Equality and Democracy: Harper’s Senate Reform Bill Ignores the Most Fundamental Kinds

Posted by on Apr 7, 2012 in Blog, News

Bill C-7, the Harper government’s proposed Senate Reform Act, supposedly promotes democracy by encouraging provinces and territories to elect Senate nominees for the Prime Minister’s future consideration. However, C-7 turns a blind eye to shockingly anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian Senatorial qualification requirements from the 19th Century.

To be a Canadian Senator you must be at least 30 years old, possess at least $4,000 of land, and own at least $4,000 of real and personal property.

The bill’s preamble trumpets how important it is for the Senate “to evolve in accordance with the principles of modern democracy.” It proclaims how interested the Minister of State for Democratic Reform is in exploring ways to have the Senate better “reflect the democratic values of Canadians.”

Do Canadians really subscribe to a version of democratic principles and values that nods approvingly at these sorts of age and property restrictions? I don’t think so.

The current qualification requirements, blissfully ignored by the government’s legislation, are no better than the requirement in the 1920s that women couldn’t be appointed to the Senate because they weren’t persons. When Canada’s final court of appeal struck down that requirement in 1929 it said excluding women was “a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” This language applies just as forcefully to retaining the Senate’s archaic qualification provisions.

Some may insist you need to own property in order to be able to offer “sober second thought.” Others may insist that to serve Canadians in the Senate its members need to have the “life experience” obtained through long careers. I’m unconvinced. We need thoughtful, thinking Senators; these are traits neither age nor property nor long careers guarantee.

Take someone like Craig Kielburger. Craig founded Free the Children in the 1990s – when he was just twelve years old. This non-profit organization is dedicated to empowering youth around the world. Craig’s only 29 years old. He couldn’t be a candidate in Alberta’s Senate nominee election if he lived here. Thinking, thoughtful – yes, Craig has these characteristics aplenty. What he doesn’t have is the arbitrary “life experience” yardstick set in 1867.

If the Harper government really wants to make Senate reform meaningful then Bill C-7 should tackle as many of those features of the Senate that violate modern principles of democracy and equality as it can. The federal government should use the unilateral amendment powers it enjoys under Section 44 of the Constitution Act,1982 to abolish these barbarous qualification provisions.