Out of touch
Along with the country itself, the Canadian Senate is turning 150 this year.
The Senate’s existence has been long fraught with controversy over the entitlement and privilege of its members. But it has been especially harshly scrutinized over the past five years or so.
Over a dozen senators made headlines when their questionable spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars led to an inquiry that cost Canadians millions. The inquiry also came with a national discussion about the value of the senate and whether it should continue to exist.
None of the senators investigated were relieved of their duties.
During the process, Senator Nancy Ruth— long known for her inability to filter her thoughts—was questioned about her decision to charge the senate for her breakfast on a flight from Toronto to Ottawa. A free breakfast was included with the flight, but the “ice-cold brie and broken crackers” the airline offered were not to Ruth’s liking.
She remained a senator until retiring last year when she reached the mandatory age of 75.
It was a glaring example of senate privilege, one with echoes of the famously misquoted Marie-Antoinette. It is claimed the French revolution era queen said that if the masses couldn’t afford bread, “let them eat cake,” shortly before losing her head to the angry proletariats.
The story’s dubious roots aside, the point is easily made: wealthy and out of touch, senators can easily and unwittingly highlight their own entitlement.
Some hoped when Trudeau was elected he would abolish the senate. Instead, Canada’s current PM aimed to fix the agency’s partisan problems by replacing Liberal with independent senators in the 105-member red chamber.
But while the spending scandal that came to a close in 2015 is fast fading in the rear-view mirror of Canadian consciousness, evidence of senator entitlement and privilege continues to rear its ugly head.
In the past week, two senators have made headlines, neither for flattering reasons.
Conservative senator Lynn Beyak was criticized for stating there were participants in the residential school system who were well intentioned.
Independent senator Don Meredith has been facing pressure this week to resign after revelations he had an affair with a 16-year-old girl.
The thing is, given its history, privilege in the Senate should not come as a surprise.
The UK’s House of Lords is an institution that functions like a senate, and is its likely predecessor. There, members are appointed for their aristocratic lineage, their net worth. It’s a decidedly antidemocratic relic of a monarchic system with real power to affect law.
In Canada, the Senate was actually created as a condition of confederation exactly to be an opposing force to democracy.
Because of its population, Ontario would be the largest power in a democratic system of government like the one proposed for the dominion. But the financial power of landowners in Quebec and the Maritimes pushed back. They agreed to confederation only if a body was set up to review—and have the ability to kibosh—laws prepared by the democratically elected parliament.
They would be appointed by the Queen’s representative, the Governor General.
But to qualify, a person had to own land with a value of at least $4,000 free and clear, and have a net worth of at least $4,000. In 1867, that meant only wealthy landowners qualified to sit on the Senate.
While the amount hasn’t changed and is now merely symbolic, it does follow the tradition of the red chamber, privileged and out of touch with the reality of most Canadians. It’s troubling, for an institution with so much power.