The full magnitude of Justin Trudeau’s declaration of independence on Wednesday has become clear: Liberal senators will remain Liberals, and they will remain senators; they will continue to meet as Liberals and act as such in the Senate.
But they will be independent.
“We are the Senate Liberal caucus and I will remain the leader of the opposition and we will remain the official opposition in the Senate,” Nova Scotia Sen. James Cowan told mystified interrogators after Mr. Trudeau’s surprise announcement that he was ejecting all 32 Liberal senators from his caucus.
“I think not a lot will change,” added Cowan, noting that “I’m not a former Liberal senator … I’m a Liberal.”
This is vastly more helpful than these endless and rather mindless calls for a “triple-E” (equal, elected and effective) Senate, the cry of regional federalists. That ambition for the triple-E Senate would require rewriting the Constitution, which is simply not possible in Canada. In terms of the powers of the bicameral federal legislature, we have had essentially the same constitutional arrangements since 1867, altered only by the enhancement of Canada’s sovereignty in excusing us from the duty not to be legislatively “repugnant” to the British Parliament in the Statute of Westminster in 1931, elimination of appeals to the judicial committee of the Privy Council in 1949, and the patriation of the amending formula and promulgation of the Charter of Rights in 1981 (albeit without the concurrence of Quebec).
In the same 147 years, our distinguished co-mother country France has had an empire, three republics, a monochromatic “state,” two provisional regimes, a widely recognized and ultimately legitimized government in exile, and a Nazi occupation, all with different constitutions. Germany has had a mass of principalities and kingdoms, an empire, a republic, a totalitarian Nazi dictatorship, a four-power hostile military occupation, a federal republic and a Communist dictatorship, and a united, democratic, federal republic. Even Great Britain endured the secession of most of Ireland and a radical reduction in the power of the appointive and hereditary upper house, and the United States released a third of its people from military government after a terrible civil war, and changed the identity of the electorate of the U.S. Senate from the state legislatures to the whole voting populations of each state. Canada is wallowing in comparative stability, to the point of sclerosis, as the terrible problems over patriation and the Meech Lake accord demonstrated.
In these circumstances, to expect the House of Commons to surrender powers to the Senate is nonsense, and to expect serious people to go through the travails and caprices of running for election in order to have the limited powers of a Canadian senator, is also nonsense. That erases two of the E’s, but it still leaves the possibility of “effectiveness,” and here Mr. Trudeau has taken an imaginative step.
The triple-E people are seeking a federal system that will enliven the concept of the equality of regions; as the United States has two senators from every state, regardless of population, from California’s 38-million to Wyoming’s 576,000, while the states’ delegations in the House of Representatives is by population and they range from California’s 43 to Wyoming’s one. It was intended that there would be a combination of the two systems in the Senate of Canada, as the distribution of senators is neither equal nor demographically proportionate; and in the various reform proposals put forth in the intense constitutional negotiations between the Quebec referendum of 1980 and the Charlottetown accord referendum of 1992, it was suggested that the provinces name the senators and that there be something closer to equal regional representation in the Red Chamber. Since it is extremely difficult to effect any substantive change to the Canadian Constitution, none of it has occurred, though several variations of reform, from the federal government and the provinces, and from the Trudeau and Mulroney governments, were thoughtful and had merit.
Canada has always, since the successful struggle for responsible government led by Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in the 1840’s, depended for change on the double majority: a majority of the French and of the English-Canadians. This was the essential problem with English-Canada’s imposition of conscription in 1917: The English majority forced it on the French Canadians, who volunteered in significant numbers but were not as convinced of the absolute moral superiority of the Allied cause over the Central Powers. Sir Wilfrid Laurier saved the country by declining to join a coalition, or to support conscription, but by taking the position that French Canadians would not resist the law if there were an election over the issue. He knew his Liberals would lose the election, but he also knew that it would give them an advantage for 50 years in Quebec, and this was what happened.
What has changed the equation and stalled gradual constitutional reform completely is that the French-Canadian political and cultural elites, after decades of insisting that biculturalism should become reciprocal and not just the French learning English from economic necessity, greeted the promotion of biculturalism by the Pearson and Trudeau governments as an attempt at assimilation (which it certainly was not), and embraced the nationalism of Quebec and barricaded themselves into that province, cutting loose the French Canadians outside Quebec, and discriminating against the English within Quebec. This reduced the French political fact in the country from the 30% of the entire country represented by French Canadians, to the (approximately) 40% of Quebec’s population that qualifies as Quebec nationalists, i.e. only about 10% of Canadians overall. English Canada has responded by governing largely without Quebec, as the present federal government does.
What is needed for necessary constitutional renewal is for Quebec to defect from its provincial nationalist dalliance and recognize its advantage in reasserting French Canadian parity in the ever more successful country that Canada is becoming. As Pierre Trudeau said at his leadership convention in 1968: “Maîtres chez nous, mais pour tout le Canada” (masters in our house, but our house is Canada).
There should be some form of constitutional renovation, even if wholesale constitutional re-writing is impossible. A Senate that is not partisan, and that is composed of the country’s most talented people (as, broadly, the appointive British House of Lords is) could be part of the solution. Justin Trudeau’s action does not make the 32 senators he has cast out more distinguished legislators, but it is a start to a partly provincial, partly federal, partly partisan, partly non-partisan, and largely meritocratic Senate. And it is the first intelligent thing that any prominent politician has said or done about the Senate since the ludicrous sideshow of senators’ travel expenses flared up.
It is time for the government to act in the same constructive and original spirit, and give the country a more uplifting tocsin than endless repetition that the prime minister didn’t know his chief of staff was giving one of his senators $90,000 to pay back to taxpayers.
Conrad Black is the founder of the National Post. His columns regularly appear in the National Post on Saturdays. For more opinion from Conrad Black, tune into The Zoomer on VisionTV (a property of ZoomerMedia Ltd.), premiering Oct. 7. Visiontv.ca. Mr. Black graciously allowed us to reprint this article on CFN.