Debates of the Senate  
  1st Session, 39th Parliament,Volume 143, Issue 69.
    Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Debate on second reading of Bill S-4, to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate Tenure)
  Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, I was unsure as to whether I should join the debate on second reading of Bill S-4, to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate tenure). However, after listening to Senator McCoy, in particular, I felt the need to speak.

From what Senator McCoy said, it was clear that the original allocation of senators was intended to protect minorities, the less densely populated regions and the francophone population from the tyranny of the majority of anglophone Central Canada. I believe that if the Senate is to be truly reformed, it also ought to be configured in a way that protects the interests of the four designated groups: women, the disabled, Aboriginals and visible minorities. A reformed Senate ought to listen to and incorporate their thoughts, and it ought to include members of these four groups in the same proportion as in the general population.

In March 2005, the then Prime Minister, Paul Martin, summoned nine Canadian citizens to the Senate of Canada. To my complete surprise, I was one of them. I received a phone call from the Prime Minister's Office right out of the blue, and not the Conservative blue. I did not know how it came to be that I was selected for appointment. The only details that I gleaned with respect to the selection process were that a person had to be at least 30 years of age, had to reside and continue to reside in their home province, had to own $4,000 worth of property, and had to have a record of public achievements.

At the dinner reception for us newly appointed senators, we heard speeches about how wonderful a country Canada is. It is great. I am proud to be a Canadian. Canadians have much to be proud of; our nation believes it and passes legislation that provides for basic fundamental freedoms and equality of its citizens.

On the one hand I know this to be true, yet at the same time I know for some of us it is not necessarily true. As I look at the history of federal legislation and how it affected my family and others like me, the ideals of our country and the reality of our lives do not necessarily match up. There is a political and cognitive dissonance.

For example, Canadian Indians were not given the right to vote federally until 1920. Then they could only vote if they were willing to become enfranchised; that is, if they were willing to give up their legal status of "Indian" as defined by the Indian Act. It was not until 40 years later, in 1960, that Indians were allowed to vote without losing their Indian status.

Honourable senators, can you imagine what this meant in real life? What it meant in my family is this: My mother did not have the right to vote as a status Indian until 1960. She would have been 40 years old before she could vote. It also meant that I would have been 15 years old and in grade 9 before she had the right to vote. Can you imagine being in grade 9 and having a parent who was born in this country and yet was not allowed to vote? It seems unbelievable.

My father, who was a Chinese Canadian, did not have the right to vote federally until 1947. Though he was an immigrant and my mother was a native Canadian, so to speak, as an Indian, an indigenous person, she did not have the right to vote until 13 years later, in 1960.

On reflection, I can see why politics was not talked about at the supper table in my home. My parents were not treated like true citizens of Canada. For most of their lives they did not have the right to vote. They were disenfranchised for most of their lives here in Canada. Yet I am a senator here in Ottawa in the Senate.

Only in Canada could someone like myself, whose parents were desperately poor, whose parents were treated as second-class citizens for most of their lives, whose parents had little or no formal education, only in Canada could the daughter of such parents have had the opportunity to advance herself through education, hard work, and through community work to somehow be summoned to the Senate.

While some say the system for selecting senators is flawed, I think in my case at least, it worked, although I am biased.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dyck: However, it worked only because the Prime Minister apparently made a conscious choice to summon someone who did not fit the usual mould, someone who was not a male, Anglo-Saxon lawyer or former politician.

When I was summoned to the Senate, I was told that I had a choice. I could sit as a Liberal or an independent. Others in our group were offered different choices, or were even told what party affiliation they must choose. However, in my own case, after conferring with the clerk's office, I was told that I could choose to sit as a member of any political party, so I chose to be an NDP senator.

The rapid manner in which I was appointed did not allow me to investigate what being a senator entailed or what the implications of being a NDP senator were. There was no time. I was asked to accept or decline the invitation to become a senator immediately. I said I needed to think about it overnight. I was asked not to talk to anyone about the offer. I agreed. I did not talk to anyone about the offer, other than my dog, whom I knew would not talk to the press.

To my dismay, the headline of our local newspaper read, "NDP Rejects Dyck." Unfortunately, Mr. Layton appeared to think that Mr. Martin had deliberately appointed me as a NDP senator, rather than it being my choice. Subsequently, many NDP members from Saskatchewan, including Premier Lorne Calvert and Minister Pat Atkinson, lobbied unsuccessfully on my behalf. I have not been able to attend federal NDP caucus meetings, though the NDP women invite me to their caucus meetings, and I do attend.

I was even challenged to either refuse the Senate appointment or sit as an independent senator. Neither of these options seemed to me to be reasonable or fair, though I have changed my designation to independent NDP, as it is a more accurate reflection of the situation.

How could I say no to a Senate appointment? The issue of my appointment as a senator was much bigger than me alone or the official party policy of the NDP on the Senate. I could not refuse the appointment because I can help voice the concerns of others like me. I am a First Nations woman. I am a first generation Chinese Canadian. I could not deny other Canadians of similar heritage the opportunity to feel that they too are good enough to sit here in the chamber, and that they have a right to sit here in this chamber. To me, this issue is far more important than any official party policy based on theory rather than on the realities of being a minority person.

I outlined my story to illustrate the lack of clarity surrounding the process for selecting senators and the power that the Prime Minister exercises in this regard. Even our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, used the power of his office alone without any advisory elections to appoint a senator.

Interestingly, when the Senate is mentioned in the media these days, the phrase "Liberal dominated" is often used with a negative connotation. In this context then, introducing Bill S-4 here rather than in the other place is an interesting tactic. It essentially places all senators, perhaps more so for the Liberals, in a Catch-22 situation whereby we can be criticized if we vote for the bill, and we can be criticized if we vote against the bill. If we vote for the bill, it could be said that we agree with the view that senators become stagnant if we are in the job for more than eight years. We could also be accused of being hypocritical as we would retain our longer terms of appointments but limit those of newly appointed senators. However, if we vote against the bill, we could be criticized for blocking the passage of the bill for purely partisan reasons, even though there may be valid reasons not to pass this bill. We are damned if we do, and we are damned if we do not.

Bill S-4, to reduce the tenure of senators appointed in the future to eight years, is apparently the first step of this minority Conservative government to reform the Senate. This bill, however, seems aimed more at enhancing the job performance of individual senators rather than the purposes or functions of the Senate.

It has been argued that reducing the tenure of senators will increase the turnover of senators and thereby introduce fresh ideas into the Senate chamber. I agree that it is good to have people with fresh ideas, but at the same time, it is good to balance that with the wisdom of our elders whose knowledge and experience here in this chamber has been acquired over many more years than eight.

Is reducing the tenure of senators the best way to introduce fresh ideas? I do not think so. It is possible for the Prime Minister alone to reform the Senate, that is, to reconfigure the makeup of the Senate, without enacting any legislation whatsoever, simply by making different choices of the types of people the Prime Minister appoints.

As other senators have said, the Prime Minister has the power to appoint whomever the Prime Minister wants to the Senate, and perhaps we ought to debate whether the Prime Minister should be required to follow a minimum set of guidelines. Perhaps parameters ought to be devised and publicized to guide the Prime Minister in choosing new senators.

For example, if the Prime Minister were required to aim for parity for the four designated groups — women, the disabled, visible minorities and Aboriginals — that would create much greater diversity of ideas and experience in the Senate than simply reducing the length of term that any individual senator could serve.

When I was summoned to the Senate, I was surprised that about 30 per cent of senators were women, and I was pleasantly surprised to note too that there were five Aboriginal senators at that time.

The greater representation of women in the Senate compared to the other place seems to be a consequence of deliberate choices by former prime ministers, such as Jean Chrétien, who selected approximately equal numbers of men and women in his senatorial appointments. At the time that I was summoned, Paul Martin also chose nearly equal numbers of men and women. There were four women and five men in our class of 2005 in the spring.

However, why should the representation of women or minorities in the Senate be determined solely by the goodwill or the whim of the Prime Minister? In a modern democracy, should not proportional representation of women and minorities be a requirement in the guidelines for selection of senators that the Prime Minister must follow?

In conclusion, I do not think that Bill S-4 is necessary to reform the Senate in terms of its revitalization. However, setting parameters on the senatorial selection process that the Prime Minister follows, requiring the Prime Minister to ensure parity for the four designated groups — women, the disabled, Aboriginals and visible minorities — will revitalize the Senate more so than simply reducing tenure.

Hon. Lorna Milne: I move adjournment of the debate.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: It was moved by Senator Milne, seconded by Senator Gill, that further debate be adjourned until the next sitting of the Senate. Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Some Hon. Senators: No.

Some Hon. Senators: Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Those in favour will please say "yea."

Some Hon. Senators: Yea.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Those opposed will please say "nay."

Some Hon. Senators: Nay. / The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: I think the "yeas" have it