The controversial life story of the Canadian Senate which was once happily described (by a senator) as the “finest old-age pension club in the world”

April 15 1954


The controversial life story of the Canadian Senate which was once happily described (by a senator) as the “finest old-age pension club in the world”

April 15 1954


The controversial life story of the Canadian Senate which was once happily described (by a senator) as the “finest old-age pension club in the world”

FOR EIGHTY-SEVEN years next July the Canadian taxpayer has been providing serenity and comfort for a group of elderly statesmen called senators, at a cost which they have just increased to $1,020,000 a year. For almost all of that time Canadians have regarded their Upper House with varying degrees of derision and distaste and have discussed means of improving or abolishing it.

The Senate was not yet seven years old when, on April 12, 1874, the House of Commons first debated Senate reform. Liberals have twice made Senate reform a plank in their party platform, both times when they had been out of office for years. Conservatives, when they were out of office, have moved resolutions to abolish the Senate. So far all these debates have ended where they began.

Our Senate is still composed of elderly folk appointed for life, who need do no more to hold their jobs than make one appearance in the Senate every second year. Some years ago one centenarian was wheeled on a reclining chair once each year into a sitting he could neither see nor hear; this was enough to earn his annual indemnity. At the moment our oldest senators are a spry trio in their eight ies but more than half the present membership is aged 70 or over and the average age is 68.

(Most senators feel this situation merely guarantees to the Canadian people the fruit of maturity and experience. Three years ago Sen. Adrian Hugessen ventured to suggest a retiring age, but colleagues shouted, “Nonsense.”

“If any member is not satisfied,” said one, “let him resign.”

The Senate spends less than half as much time in session as the House of Commons in order to draw the same pay. Last year, for instance, t he Commons sat for 108 days, mostly of six and a half hours each. The Senate held 59 sittings that averaged about an hour and a half. Normally the Senate works a three-day week, with several adjournments of a fortnight or more in each parliamentary session.

Nevertheless the recent bill to increase senatorial indemnities to $10,000 a year, to match the new rate for MPs, went through the Senate in 31 minutes and 27 seconds. Almost all of that time was spent debating a point of order. The Sj>eaker later explained that there was no delay because there was nothing to discuss. All senators agreed that senators were entitled to the new scale of pay, which probably gives them more money for less work than any other occupational group in Canada.

Elsewhere, ten s[>ecial contributors to Maclean’s, one from each province, set forth their

own ideas of what should be done with the Senate and who should sit there. It’s no coincidence that the contributors are laymen unconnected with politics. Politicians’ views had become fully developed, and embalmed in the clear amber of Hansard, before Confederation was ten years old. By 1893, when the Liberal Party first made Senate Reform a plank in its platform, the argument among political orators and between the two Houses of Parliament had become as strictly formalized as a Morris dance.

The Senate’s own view has been unchanged from the beginning. By and large it is well pleased with the Senate’s record and composition. With few exceptions senators believe there is nothing wrong with the Senate that a little more attention from government and public won’t fix. But senators have been aggrieved and puzzled by a certain lack, which they sense, of public enthusiasm for the Senate and its work.

“It is time we spoke freely on this subject,” Sen. Alexander told his colleagues in 1882, “because the people could not elect a body such as the members of this House are, for intelligence and exj>erience, and we ought to desire to raise the Senate in the public estimation so that they will love and honor this body.”

“The Gate To Extinction”

Senators have been speaking freely to this effect ever since. Recently Hon. Wishart Robertson, Speaker of the Senate, gave a radio audience five reasons why senators were actually more deserving of the new pay scale than were MPs. But although many other equally flattering appraisals can be found in Canadian political literature, most of them were uttered by senators to senators. Outsiders generally take a less indulgent view.

Occasionally even its own members have let the Senate down. Sir George Foster’s entry in his diary, when he was about to become a senator, is recorded in Robert Hamilton’s book, Canadian Quotations:

“I have today signed my warrant of political death. How colorless the Senate the entering gate to coming extinction.”

Others have been blunter and less elegant. The late Gerry McGeer, of Vancouver, soon after his move from the Commons to the Ujjper House, said, “It’s the finest old-age pension club in the world.” Sen. John Haig, Opposition leader, once said much the same thing to the scandalized Senate itself: “We

meml>ers of the Senate are the highest class of [»ensioners in Canada.”

But a year later the


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This Is Why We Need It


contrite Sen. Haig confessed to his colleagues, “I’m sorry I said it.” In the main, senators have always struggled to “raise the Senate in the public estimation.”

For years, until recently, they hired a newspaper reporter to sit on the floor of the Senate and write press reports of the proceedings. He faithfully pinned a copy of each dispatch to the Press Gallery notice board but they seldom got into the papers. When the Senate finally discontinued the practice (to the dismay of the reporter for whom it was a valued source of income) the results in news coverage were about the same. For some reason press and public have never taken the Senate as seriously as senators feel they should do.

Senators resent this because, as they never tire of pointing out, the two Houses of Parliament are constitutionally equal in all respects except that the Senate may not introduce a money bill. Spending the taxpayers’ money is done by MPs who must answer for it at the next election. The Senate can, and occasionally does, reject a money bill or amend it downward. It cannot amend upward.

Another difference is unwritten in the constitution hut is no less important in practice—the fact that a Canadian government is responsible to the House of Commons but not to the Senate. If the Commons vote no confidence in a government, that government must resign. A Senate vote of no confidence, if one were ever cast, could be ignored.

To say the two Houses of Parliament are identical, except for these differences, is something like saying two automobiles are identical except that one will start without a push and the other won’t.

Perhaps the Senate would be less often ridiculed if senators talked less about their supposed equality with the Commons and more about their actual inequality. Some critics set unfairly high standards in appraising the Senate of Canada—they compare it to the British House of Lords, which has genuine social if not legislative eminence, or to the United States Senate which is the dominant branch of the legislature.

No one ever intended the Canadian Senate to be anything of the sort. It was conceived as a minor secondary legislative chamber. The intentions of the Fathers are set forth in the Confederation Debates of 1865 when delegates to the Quebec Conference explained to the Parliament of the Province of Canada the plans they had drawn for the new Dominion. They had three main functions in mind for the Senate:

1. To act as a brake or check on the popular impulse as expressed in the “lower” but primary House of Commons;

2. To represent the conservative and propertied interest in Canada (democracy was still somewhat newfangled, and not quite trusted);

3. Most important of all, to protect minority and regional rights.

-John A. Macdonald, in a speech wherein he defined the Senate as “the sober second thought in legislation,” added, It. is only valuable as being a regulatory body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the Lower House and preventing any hasty or ill-considered legislation which may come from that body. But it will never

set itself in opposition to the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.”

Since its inception to the end of the last session of parliament the Senate received from the House of Commons 7,352 bills, of which it rejected only 214. Sixteen hundred and sixty-six were amended. The rest, three quarters of the whole, passed the Senate without change.

Of the 214 rejected, the majority were bills of which no government would wish to make an issue. Most of them in the early days were land or railway deals which, if passed, would have lined somebody’s pockets at the taxpayers’ expense.

R. A. Mackay, whose book, The Unreformed Senate of Canada, is still the standard work on the subject after twenty-seven years, says, “It may not be going too far to say that the Senate has saved the country in actual cash, by such activity, more than the total cost of its upkeep since Confederation.”

Occasionally the Senate has rejected major legislation which had passed the Commons after fierce opposition by a strong minority. The most famous instance was the Naval Bill of 1913, which would have given 35 million dollars to the British Navy. The Borden Government got it through the Commons by invoking closure (forcing the end of debate) after weeks of violent altercation; the Senate threw it out.

The Senate’s Stand Stands

The Borden Government could have resigned and held a general election on the issue but it did not. No Canadian government has ever chosen to do so.

“In twenty years at Ottawa,” Sir Clifford Sifton once said, “I have never known a case in which a government was anxious to take the verdict of the people on a bill rejected by the Senate.”

Since he made that remark, one instance has shown at least that the Senate is willing to accept such a verdict once given. The Mackenzie King Government brought in an Old Age Pension Bill in 1926 which passed the Commons but was defeated in the Senate. In 1927 the same bill came back, having passed the Commons again. In the meantime a general election had taken place and the Mackenzie King Government had been returned with an increased majority.

Old-age pensions had not been the major issue but nevertheless the Senate accepted the 1927 bill as “the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.” After considerable huffing and puffing and some amendments which the Commons refused to accept, senators finally passed the bill without a division.

Most of them were still against it in principle, though. It would never have occurred to a senator in 1927 to call himself “the highest class of old-age pensioner in Canada.” Senators were solid citizens; they looked with real concern (as some of them still do in the privacy of their handsomely furnished offices) on this proposal to squander $20 a month apiece on the destitute of seventy and over. Whatever else it may have done, the Senate has always faithfully carried out another intention of the Fathers of Confederation, that the Upper House should represent the propertied interest in Canada.

John A. Macdonald expressed this intention in a sardonic epigram at the Quebec Conference of 1864 — a remark which senators are not so fond of quoting as they are his “sober second thought” phrase.

“The rights of the minority must he protected,” said John A., “and the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.”

Sir James Lougheed, Conservative

leader in the Senate from 1911 to 1921, put the same thought even more bluntly. “The Senate,” he said, “is a bulwark against the clamor and caprice of the mob.”

The British North America Act shored up the bulwark by stipulating that a senator must own real property worth at least $4,000 in the province he represents, and be worth at least $4,000 (a considerable sum in 1867) over and above all liabilities. These stipulations still apply. One of the few ways by which a senator can lose his job, aside from swearing allegiance to a foreign power or being convicted of an “infamous” crime, is by going bankrupt or otherwise losing his property qualifications.

The Senate is faithful to the spirit as well as the letter of these provisions. At least half its present members are directors of companies or corporation lawyers or both. It’s not easy to determine the sequence of cause and effect here—some who are company directors become senators, and some who are senators then become company directors.

With the odd rare exception like the Beauharnois scandal of 1931 (when one senator accepted a large fee contingent on his ability to get certain private legislation through parliament) there has been no evidence of abuse of these business connections.

All in all the Senate hasn’t done badly as the guardian of propertied interests. It’s a moot point whether senators have done equally well at the task originally deemed their most important of all—the protection of minority and regional rights.

They Quote George Brown

It is this function which accounts for the rigid distribution of Senate seats. Each major region of Canada was to have an equal number, 24 apiece. That meant 72 senators when Canada consisted of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. By a constitutional amendment of 1915 the west became another region with 24 senators, for a total of 96. Newfoundland’s entry brought the Senate up to its present figure of 102.

This regional equality in the Senate was designed to be the offset, the balancing factor against Ontario’s claim for “Rep by Pop” in the House of Commons.

George Brown, the Ontario Grit who made common cause with his enemy Macdonald to bring Canada into being, said in the Confederation Debates, “Our Lower Canadian friends have agreed to give us representation by population in the Lower House on the express condition that they could have equality in the Upper House. On no other condition could we have advanced a step.”

George Brown’s words are often quoted by senators to prove another of their favorite contentions—that without the Senate, Confederation would not have been possible. Only this stabilizing body wit h its evenly distributed membership, they say, could allay the fears and mutual suspicions among Canada’s disunited provinces.

These fears have greatly diminished in eighty-seven years but they haven’t yet vanished entirely-—witness the difficulty we now find in contriving a way for Canada to amend its own constitution. The last time the Senate was discussed at a dominion-provincial conference was in 1927 when Mackenzie King made a half-hearted gesture toward carrying out his party’s platform pledge of Senate reform. The conference got nowhere.

Some senators argue that the Senate cannot be abolished or even altered without its own consent. This is non-

sense. The British North America Act is still amended by the British Parliament, at Canada’s request. If a Canadian government were to ask, with the support of all provincial governments, for the abolition of the Senate the British Parliament would certainly amend the BN A Act accordingly.

But there is no present prospect of any such request being made. Provincial as well as federal politicians nurse within their secret hearts the hope that they, too, may end their days in this peaceful haven. Also there is probably even now some genuine regard for the Senate as a guardian of established rights.

In actual practice, though, the Senate has done nothing in particular to safeguard provincial rights against federal encroachments. In all questions of that sort the Senate has followed the House of Commons and championed federal against provincial power. The role of defending provincial rights has been amply filled by the provincial governments (which turned out to be far more powerful than the Fathers of Confederation intended) and by the courts.

Minority representation in the Senate has always been a matter of some debate. In one sense the minorities are scrupulously represented — so many English - speaking Protestants from Quebec, so many French - speaking Catholics from the west, so many English-speaking Catholics from Ontario or Nova Scotia, and so on.

Politically, though, minorities are not represented at all. Social Credit governments have ruled Alberta for nineteen years, CCF governments have ruled Saskatchewan for ten, and Premier Duplessis’ Union Nationale has held office in Quebec most of the time since 1936. None has representation in the Senate.

Conservatives usually get about a third of the popular vote in a Canadian general election and they now have fifty-odd seats in the Commons. They have seven senators. Ironically, four of the seven represent Saskatchewan which has elected only one Conservative MP (John Diefenbaker) in the last three elections.

All but one of the seven Conservative senators are over 70, and four are over 75. If the Government were to bring in one often-recommended reform and establish a retirement age for senators the Opposition in the Upper House might be wiped out in the lifetime of the present parliament.

In any case it’s obvious that the Senate is in danger of becoming a one-party House. If the Liberal Party wins one more general election, extinction of the Conservative Opposition becomes very probable. Prime Minister St. Laurent, in the recent debate on the increase of parliamentary indemnities, said he had never seriously considered any departure from the present method of appointing senators. Sir Wilfrid Laurier expressed the Prime Minister’s difficulty in 1906, in words that apply with equal force today:

I do not say that I must select (a member of my own party), but I do say that when I have come to the moment of selection, and have to select between a Tory and a Liberal,

I feel I can serve the country better by appointing a Liberal than a Conservative. And I am very much afraid that any man who occupies the position I occupy today will feel the same way. So long as the appointing is, as it is today, in the hands practically of the First Minister, I am afraid we stand little chance of reform.

Experience has borne out his words. Sir John A. Macdonald is still the only Prime Minister ever to have appointed a political opponent to the Senate—and

even then the political opponent was a personal friend (also named John Macdonald) who had stood by Sir John in the Pacific scandal of 1873.

Invariably the enjoyment of power has moderated the politician’s zeal to reform the Senate. In the election campaign of 1896 Sir Richard Cartwright, a Liberal firebrand, thundered to an audience in Toronto’s Massey Hall, “When shall Providence remove this millstone from around the necks of the Canadian people?”

Cartwright was one of the first Liberal appointments to the Senate. By 1906 he was delivering himself, in a Senate debate, of what is still a favorite quotation among senators: “It is not by

any manner of means a trifling thing to say when I say that the value of the Senate is not only in what the Senate does but in what the Senate prevents other people from doing.”

When Mackenzie King took office in 1921 with a heavy Senate majority against him he exacted a pledge from each Liberal senator he appointed. They were all sworn to “support such measure of Senate reform, in conformity with the requirements of the Constitution, as may be introduced by the Liberal administration.”

King’s Memory Lapsed

Obviously his plan was to introduce the “fundamental reform” that the Liberal platform promised, as soon as the Senate had a Liberal majority. But as luck would have it that moment didn’t come for a long time. Even in 1930 when the Mackenzie King Government was defeated by R. B. Bennett’s Conservatives, the 44 Liberal senators were still outnumbered by 34 Conservatives and 12 “unaffiliated” senators who’d been appointed by Sir Robert Borden under the Union Government of 1917-20.

The Bennett interlude, 1930-35, restored a Conservative majority. Meanwhile Mackenzie King’s zeal for Senate reform had waned. Nothing more was heard, after 1935, of the “senators’ pledge” he had once exacted. By 1941 the Liberals at last achieved the Liberal majority which has now become overwhelming; nowadays only the CCF talks about abolishing the Senate, and even “reform” is discussed in an aimless and half-hearted way when the subject comes up.

Actually there is room for considerable doubt whether some of the suggested “reforms” would really bring improvement.

Appointment of some senators by

provincial governments would help to correct the imbalance of political parties—there would by now be a small handful of Social Crediters and CCFers from the west and a few more Ontario Conservatives. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the change would improve the Senate’s personnel in any other way.

Indeed, the Senate’s talent for putting its worst foot forward has somewhat obscured the fact that it does do some useful work.

Recently, as has always happened when the Senate acquires a party majority of the government’s color, its actual rejection of bills from the House of Commons has dwindled to zero. The Senate has not voted down a government measure since 1940. This may expose the Senate to the suspicion of being a rubber stamp, but at least it refutes the charge that an irresponsible Upper House is thwarting the will of the people.

Amendment is another matter. Writer R. A. Mackay’s study of sixty years’ work in the Senate showed no appreciable difference in the number of bills amended, no matter whether the Senate’s majority is for or against the party in power. Some of the amendments are mere comma-chopping, but some are of real importance and value.

“The Income Tax Bill of 1917 was practically unworkable when it came before the Senate,” says Mackay, “and only by the Senate’s amendments was it put into anything like satisfactory shape.”

The Senate also did useful work on the present revised Income Tax Act— not only by amendment but, more important, by two years of special committee work before the new bill was even drafted. Many of the Senate committee’s recommendations are incorporated in the law.

Committees do an important fraction of the Senate’s work. The busiest and best known is the Divorce Committee which grinds out about three hundred divorces a year for Quebec and Newfoundland.

Almost all private bills originate in the Senate. The Senate may also originate as many “public bills by private members” as it likes Sen. Euler’s long and eventually successful campaign to legalize margarine is an outstandingexample.

But the most important legislation in any session is government legislation and this (except for money bills) the government may introduce in either House as it chooses. In the past, ministers usually preferred the Commons

because they liked to introduce their own hills themselves. Since 1945, however, a change in the Senate’s rules has permitted cabinet ministers (who are members of the House of Commons) to come before the Senate and explain in person any government legislation they may choose to originate there.

The result has been some increase in the number, and a great increase in the importance, of bills which are processed by the Senate before going to the Commons. Government bills have been started there in numbers averaging about a dozen a year, some of them major jobs.

Senators are fond of pointing to their members’ record of experience. They have 30 ex-MPs, five of them former cabinet ministers, and 21 ex-MLAs, of whom 13 sat in provincial cabinets. These figures overlap a bit but certainly more than half the present Senate had previous legislative experience in one field or the other.

However, there are forms of service { to the Liberal Party that are rewarded with senatorships which may appear less than useful in the eyes of the aver; age voter.

One is to he defeated at the polls firmly, repeatedly and expensively. j Half a dozen members of the present | Senate acquired their political experience as defeated candidates—two were beaten three times running.

Prof. R. MacGregor Dawson recalls one senator, now dead, who was defeated in five consecutive general elections. “Finally a grateful government granted what an unappreciative electorate had withheld,” he l'elates, “and j the perpetual candidate triumphantly ¡ entered the legislative halls as a senator.”

A New Trend Coming?

Another type of political experience which often entitles a man to a senatorship is to be president, secretary or similarly active official in a party organization. Eight senators now list thus and no other political apprenticeship in the Parliamentary Guide. Others, who indicate no connection at all with any political party, might perhaps be identified by the Recording Angel as large contributors to electioncampaign funds.

However it’s unwise to base too many conclusions on categories and paper qualifications. Two of the ablest members of the Senate today are Adrian Hugessen and Norman Lambert. One was a defeated candidate, the other a Liberal Party official. Both are superior in ability and energy to many a retired MP or cabinet minister.

Recently there have been indications that the Government intends to improve the calibre of the Senate. Last year’s appointments all went to Liberals but all did not go to the Liberals who had the highest seniority in party service.

Ross Macdonald, now Government Leader in the Senate, was in the last parliament the ablest Speaker the House of Commons had had for many years. John J. Connolly, of Ottawa, had been an active Liberal but not particularly outstanding as such—he’s just an able energetic lawyer in his middle forties.

»Some cabinet ministers think the Prime Minister might go further, in future appointments, and name people who aren’t even Liberals.

He won’t name Conservative politicians—it’s too much to ask of a faithful Liberal worker, to see this coveted plum go to the very man who’s been fighting him tooth and nail for thirty years. But very definite consideration is being given to the appointment of men who are not politicians at all.

One thing that has stimulated this trend of thought is the new $10,000 indemnity. MPs got it because being an MP has become virtually a full-time job—half a year at Ottawa, the other half busy with constituents’ affairs. There is no way that any man, however conscientious or industrious, could make a full-time job of being a senator. There just isn’t that much work for a senator to do. Those who are busy all year round are busy with other things.

A way out of this dilemma would be to appoint men and women who are doing valuable but non-lucrative work.

Canadian scientists, historians and other such students must now seek grants from United States foundations to carry on work of great permanent value to Canada. Why should not such people be senators, and earn their indemnity by working a quarter of the time in parliament and three quarters of the time outside? Indeed some members of Maclean’s nominating committee for a new Senate have suggested this very thing.

Prime Minister St. Laurent hasn’t said a word to indicate any such intention and his word is the only one that

really counts. Some of his colleagues, though, and other prominent Liberals ore talking about devices of this kind as a way round the problem of the oneparty Senate. It would be too strong yet to say such a change is likely, but it is at least a possibility.

This would not prevent the Senate from becoming a one-party House in one sense—all members would still be Liberal appointees with no other strong party tie. But the probable end result would be not a one-party so much as a non-party Senate, which might be the best solution available to Canada. ★