Backgrounder - Senate Reform Act

The 2011 Speech from the Throne reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to Senate reform. Accordingly, the Government introduced the Senate Reform Act in the House of Commons on June 21st, 2011. The Act proposes two reforms; a voluntary framework for provinces to use as a basis for legislation to consult voters on Senate nominees and a limit on the tenure of senators.

Part One: Senate Nominee Selection

Proposed Voluntary Framework

Part one of the Senate Reform Act proposes a framework for democratic consultation with voters on the selection of Senate nominees from the provinces. Senators are currently summoned by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, pursuant to section 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867: “The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen’s Name, by Instrument of the Great Seal of Canada, summon Qualified Persons to the Senate.”

The Act would not change how senators are appointed. Rather, it proposes a method to give voters a say on who should be selected to hold a position in the Senate. The Act would not require provinces and territories to implement consultation processes. The Act includes a voluntary schedule, based on Alberta’s Senatorial Selection Act, which would set out a basis for provinces to enact democratic processes. Alberta has held several Senate nominee consultations since its legislation was enacted in 1987. Senator Stan Waters was the first Senator appointed following a Senate nominee selection process and current Senators Bert Brown, Betty Unger and Doug Black were all appointed following this process.

The Act requires the Prime Minister to consider the names from a list of elected Senate nominees when recommending Senate appointments.  Appointments to the Senate would continue to be made by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, pursuant to section 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

Part Two: Senate Term Limits

Part two of the Senate Reform Act proposes a nine-year, non-renewable term for senators.

Senators were originally appointed to the Senate “for Life”, but that was changed unilaterally by Parliament in 1965 through an amendment to section 29 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (via the Constitution Act, 1965). The amendment created limits on senators’ terms by stipulating mandatory retirement at the age of 75 years.

Under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, Parliament alone may make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada, or the Senate and the House of Commons.

In accordance with section 44, the Senate Reform Act provides that a person who is appointed to the Senate after the coming into force of the legislation shall serve for one term of nine years. Persons summoned to the Senate after October 14, 2008 would also serve one nine-year term commencing upon the coming into force of the Act. The Act would not affect the terms of senators appointed prior to October 14, 2008.

Terms for senators would continue to be subject to the existing section 29A of the Constitution Act, 1867, which stipulates mandatory retirement at the age of 75 years for all senators, regardless of when they are appointed (i.e., before or after the coming into force of the Act).

The Senate Reform Act also provides that, should a Senator’s nine-year term be interrupted prior to the completion of the term, that Senator may be summoned again, but only for the remaining portion of the nine-year term. The nine-year term would not be renewable.