Frequently Asked Questions About the Senate of Canada

Senator Tardif

What is the role of the Senate?

For the Fathers of Confederation, the Senate of Canada was to play two different roles:

  • Sober second thought as a counter to the activities of the House of Commons
  • Protect regional interests, especially that of Quebec

What are the origins of the Senate?

The Senate retains an important place in Canadian history: indeed, without an agreement to include the Senate as it is presently constituted, there would have been no Confederation in 1867.

The Senate of Canada is a unique institution, being the single second chamber within the Canadian federation, and the only one in the western world whose members are all appointed.

With the exception of British Columbia, all of the British North American colonies had bicameral or two chamber legislatures before 1867. It was from these pre-Confederation Legislative Councils, particularly that of the United Province of Canada (the union in 1840 of Upper Canada [Ontario] and Lower Canada [Quebec]) that the model for the Senate was taken. Its formal origins emerged from the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864 which met to consider proposals for a union of the British North American colonies. Much of the Quebec Conference was devoted to creating an upper house.

Various proposals for its method of selection were considered, including direct election. The Legislative Council of Prince Edward Island had been elective since 1862 and that of the Province of Canada since 1857. However, there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for an elected second chamber.

What are the powers of the Senate?

The Parliament of Canada is composed of the Sovereign, the Senate and the House of Commons, and the consent of all three is necessary for the passage of legislation. The formal powers of the Senate are co-equal to those of the House of Commons with two exceptions: (a) Section 53 of the Constitution Act, 1867 directs that money bills are to originate in the House of Commons and (b) section 47(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that amendments to the constitution can be made without the consent of the Senate.

What is the composition of the Senate?

Originally, the Senate was composed of 72 members, but increased as the country geographically and demographically grew in size. In the first forty (40) years of Confederation, a series of arrangements to provide representation to Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan brought a total number of Senate seats to eighty-seven (87). In 1915, the number of Senators increased to 96, in 1949 to 102, in 1974 to 104 and in 1999 to 105.

Today, the number of seats per province is as follows:

  • Ontario: 24
  • Quebec: 24
  • Nova Scotia: 10
  • New Brunswick: 10
  • Prince Edward Island: 4
  • Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland: 6 each
  • The Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon Territories: 1 each

Pursuant to sections 26, 27 and 28 of the Constitution Act, 1867 , four or eight additional Senators may be appointed, upon the direction of the Queen. The total number of Senators cannot exceed 113, but the normal compliment is set at 105.

What are the qualifications for becoming a Senator?

Senators are to be:

  • At least thirty years old;
  • Canadian citizens by birth or naturalization;
  • Holders of property of at least $4,000 in the province for which they were appointed;
  • Have a personal worth of at least $4,000;
  • Live in the province that they will represent as a senator;
  • In Quebec, where there is a Senator for each of the districts formerly represented in the colony of Canada’s Legislative Council, a Senator must either own property or reside in the district that he or she represents.

Previous to 1965, Senators were appointed for life. In 1965, in what was the first significant step towards Senate reform, The Constitution Act, 1867 was amended so that all Senators appointed after that date were to retire at age 75.

How are Senators selected?

The constitutional foundation defines a selection process whereby Senators are appointed by the central government’s executive (specifically by the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister) and whereby the legislature is limited to a fixed size, based upon an equality of regional divisions.

What do Senators do?

In 1980, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Report on Certain Aspects of the Canadian Constitution listed four roles of the Senate, all of which were complimentary to the functions of the House of Commons. They were:

  • A revising legislative role
  • An investigative role
  • A regional representative role
  • A protector of linguistic and other minorities role

These are roles that the Senate has historically played. Of course, this only lists the functions that a Senator has to perform in the Senate itself. In reality, besides their work in the Senate Chamber, Senators sit on several Senate Committees, covering a wide range of issues. As well, Senators play a critical role in their own provinces, attending functions on behalf of the Senate, their party, or the Government, and performing numerous other acts of community service.

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