QUEBEC - There will be another court battle pitting Quebec against the Harper government — this time over Senate reform.
The Quebec government has asked the provincial Court of Appeal to advise it on the legality of Bill C-7.
The bill would force senators to retire after serving a non-renewable nine-year term and would provide provinces with the opportunity to create a process for electing Senate nominees.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government maintains such changes are relatively minor and can be done with the approval of the federal Parliament alone.
But Quebec contends the changes would alter the fundamental character of the Senate and, consequently, should require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.
Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said Tuesday that Ottawa's attempt to reform the Senate unilaterally is unconstitutional, threatens the functioning of Canadian federalism and will harm certain regions of the country.
"We believe that this approach goes against the Constitution, respect for the regions and provinces and against the very foundations of federalism. It is clear so far that the federal government has shown no desire for discussion with the provinces," Fournier said.
Moreover, Fournier said letting Ottawa get away with acting unilaterally on Senate reform will set a dangerous precedent.
"It could wind up reinforcing the unilateral tendencies of this government. In fact, if nothing is done to limit the government's unilateral action on this file, it might be tempted to go even further in the transformation of our common institutions without consulting the provinces," he said.
"Simply put, the government in Ottawa must understand that having a majority doesn't make you the owner."
Harper has tried three times before to reform the Senate, but those efforts went nowhere because the Conservatives did not hold a majority in either the House of Commons or the Senate. With the Tories now firmly in control of both parliamentary chambers, Harper has enough support to finally pass C-7, although the government has not been in any rush to do so.
The bill, introduced last June, has been meandering through the legislative process and is still being debated at second reading in the Commons.
Still, Harper made it clear Tuesday he sees no need to hold back on the bill until after the Quebec court has rendered its opinion. For that matter, he sees no need to hold off on appointing elected Senate nominees until the bill is passed.
Harper has already appointed several senators who've won elections in Alberta, the only province to implement a Senate election process, and said he'll do so again when any of the province's Senate seats fall vacant.
Noting that Albertans last week voted for their latest round of Senate nominees, Harper told the Commons: "Our government will respect the will of the Alberta public by appointing these senators to the positions when we have the opportunity."
Tim Uppal, minister of state for democratic reform, was not available to comment. But his spokesperson, Kate Davis, said the government remains committed to "making the Senate more accountable, effective and democratic."
"The government is not interested in re-opening old constitutional battles with the provinces. The Senate Reform Act is clearly within Parliament's authority to enact," she said.
"While the bill encourages provinces and territories to hold elections for Senate nominees, it does not force them to do so."
However, Quebec is not alone in contending that Ottawa can't act alone on Senate reform. Several other provinces, including Ontario, have made the same argument.
Liberal intergovernmental affairs critic Stephane Dion agreed that proceeding with Senate reform without provincial consent is "very likely to be unconstitutional."
"We are a federation and the Senate does not belong to the federal government or the prime minister. It belongs to Canadians and, through them, to the whole federation," Dion said in an interview.
Dion said Harper could have saved a lot of time and money by referring the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada, as demanded by Liberals when the government first attempted to reform the upper house several years ago.
Senate reform is the latest fight pitting the Harper feds against the Charest government — and, in particular, its justice minister, Fournier, who is a former adviser to ex-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. He has also tangled with the Tories over abolition of the gun registry and their omnibus crime bill.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis suggested the fight is becoming personal, blasting Fournier as out of touch with Quebec public opinion.
"Mr. Fournier has said a lot of things. I've said it before, I don't respect his opinion," Paradis told reporters, asserting that most Quebecers favour Senate reform and federal efforts to crack down on crime.
Paradis added that he hopes the Senate reform bill will be passed "as fast as possible."