The Structure of the Canadian Senate:
 How are Senators selected and what do they do?

by Rhonda Parkinson

Allocation of Senate Seats

In a federal system, regional representation is one of the second chamber's primary roles. Traditionally, less populated regional units are overrepresented in the second chamber, to compensate for the Lower House where representation is based on population.

Under the terms of the Confederation, Senate seat allocation was divided into the regions of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes, with each region having twenty-four Senators. The total number of Maritime seats did not rise when Prince Edward Island (PEI) joined Confederation in 1873. Instead, both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia lost two of their twelve seats, which were given to PEI for a total a four.

Senate Seat Distribution

  • In 1870, the Federal government created the Province of Manitoba and gave it two Senate seats.
  • In 1871, the Colony of British Columbia was given three Senate seats when it joined Canada.
  • In 1905, four seats each were allocated to the newly created provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
  • A 1915 amendment made the west a region with 24 seats divided equally between British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
  • In 1949, Newfoundland received six Senate seats when it joined Canada.
  • In 1975, a further amendment gave the Northwest Territories and the Yukon one seat each.
  • In 1999, the newly created territory of Nunavut received one Senate seat.
  • Today, there are ordinarily 105 seats in the Canadian Senate.

Qualifications for Becoming a Senator

The Constitution Act, 1867, states that a Senator must:

  • Be thirty years of age or over;
  • Own property valued at $4,000, over and above any debts;
  • Be a resident of the province for which they are appointed;
  • Be a natural born or naturalized subject of the Queen; and 
  • In Quebec, where there is a Senator for each of the districts formerly represented in the colony of Canada's Legislative Council, a Senator must either own property or reside in the district that he represents.

Initially, Senators were appointed for life. In 1965, Parliament passed a bill requiring Senators to retire at age seventy-five. At the same time, Senators became eligible for a pension under the Members of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act.

Designed to provide representation for the propertied class, the property requirement is no longer considered relevant. While it hasn't been removed, the amount remains at $4,000, which no longer poses a significant barrier to Senate membership.

Removal from the Senate

While Senate vacancies frequently arise due to death, resignation, or retirement, a Senator can only be removed for the following reasons:

  • Failure to attend two sessions of Parliament;
  • Declaration of Bankruptcy;
  • Conviction for treason or a felony; and,
  • Ceasing to reside or own property in the represented area

How Senators are Selected

The Senate is an appointed body. According to the Constitution Act, 1867, the Governor General appoints Senators. In practice, the Prime Minister decides who will fill a Senate vacancy.

The Prime Minister also chooses the Speaker of the Senate. It is common practice to replace the Speaker when there is a change of government. However, this position doesn't have the same import as it does in the United States, where the Senate Speaker casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie.

Additional Senate Appointments

Normally, the Prime Minister appoints a Senator to fill an existing vacancy. However, under certain conditions he can appoint additional Senators. Section 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867, states that four or eight additional Senators, equally representing Canada's four regions (the section's original wording allowed for the appointment of three or six Senators to equally represent Canada's three regions), may be appointed "If at any Time on the Recommendation of the Governor General the Queen thinks fitů"

Prior to 1982, the reference to the Queen forced the Canadian Prime Minister to obtain official permission from Britain to appoint additional Senators. In 1873, Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie applied to appoint six additional Senators. The stated reason was that it was "desirable in the public interest," but it was clearly to shift the Conservative balance of the Senate. Britain refused. In 1900, Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier made and dropped a similar request after it was clear Britain would not consent. Ratification of the Constitution Act, 1982, means the Prime Minister no longer needs Britain's consent to use Section 26.

Powers of the Canadian Senate

Legally, the Canadian Senate has powers nearly parallel to the House of Commons. To become law, a Bill must pass through both Houses of Parliament before receiving Royal Assent. The Senate can amend, delay, or refuse to pass bills introduced in the lower House. Following a 1947 amendment, a House of Commons MP can introduce legislation in the Senate. However, there are two major restrictions on the Senate's powers:

  • The Senate cannot introduce financial legislation
  • Under the Constitution Act, 1982, the House of Commons has an absolute veto over constitutional amendments, while the Senate has a 180 day suspensive veto. This means the Senate can only delay the legislation for 180 days. The one exception is Section 44, dealing with amending Parliament's powers. Both the House of Commons and the Senate have an absolute veto over amendments to this section.

The restriction on financial legislation is found in Section 53 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which states, "Bills for appropriating any part of Revenue, or for imposing any Tax or Impost, shall originate in the House of Commons." Following Confederation, experts disputed the legal implications of this section. Some argued the Senate could not amend or delay financial legislation, while others argued Senators could do everything short of introducing financial legislation.

In 1917, the Senate struck a committee to consider its position relative to financial legislation. Chaired by Senator W.B. Ross, the committee concluded Section 53 did not remove the Senate's right to consider financial legislation.

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