We’ve nearly been trampled in recent days by a veritable herd of Canadian academics, falling over one another to remind us that the Canadian Senate cannot be abolished.
After all, they tell us, the Senate’s existence is guaranteed by the Constitution, only Parliament and the provincial legislatures can amend the Constitution and Parliament includes 102 senators who would never vote themselves out of a job. To make matters worse, five of the ten provinces are so vastly over-represented in the Senate, they would never, in a million years, agree to get rid of it.
This learned analysis, while technically correct, fails to adequately weigh one singular truth: Canada is a democracy.
If Canadians vote in a national referendum to abolish the Senate, the academics will be proven wrong.
We now live in the 21st century, as opposed to the U.S. civil-war era, when the Senate was created.
It was the U.S. civil war, to that point, that heavily influenced the Fathers of Confederation, most notably Sir. John A. Macdonald.
“(Macdonald) shared a widely held belief that the Civil War was, in some sense, the inevitable bloody outcome of mob rule and presidential despotism,” wrote his biographer Donald Creighton.
“Macdonald’s resistance to democracy was comprehensive,” echoes Richard Gwyn in his more recent study of Canada’s constitutional architect. “He advocated ‘some division of the classes,’ justifying limiting the vote to property owners by the argument that political decisions should be influenced by the views of those with some education and some stake in the system itself rather than by ‘the unreasoning masses.’”
Macdonald made it clear on more than one occasion that his distaste for American-style democracy knew no bounds. He insisted that a prospective senator must own real estate to qualify for membership – a qualification that exists, inexplicably, to this day.
And Macdonald insisted on substantial real estate holdings – $4,000 – the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars: “a large qualification should be necessary for membership in the Upper House, in order to represent the principle of property,” he said in 1865. “The rights of the minority must be protected, and the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.”
Historian John Boyko’s new book, Blood and Daring, gives a flavour of Canada in the 1860’s, when the Senate was created. Boyko reminds us that while 33 Canadian newspapers supported Lincoln and the Union in the conflict, 84 sided with the slave-owning Confederacy. After one Confederate victory in 1862, townsfolk in New Brunswick celebrated by holding parades.
Time has marched on. Slavery is dead, its death purchased with the lives of half a million Americans. Canadian attitudes toward slavery have changed as well.
Yet, we still sit passively and watch, while a law passed by a majority in the House of Commons, is denied passage by the Canadian Senate, an unelected assembly of landowners. The Senate vote, constitutionally permissible in the eyes of the Senate’s civil-war era creators, has been correctly characterized as “an abomination.”
It’s instructive that the architect of the recent abomination, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, supports a national referendum on abolishing the Senate. So did Jack Layton, who called the Senate “outdated and obsolete, a 19th-century institution that has no place in a modern democracy in the 21st century.”
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, no old drinking buddy of Jack Layton, would just as soon skip the referendum and proceed directly to Senate abolition, reflecting the views of 86 per cent of his party members. Tom Mulcair, inheritor of the Layton legacy, is actively campaigning for Senate abolition. Even Ted Morton, once an Alberta elected Senator-in-waiting, is getting ready to throw in the towel on the Senate (as a possible first step towards reform) – after nearly 30 years dedicated to the cause of reforming the wretched bordello of back-scratching.
The Senate is a disgrace to Canada. The Senate doesn’t make our nation better, it makes it worse. And unelected assembly of landowners has no legitimate right to rule over the rest of us, no matter what the Constitution says. The Senate is a constitutional institution, to be sure. But then, so was slavery in the U.S. and the slave trade, in Britain, in the 19th century.
If Canadians, in a national referendum, direct our politicians to get rid of the Senate, then politicians would be well advised to listen to the voters.