Letter to the Prime Minister re: Senate Reform

October 14, 1998

The Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien, P.C.,M.P.
Prime Minister of Canada
Room 309-S, Centre Block
House of Commons
O t t a w a

Dear Prime Minister,

I have the honour respectfully to place before you a proposal for reform of the Senate of Canada.

I know that you yourself advocate Senate reform, that much work has been done on this subject, that agreement by provinces is required along with the federal Government, and that this is a highly complex subject not susceptible to easy solutions.

I approach the subject humbly but in recognition of my responsibilities to represent the wishes of the people of Alberta, a great number of whom have signified their desire for Senate reform.

In the light of all the studies that have been done, it would be hard to present an original proposal and I do not pretend to do so here. Rather, what I am reflecting here is the increase surge of public opinion in Alberta to find a way through the shoals of Senate reform.

An over-arching thought that infuses my approach is that as democracy spreads and deepens throughout the world in the 21st century, it is unlikely that any legislative body that is appointed will have the support of the public. However valid in the past the system of appointing qualified persons to the Senate, this system must give way, through due constitutional process, to elections. While there is much to be said for summoning persons who bring particular knowledge and who can help establish the proper gender and cultural balances to the Senate needs, this selection process is outweighed by the publicıs gathering desire to decide themselves who shall represent them in a legislative chamber.

Reform of the Senate must be of a national character; it cannot, if good order is to be maintained, be done on a piecemeal basis. In the consultations I have held with political leaders since being appointed a Senator, I have reached an early conclusion that the potential for a national consensus on Senate reform does exist in Canada.

The basis for the consensus is found in the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, which provided for a Senate that would be elected, equal and effective. The Charlottetown agreement proposed a Senate in which seats are distributed on the basis of provincial equality, with each province receiving six Senate seats and the Territories each receiving one. I fully support this division of seats because, as the federal Governmentıs background notes to the Charlottetown agreement states:

"This agreement responds to and reconciles three visions ofCanada ­ equality of provinces, equality of citizens, and equalityof English and French linguistic and cultural communities."

The Charlottetown Accord supported the election of Senators, whether by the people of the province or by the legislative assembly of the province. In my view, Senators should be elected by the people of the province they represent. Elections to the Senate should be held at the same time as elections to the House of Commons.

With equality and elections, it is also necessary to increase the powers of the Senate, through enabling it to be relatively influential over the fate of some types of federal legislation, while ensuring the supremacy of the House of Commons. A device offering great potential for ensuring the effectiveness of the Senate would be joint sittings of the House of Commons and the Senate to determine the fate of controversial bills of great national consequence.

In sum, the Senate changes offered within the Charlottetown Accord are attractive because they combine within one proposal many of the procedural and structural options that had previously been seen as competing alternatives.

The Charlottetown Accord did not prevail in a national vote. However, its failure cannot be ascribed to the Senate reform proposals it contained. In fact, Ontario and three of the Atlantic provinces voted for the Charlottetown Accord, an Accord that would have significantly reduced their influence in the Senate. These provinces accepted the necessity of Senate reform. Yet the four Western provinces, that stand to gain the most in Senate reform, voted against the Charlottetown Accord. They did so because of other elements in the Accord.

A basis for a national consensus on Senate reform, per se, does exist. And it is this potential consensus that I propose now be advanced.

Recognizing that Senate reform is intertwined with Constitutional change, and further recognizing that Constitutional change requires a salubrious climate that may not now be present in Canada, I propose that work proceed on identifying the consensus for Senate reform and isolating it out from other Constitutional changes. A clear package of Senate changes agreed to by the federal Government and the requisite number of provincial governments should be constructed and published on its own merits. The public would then have a chance to review proposed Senate changes, unencumbered by any other matter. Let Senate changes stand on their own.

When this "new Senate package" is seen as supported by a consensus in the country, the conditions in the country might well support opening the Constitution for the principal purpose of making the Senate changes. I believe this is a program worth attempting.

Recognizing that I am but one parliamentarian and in no way wishing to interfere with the Governmentıs plans, and seeking to fulfill my responsibilities to the people of Alberta to work for Senate reform, I propose to:

    1. Approach the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to co-sponsor a seminar which would review past proposals for Senate reform and identify a potential consensus in the country;
    2. Bring the conclusions of the above seminar to the attention of all the provincial and territorial premiers and their governments, with a view to seeking their concurrence;
    3. Bring the results of these findings to the attention of the appropriate federal ministers for consideration. The federal Government would play its leadership role on the basis of this new information.

I believe the proposal of action I have set out above is economical and workable. I will bring to this program my strength and good will, seeking to enhance the desire of so many people for reconciliation in our society.

With best wishes, I remain,


Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C.