At the time this article was published
Norbert Thériault was a Senator.
I want to give you my feeling about the
Senate, feelings that have come to me over a number of years, but especially as
a provincial politician, one who has served 10 years in government and 10 years
in opposition. Like many of my colleagues now sitting in the Senate, I attended
many federal-provincial conferences as a minister of a provincial government.
Irrespective of what party formed the government at the national level, I came
out of these conferences feeling that it was almost impossible to obtain
something that would benefit your province or region if you were not from
Quebec or Ontario.
My participation to the federal-provincial
conferences convinced me that the word "region" which is so
commonplace today in the political jargon of Canada was an invention of
politicians from Quebec or Ontario. I still have that feeling now. We are not a
country of regions. If this were the case half of eastern Quebec would be with
the Maritimes, the whole of the western provinces would be one region including
probably northern Ontario. Labrador would not be a part of Newfoundland and
northern Quebec would not be part of Quebec – these regions would be part of
the Northern Territories.
As far as I am concerned, Canada is
politically and constitutionally a country of provinces and not of regions
because I realize when I travel across the country that there is as much
difference between people living in Northern Ontario and people of Toronto, as
there is between those of Prince Edward Island and those living in Victoria,
In our democratic society the people who are
elected under our British parliamentary system are elected at constituency
level, based on the population of each province. Therefore, it is an undeniable
fact that the number of members elected to the House of Commons should be
proportional to the number of citizens. As far as possible all members of
Parliament are elected by the same number of electors in every part of the
country with some variations which I do not think can be avoided, and which are
subject to change from time to time.
When I was in provincial politics, I can
honestly tell you that I never gave much thought to the Senate. I saw it like
most other Canadians see it today, I suppose – a place where very knowledgeable
and experienced people had time to think things over, do a lot of reading, and
go over the legislation that is passed by the House of Commons.
I have been there for over four years now
and I do not pretend I have been one of the greatest senators of all time. But
I came to the conclusion, watching the Senate operate, that it does a very good
job when it comes to legislation that is passed to it by the House of Commons.
I think it is a necessary institution. However, I think the reputation of the
Senate has suffered because, oftentimes towards the end of a session, the
government passes two or three bills that might have lingered on in the House
of Commons for months and months and months and just before closing time they
send it on to the Senate and expect the Senate to pass it. Unless there is a
state of emergency, legislation that is passed on to the Senate from the House
of Commons should be passed to it without a fixed period of time before it is
I think it should be understood, though.
that oftentimes as well the Senate has had a chance to pre-study the
legislation and it is more appearance than anything else that the Senate passes
Now, to come to my main theme, because in
our system of government the House of Commons is the legislature with the
powers, as it should be as long as the Senate is an appointed body, there is no
reason why the number of senators making up the Senate should not be made up of
an equal number from each province.
I know I am not the first one to say that. I
suppose you are not going to get much support for that kind of suggestion from
Ontario and Quebec. especially from Quebec at least which is what the scholars
and professors are saying But let us assume that the Senate is to be nominated,
as it is now, by the Prime Minister and there is not as much wrong with that,
from my point of view, as a lot of people seem to think. What causes the
problem is the fact that one party has dominated the House of Commons for so
many years that the prime ministers of that party have appointed many more
Liberal senators than have been appointed by other parties in the last fifty
I think there should be some clause
preventing an overloading of senators from one party. I can easily imagine
something in law that would say that after one party has more than, I do not
know, 60% or 55% of the senators, then the senators appointed after that
balance has been reached should be appointed, on suggestions or lists of names
submitted by the Leader of the Opposition, or oppositions. If that had been the
case, we probably would not have this problem that has turned the media so
harshly on the Senate, calling us all political hacks and being appointed only
because we were a friend of a given party, or supporters of a certain party,
because I do not think it is necessarily true, in either case. People I have
met or have known since I have been sitting in the Senate are mostly
independent thinking and very able persons.
Let us come back to this other part of equal
representation. I know those people who oppose it, use the example of Prince
Edward Island because it has about 100,000 people. They say: "how can you
conceive of Prince Edward Island nominating 10 senators, and Ontario with 8
million people, also nominating 10 senators"?
The Senate as envisaged by the fathers of
Confederation, had a principal function, to represent areas or regions in those
days the involvement of government in our daily lives was very different than
it is today. I am not sure if the fathers of Confederation of the maritime
provinces would have accepted the kind of Senate we have today, had they known
then we were going to get so many other western provinces and territories.
Their power in the Senate is diminished by the fact that in 1867 we were
one-third of the Senate and now we are only about one-fourth of the Senate.
I am sure that is one of the things that
convinced former Premier Robichaud of New Brunswick to suggest there should
maybe be a look again at the possibility of a union of the maritime provinces.
A commission was set up. I sat as a member
of the committee from the legislature because I was then in opposition. We
examined the Deutsch Commission report on that possible union of the maritime
provinces and out of that grew the Council of Maritime Premiers, which in my
humble opinion has come to be a social club of premiers of the Atlantic
provinces and nothing much more. Right now it is convenient for them to get
together and bash the federal government, because they happen to all be of one
When I look at the western alliances, the
Western Premiers Conference, I think it is pretty well the same thing. I am not
trying to be partisan on that, because if the roles were reversed it would be
exactly the same thing.
But what I found when I was in New Brunswick
as a member of the legislature, and in Ottawa, too, is that very seldom do you
hear a member of the Senate from Nova Scotia, for instance getting up with a
great big defence of New Brunswick s interests or vice versa. Just look over
the records and listen carefully for a few years and you will find out.
Sometimes when I want to make a point on behalf of the Province of New
Brunswick in the Senate, I will say the Atlantic provinces, the maritime
provinces or the maritime region.
The fact is we are a country of provinces.
Often, the views of Nova Scotia are as much different from the views of New
Brunswick as those of Ontario or of Quebec. The prime example – and it is a
vivid example right now – is the fact that it took about six or seven years
before the Atlantic Maritime Council of Premiers and all the other bodies
involved were able ~o get together and get Nova Scotia to participate in the
building of a veterinary college in P.E.I. So that shows you how much real
resemblance there s between the Atlantic provinces.
My experience has been that there is much
more co-operation and will to work together between Ontario and Quebec than
between any other two provinces I know of in this country. Very seldom do I
hear in the Senate somebody from Alberta getting up and talking about the
Garrison project in the United States I hear the Manitoba people talking about
it the Senate. I do not know about the House of Commons., but from the little I
hear about the House of Commons, again it is the people from Manitoba talking
about the Garrison, not the people from British Columbia or Ontario.
So I think we have to accept the fact that
we are a country of provinces. As a matter of fact, the new Constitution makes
that clear in that it takes a certain number of provinces representing a
proportion of the population to amend the Constitution. When it comes to a
federal-provincial conference, I have never heard the Prime Minister telling
the Premier of P.E.I. he could not speak now because he only represented
100,000 people. He has his turn to speak there as well as the Premier of
Ontario or Quebec.
For all these reasons and because it would
net be anything out of the way or unusual. the major federations or countries
of the world have senates or second houses appointed or elected based on their
entities. Their provinces, their states, their cantons or whatever they call
their provinces. The best example, naturally is the United States, where the
State of Alaska, with about 400,000 people, elects two senators to Washington;
and the State of California, with 26 or 27 million people, elects two senators.
If we had that kind of representation in the
second house wonder if maybe those of us from the eastern end of the country
and those of you from the western end of the country maybe would talk about
Ottawa and the national capital as the people in Alaska talk about Washington,
D.C. and accept their national government in the same manner.
Australia. under the British parliamentary
system with an elected Senate, has the same number of senators from each state.
There as well, although the difference is not quite as great as in the United
States, nevertheless there is New South Wales with 5 million people and
Tasmania with 400,000 people; and they both elect 10 senators. Switzerland has
cantons with 1.2 million people. They send two delegates to the Conseil des
états, and another canton with 60,000 people sends the same number.
The Canada West Foundation has suggested
something almost similar or not quite similar. I can understand that, because
western Canada was growing and is still growing pretty fast and probably would
not want the Maritimes to have the same number of senators as they would want
from western Canada. They would like to dominate now, I suppose because they
are getting rich and powerful. But I believe that is riot the purpose of the
Senate. Nevertheless, they have written about it, and I think they are making a
It may well be that the Senate power should
be limited to a power of suspension or for six Months or whatever time could be
arrived at, especially if it were a Senate of equal representation from
provinces. Even without that. I personally feel very strongly about people
having more power when they get it directly from the people than those of us
who are appointed. Therefore, my feelings would not be hurt at all if at some
lime all the powers of the Senate were powers of suspension and not powers of
Many of the people in the Senate are writers
and scholars and people who have a lot of experience, much more than me. I go
by instinct. I have always had a feel for people, for what they are, what they
think, what their dreams and hopes are; and we in the Atlantic provinces. from
my point of view – although we have been less vocal, much less vocal than
western Canada – oftentimes feel as far removed from the decision-making in
Ottawa as you do in western Canada I suppose it is historically true that in
the Atlantic provinces we are mostly the product of loyal Loyalists who for a
long time felt, and some of them still feel, that because we are operating
under a British system of Parliament that no matter what happened it had to be
good because it came from there. And it is the truth, a lot of people feel that
way and it is not all that bad.
The Atlantic Provinces have traditionally
elected only Liberals and Conservatives: and honestly my feeling is that we
have been electing people who are real party people who follow the party line,
which oftentimes, I think, has cost the Atlantic region greatly. Although I am
not critical of political parties per se, I think this region has suffered for
Finally I want to tell you what my feeling
is about election o, appointment to the Senate. I have no strong feelings about
it, but personally I like elections. I have gone through a few of them and I
would not mind going through a few more right now. I think there is something to
be said for an elected Senate.
I think the one who has come closest to my
feeling on the subject-matter is Gordon Robertson in a paper he presented to
Laval University in 1983. While he does not accept equal representation by
provinces, his views on how the Senate should be operating and how it should be
elected I can accept very easily. It is simply that half of the senators should
be elected at each federal election: that is, a senator would be elected for
Of course, if there is any hope whatsoever
of anyone accepting the basic principle of equal representation by province
then you would have to have something in the Senate that would protect the
rights of the French-speaking people, and especially Quebec. What Gordon
Robertson says there, and I commend this to all of you, is that in fact there
has to be double majority in the Senate when it comes to linguistic and
cultural rights Such matters would have to be approved by not only the majority
of the Senate but the majority of the French-speaking people in the Senate, and
the same way around if it came to English-speaking rights in Quebec or any
other place. It this was done. then Quebec could no' ask to be any different
than any of the other provinces. It is different simply because it is the home
of the French-speaking culture, and it must remain that way