Change the Senate? Change the membership

It wasn’t so long ago that appointing a woman to the Senate seemed revolutionary, but on this day in 1930, Mackenzie King did do just that. Following the Persons case, whereby the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council agreed that women were people under the British North America Act, not only were women enfranchised federally, but now they could be represented in the Upper Chamber. On February 15th, 1930, Carine Wilson was appointed by Canada’s Prime Minister – an act that presumably expanded responsible government in this country.

Through this simple appointment, and the tireless work of courageous women before Mrs. Wilson, democracy changed in Canada. Now, Wilson was certainly part of the elite, or as we say “the one percent,” so let’s not get too excited, but the appointment represented and represents a deliberate attempt to make the old Legislative Council – the Red Chamber –  a relic of the Constitutional Act of 1791, a more responsive body to the citizenry.

Unfortunately, upper chambers throughout the commonwealth were designed not to be responsive to the average citizen. In fact, they were created because who in their right mind would trust the “bewildered herd” to govern themselves? In fact, there are those, such as John Dewey, who outright suggested that it was better for democracy to have the elite dictate public policy.

In terms of Canada’s Senate, all political parties are posturing around what we should do about our 105 representatives who serve our interests, even if we don’t know what these interests are. Prime Minister Harper has repeatedly suggested some sort of reform while throwing more of his friends into the mix. Mr. Mulcair and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are quite set on doing away with the whole lot, suggesting that it’s a waste of money and that there is historical precedent within the country to do so (Most provinces did away with their upper chambers – including Manitoba).

Most recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that there are no longer Liberal Senators – a move analogous to suggesting that there are no more birthdays. All of these solutions, however, speak to political maneuvering and do not address the real issue concerning the Senate: how do you make it responsible to the people and representative of the people? How do you truly make it a place of sober second thought?

We are in fact, now, in need of sober thought more than ever at this very point in time. This is a time when our leadership is driving drunk on the fumes of oil-fuelled wealth and unfettered economic growth. We see bills and a national direction that attack all we know about ecological interdependence and sustainability. We see internationally embarrassing attacks against our country’s finest minds in science and the years of valuable data their research has produced. Our integrity as a country is being sold to the highest bidder with no adult and sober thought directed to future circumstances.

I say keep the power of the Senate, a power needed more than ever, but please, change the membership. Stop appointing the elite of Canada in order to usher in devastating legislation to the environment, various omnibus bills, or bizarre acts that deny Elections Canada the right to educate kids on why it’s important to vote. Where is our true counsel of elders that sees beyond short term partisan gain and works for the future of our Country. Naive? Perhaps. How can you dictate who a prime minister appoints? It happened 84 years ago with the help of the Valiant Five.

Canada has a history of resistance: most notably in Red River, at Batoche, on Yonge Street, in mock Parliaments at the Walker Theatre, with Idle No more. Let us harness our heroic and justice-seeking Canadian selves and demand an Upper House that answers to us and to the best interests of our Country’s future. We can demand that our Prime Ministers appoint proven leaders who have dedicated their lives for the betterment of our communities, as opposed to the betterment of the party at hand.

True representation in the Upper Chamber will come when we hear of the community organizers, activists, stay-at-home parents, volunteers, social workers, mechanics, and anyone else that struggles to make our homes and communities better, equitable, and, empowering. Affluent Senators who used to be media moguls who mismanage funds and mislead the public are becoming a bit of a cliché. And, truly, embarrassing. There is a place for the Senate, but it needs to be revolutionized, given purpose, and needs to be made up of people who understand Canada and who have experience working on behalf of the marginalized, not oil companies.

When Carine Wilson was appointed to the Senate, she famously said to Mackenzie King: “You are going to make me the most hated women in Canada.” It would be a fine day in Canada when 105 Senators could be so bold and brave as to accept the scorn of the political elite in the name of fairness, justice, and this experiment we call Canada.


Matt Henderson is a Social Studies teacher at St. John’s-Ravenscourt in Winnipeg. He can be reached at @henderson204.