Senate Series Part 3: The Structure of the Senate Today

The chamber of the Senate of CanadaIn our last post about the Senate, we looked at a bit of the history of the Senate, with an emphasis on why it was formed the way that is was. Today, we look at how our modern Senate is formed.

How many Senators currently sit in the Senate?

There are currently 105 Senators.  As mentioned in our last post, in 1867, there were only 72 Senators (and three regional divisions). As provinces joined Confederation, additional seats were added.  Only once were seats taken away; when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, the Territory lost all four of its Senate seats in the re-shuffle. Today, 4 regions Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic Provinces, and the Western Provinces, each have 24, for a total of 96 seats. In addition, 6 Senators are appointed from Newfoundland, and one each from the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

That said, section 26 of the Constitution Act 1867 allows the government (with the approval of the Queen, naturally) to expand the Senate temporarily by adding either 4 or 8 more seats. A government can, for example, use this power to appoint additional senators to break a legislative deadlock. This power has been used only once, in 1990, by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to ensure passage of the goods and services tax.

In our modern Senate, is representation still according to provinces, regions, or both? Is it based on population at all?

Representation is based on region as well as by province. Provinces that are within a regional division are allocated a number of seats for the province. Take Alberta for example. Alberta is part of the regional division of Western Provinces, which has a total of 24 seats. But just because a region has a set number of seats does not mean that all the Senators could come from one province. Section 22 of the Constitution Act, 1867 further divides the regions seats by province. Within the Western region, Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba each have 6 seats.

Not every region divides their seats equally among its provinces. The Maritime Provinces get a total of 24 seats, but New Brunswick and Nova Scotia each have 10 Senators, and PEI has 4 (Newfoundland, which did not join the federation until 1949, has 6 seats).

In Quebec, there are additional requirements. If the Senator is from Quebec, s/he is appointed from a specific electoral division, and has an additional requirement to maintain his or her real property or primary residence in that division. The original purpose was to ensure representation of Quebec’s French-Catholics and Anglo-Protestants in the Senate. The divisions reflect the electoral divisions of the Legislative Council (Canada East) at the time of Confederation. But the province has expanded north since then, and the exclusion of individuals from Quebec residing outside those divisions may arise should there be any Senate reform discussions.

Does this still meet the goal of having some regional representation?

There are now 413 seats in Parliament, 308 of which are in the House of Commons and 105 in the Senate. Their distribution represents the democratic principle: the very populated area of central Canada has 55% of all parliamentary seats and elects about 60 per cent of the members of the House of Commons. However, the distribution also represents in the regional principle: the people who live in the less populated parts of the country have a majority of 54% of seats in the Senate.[1]

What is a “senatorial guarantee” and why does it matter?

Even though the House of Commons is guided by representation-by-population, representation in the Senate affects the final distribution of seats. In 1915, the Constitution Act was amended so that no province could have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it had in the Senate. This has been referred to as “senatorial guarantee”. The consequence of this is that PEI is guaranteed 4 seats in the House of Commons because they have 4 senators, when they would have otherwise had only 2 seats (i.e.: because of their population).[i] Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia also have additional representation in the House of Commons because of this clause.

Do I have a Senator that only represents my area like my Minister of Parliament?

Since each region has seats, Senators come from a particular province but not necessarily from different places within that province. Only in Quebec are appointments made based on more specific electoral divisions.  Given the concept of regional representation, Senators do bring regional concerns and viewpoints to their work, however, they are not accountable to a constituency in the same way that Members of Parliament are (as Senators cannot be voted out of office). So whereas MPs have offices in their constituencies, Senators rarely do. That is also in part why Senators’ budgets are smaller than those of MPs (approximately $260,000 vs $165,000).

Are Senators members of political parties?

Most Senators belong to political parties. Right now, there are 60 Senators belonging to the Conservative Party of Canada, 33 belonging to the Liberal Party, and 6 Independents. The remaining 6 seats are currently vacant.  Senators that are members of a political party will meet regularly with other Senators have their party in caucus meetings.

Not all Senators stay with the party that were members of when they became Senators. Some Senators have changed their party after becoming a Senator.[ii]

If Senators are not elected, why do federal elections in Alberta also includes the ability to vote for candidates for Senate seats?

Since the early 1980s, Alberta had campaigned for an elected upper house, which would mean the provinces would have the power to decide their own Senate representatives. Starting in 1989, Alberta has held three votes to nominate “senators-in-waiting”. Though the results are non-binding on the appointment process, 3 of those chosen as  “senators-in-waiting” have been later appointed to the Senate.

Why are there no Senators who identify as being a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP)??

Part of NDP policy is that the Senate should be abolished. As a result, there are no NDP senate candidates.

For more information on the current Senate, please visit the Senate portal.

About Carole (Staff Lawyer)
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