Our Canadian parliamentary system is one that can be celebrated in many ways, but it also has its shortcomings. The Parliament of Canada is composed of three elements: the Governor General, the elected House of Commons, where I represent our beautiful riding of Cowichan-Malahat-Langford as the elected MP, and the Senate of Canada – a collective body of unelected and entirely unaccountable individuals appointed by the current and past prime ministers.
The Senate is sometimes referred to as the chamber of “sober second thought,” and is a fundamental part of the process a bill goes through before it can become law. But, in practice, it’s fair to call it the chamber of partisan political appointments, often made up of failed candidates and party operatives loyal to the prime ministers who appointed them. Herein lies some fundamentally undemocratic problems to enacting legislation passed by the duly elected House of Commons.
When a Parliament dissolves at the time of an election, as will soon be the case with the current 42nd Parliament, all bills and motions on the Order Paper that have not yet received Royal Assent effectively “die” on the Order Paper. In other words – they cease to exist. They may be reintroduced in a future Parliament, but all work leading up to their current status in the legislative process is lost. In some cases, for some MPs, that can mean decades, or even a life’s worth of work disappears with the shutting of the Senate doors.
One such case where this unfortunate process recently unfolded concerns Bill C-262, a bill near and dear to my heart, and which I’ve spoken about on many occasions in the House of Commons. It was first introduced by my NDP colleague Romeo Saganash in 2011. The bill would have enshrined into Canadian law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), in recognition of the need to right the many wrongs of successive colonial governments, and guarantee the human rights, dignity and justice of and for Indigenous peoples.
The following are just some of the other Private Members’ Bills, passed by the elected House of Commons, that died on the Order Paper due to either a calculated and deliberate attempt by the unelected Senate to run out the clock on this Parliament, or plain inefficiency to get the work accomplished:
Bill C-337 by former Conservative MP Rona Ambrose, on sexual assault training for judges, which was passed unanimously by the House more than two years ago in May 2017; NDP MP Wayne Stetski’s Bill C-281 to enact a National Local Food Day, which was passed by the House in November 2018; Bill C-354, introduced by NDP MP Richard Cannings to make wood the Canadian building material of choice, which was passed by elected MPs in May of last year; and Bill C-369, introduced by NDP MP Georgina Jolibois, would have established a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and was passed in the House this March.
One needs to look no further than the death of these bills as evidence of the need for major reform of the Senate. That an appointed upper chamber can thwart the will of the democratically elected House of Commons is an affront to our democracy.
Alistair MacGregor is the Member of Parliament for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford