more than a year.
You can believe all that — and for valid reasons. But if you live in Nunavut or Nunavik, you have nothing to gain and much to lose if the Senate were abolished.
That’s because one of the Senate’s most important roles is to give representation in Parliament to cultural, ethnic or geographic minorities whose voices would not otherwise be heard.
If you’re a member of a linguistic minority, such as the embattled anglophones of Quebec or one of several minority francophone groups scattered across the country outside Quebec, you need the Senate. And if you’re a member of a cultural minority —First Nations, Métis, Inuit, or a resident of a small, under-represented region — you need the Senate.
For example, if the Senate were abolished, the people of Nunavik would lose their only Nunavik-specific representative in Ottawa. With a population of about 11,000, Nunavik is just too small to warrant its own seat in the House of Commons or even a seat within the Quebec national assembly.
When Nunavik’s current senator, Charlie Watt, was appointed in 1984, the people of Nunavik gained a voice in Ottawa they would not otherwise have. Despite the Senate’s numerous flaws, that matters.
The Conservative government has promised, since 2006, to reform the Senate. They want to limit the number of years a senator may serve and they want to create a process for electing senators.
On this, they prefer to act unilaterally, without seeking the consent of the provinces and territories, through amendments to the Constitution Act that would be passed by Parliament.
If the government can’t achieve those reforms, they’re prepared to abolish the Senate. The prime minister said this while on a visit to Rankin Inlet this past August. And his government believes they can do it by meeting the lowest possible constitutional threshold: the consent of any seven provinces that comprise at least 50 per cent of the country’s population.
Early in 2013, the Harper government, in a complex series of questions, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on whether their proposed actions are permitted by the constitution.
In response, the Government of Nunavut took the right position. In a written submission to the Supreme Court last August and in an oral submission made this past November by Norman Tarnow, who then served as the deputy minister of justice, the GN said no.
They said the Conservative government cannot change the way senators are chosen without “full consultation” and “the substantial agreement” of the provinces and territories. On abolition of the Senate, the GN said such a fundamental change cannot be made without the consent of all 10 provinces.
And as it should, the GN reminded the Supreme Court that the people of Nunavut — along with the people of the Northwest Territories and Yukon — are still legally excluded from participating in constitutional change.
To fix this, the GN said Canada must take steps to include the territories in any future decisions on amending the constitution, including any decision on abolishing the Senate.
“To do otherwise is to risk the legitimacy of such changes by excluding those jurisdictions in Canada with the most immediate need of vocal representation in the federal law-making process,” the GN said in its submission.
Another intervener, Sen. Serge Loyal, a Liberal, told the Supreme Court that abolition of the Senate also likely requires consultation with aboriginal peoples.
“The Senate has provided an opportunity to protect native rights through the participation of Aboriginal Senators in the legislative process. These remedial efforts would be lost if the Senate were to be abolished,” Joyal wrote.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s Jan. 29 decision to remove Liberal senators from his party’s parliamentary caucus amounts to nine parts publicity stunt and one part substance. He did say, however, that he plans, in the future, to propose new ways of choosing senators.
For all its limitations, this gesture is at least grounded in reality. It’s extremely unlikely that the Harper government — or any future government formed by another political party— can ever abolish the Senate. At the same time, their proposals for changing the way senators are chosen may stand a better chance.
You may hate the place. You may hate the people in it. But as long as the Senate provides representation to minority populations and small regions like Nunavut and Nunavik, abolition would do more harm than good. JB