On Reform of the Senate of Canada

The new Government of Canada has expressed a desire to reform the Senate of Canada. In support of this effort, I have shared the following thoughts with my Member of Parliament, the Government, and Parliament as a whole:

As a constant, but minor, theme in Canadian politics, the question of Senate reform remains an unresolved irritant. As an irritant, it can either distract from or aggravate other issues with more pressing need for resolution. Public discussion focuses mainly on the question of why to reform the Canadian Senate and I will not delve into that question now except to acknowledge that the former Reform and Alliance parties both recognized the issue as important. In the past, further discussion sought to identify some principles around which a reformed Senate would function. These include the frequently cited "triple E Senate," and some effort to replace Senate appointment with election from provincial jurisdiction. I am not aware of any suggestion of how a reformed Senate may actually look and function. As a very ordinary Canadian, I would like to offer a suggestion for total reformation of the Senate.
The strength of a bicameral legislature lies in the capacity of one legislative chamber to serve as a check on the other and preserve balance in parliamentary deliberation. To achieve such ability to provide "sober second thought," the constitution must define each chamber very differently one from the other, the basis for membership in one chamber starkly different form the basis for membership in the other. Thus, Canada has an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate. In the United States, the House of Representatives, made up of localized representatives within the various states, and the Senate, made up of state specific representatives, are, in practical terms, almost indistinguishable one from the other in behaviour and function. I think Canadians accept need to move from undemocratic appointment of Senators but hesitate to duplicate the House of Commons.

By looking at the House of Commons and issues of representation that recur with each election, I can see an alternative organizational structure for a replacement to the present Senate. Historically, the House of Commons is the chamber of the common people in contrast to the British House of Lords, the chamber of the (largely) hereditary landed aristocracy. Having no hereditary landed aristocracy, Canada opted for the current Senate, effectively a chamber of distinguished people, distinction defined neither constitutionally nor by any objective means but at appointment with a suggestion of representation by province. Therein lies its inability to serve Canada effectively. The House of Commons acts, in reality, more as the chamber of our common interest. Members get elected to represent roughly equal segments of Canada's whole population, distributed among highly localized segments of Canadian geography. Each Member of Parliament sits as a Canadian and as a Canadian only, the choice of Canadians within the geographical constituency that member represents.

From time-to-time, concerns circulate that Parliament is not sufficiently representative. There are too few women, as women, in Parliament (despite the fact that the total count of men, as men, in Parliament is zero); there are too few First Nations people, as First Nations people, in Parliament (despite the fact that the total count of non-First Nations people, as non-First Nations people, in Parliament is zero); there are too few disabled people, as disabled people, in Parliament (despite the fact that the total count of fully able people, as fully able people, in Parliament is zero); there are too few people, as members of many and various subsets of Canadians, in Parliament (despite the fact that the total count of people of any other subset of Canadians, as members of such a subset of Canadians, is always zero). Such representation concerns often accompany a suggestion of either quotas on representation in the House of Commons or that selected Commons seats be reserved for representatives of identifiable sub groups of Canadians. Clearly, such special designations would severely distort the House of Commons as a chamber of our common interest.

In contrast, these suggestions may have merit when we consider reforming the Senate. One of Canada's great strengths lies with the diversity of our people. We are all Canadian, yet each of us also shares in various other identities. Perhaps the Senate should become the House of Our Identities. each member elected to represent the interests of the other identities Canadians hold. The House of Commons would remain largely indistinguishable from our current House of Commons, the source of the government responsible to the legislature and the senior of the two chambers, elected from geographical constituencies by openly scheduled general vote for terms of no more than four years. It could still question its own confidence in the government and precipitate an unscheduled election (nothing is more vital for truly responsible democracy than the power to question confidence in the government!). The House of Our Identities, able to review legislation initiated in the House of Commons and initiate its own legislation, not government legislation, is a novel concept, in response to our diversity. It also could question its confidence in the House of Commons and, potentially, precipitate an election for that otherwise senior chamber. In contrast members of the House of Our Identities would sit for rotating, fixed, and limited, terms.

I suggest we identify the five most significant distinct elements of identity to which Canadians hold. These may be by gender, age group, mode of making a living, ethnic derivation, level of education, religious affiliation, generation count since immigration to Canada, ability/disability, mother tongue, province of residence, et-cetera through the entire selection of identities by which all of us live. Every twenty-five years a commission, very like the Forum on Electoral Reform used recently in British Columbia, would examine Canadian society and identify the five areas of identity Canadians currently regard as most significant. The House of Our Identities would be divided into five caucuses with equal numbers of members, one for each of the accepted significant identities. Each Identity Caucus would include members elected to contingents defined by the identities that make up that caucus with the number of members of each contingent dependent on the numbers of Canadians who self-identify with that specific identity. Self-identification at voter registration would be vital to avoid having contingents hijacked by external identity related organizations. For instance, if ethnic derivation were considered a significant identity, the Ethnic Derivation Caucus of the House of Our Identities could consist of elected members making up contingents such as Canadians of French Canadian Origin (i. e. of ancestry dating back to French colonial times in contrast to Canadians of more recent French migration origin whose view of their identity may differ substantially with those of French Canadian Origin), Canadians of British Origin (or, perhaps, subdivided among English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish), Native Canadians, Canadians of Han Chinese Origin, Canadians of African-American origin, et-cetera through the entire diversity of ethnic origins within our current population, including Canadians who prefer to self-identify as of Mixed Ethnicity and a general contingent for Canadians who do not want recognition by any ethnic identity other than simply as Canadian. In the case of age grouping being considered a significant identity, contingents of children, elected by children, and of adolescents, elected by adolescents, could actually take seats in the House of Our Identities.

Large contingents would have to be subdivided by geographical locale while small contingents would get elected at large over the whole country. If gender were considered a significant identity, the Gender Caucus of the House of Our Identities could consist of two large contingents, the contingent of men and the contingent of women subdivided by an appropriate number of paired geographic constituencies for men and for women. If religious affiliation were a significant identity, then Zoroastrians might elect a contingent of one Member of the House of Our Identities for the whole of Canada while Catholics would elect a large contingent from many Catholic constituencies all over Canada. This identity would also have to provide a contingent for those who eschew any religious faith and a general contingent for Canadians who hold their religious beliefs as wholly private.

The actual membership structure of the House of Our Identities would be defined and reviewed every twenty-five years to keep the chamber relevant to Canadian society, with some identities dropped (identities with large general contingents would be prime candidates to get dropped) as no longer significant and others added as newly significant. Each identity caucus within the House of Our Identities would be elected for a fixed five year term, one caucus at a time in succeeding years (this would require that one fifth of the existing Senate retire in each of the first five years of the new House of Our Identities). No member of the House of Our Identities should hold a seat for more than a single term. This would give a fixed schedule election every year and a turn over of chamber membership independent of of the membership turnover in the House of Commons. The first five years after each identity review would be a transition period with each previous identity caucus giving way to its successor identity caucus at each identity caucus election.

The system may be more complex than our present Senate, but it would give real voice for us to express both our common interests as Canadians through the House of Commons and our special interests as Canadians of diverse additional identities through the House of Our Identities. This suggestion offers a dynamic and very real function to a replacement for the current Senate without diminishing the House of Commons.