After the Canadian federal election on October 19th, 2015 a major newspaper headlined “A New Canada” was upon us. The positive fervor on the future course of policy-making is opportune to discuss options for democratic reform. Indeed, the Canadian bicameral system has endured criticism recently. For one, the recent debacle of Senate fund misappropriation caps off long standing concern about its neutrality. Traditional thinking insists that the Upper House is meant to counterbalance the Lower House. Yet in Canada arguments are leveled against the Senate for operating as an arm of the Prime Minister. Senate appointment is part of the prerogative accorded to the Prime Minister via constitutional convention. The Senate, which has most recently been exposed in court testimony (vis-à-vis the Duffy Affair) to operate in terms of patronage, appears to be a partisan tool for politically controlling decision-making authority.

With partisan stripes of siting Senators being openly visible, what remains of the twenty-two vacancies will surely be an ongoing point of contention, even with (and perhaps in spite of) the advisory panel set up by the new government to ‘inform’ new appointments based on the principle of ‘merit’. While common approaches to Senate reform revolve around abolishing the Senate and thus Senators, or changing the appointment of Senators into a system of being elected, I propose the creation of a Civic Senate.

The Senate should go public. This means that the fundamental relationship between citizens and democratic institutions needs to be reformulated. The sitting body of appointed Senators should be replaced by randomly selected citizens. The federal relationship between provinces and the national government would also be transformed simultaneously as a result. Upon thinking about what to do with the Senate one has to consider an important question: does it serve a purpose? If it is felt that the Senate, at least in theory, is meant to be a check or a balance of power to the control of the legislative or the Parliament of Canada, then its current role would have to be translated into a different form. Most often, those that view the role of the Senate as a vital part of a functioning democracy, but would have Senators be more accountable, often look to having them elected. To think about altering the form of the Senate we should go outside the bounds of traditional inquiry. In essence, the starting point of the reform of the Senate would be to alter the extent to which there is a fusion of powers between the Upper and Lower Houses, not only by removing powers of Senate appointment but also by altering Senator’s roles of review and who becomes a Senator.

A Civic Senate would still act as an Upper Chamber of review but it would operate vis-à-vis stratified random sampling of the electorate to be reflective of Canadian diversity.[1] The role of Civic Senators would be to serve for a short but set duration, offered a stipend or salary for their participation, and act on behalf of their region in deliberations. Civic Senators would not be appointed by the federal Prime Minister, or provincial Premiers, and thus would not be obligated to tote any party line. Indeed, no party affiliation would be a requirement to hold the post. The design of the institution would be quite novel and would make for something unprecedented. Democracy in general, requires ongoing innovation to make up for deficits in representation and participation. With ‘real change’ being the slogan of the newly elected Liberals, the suggestion above would challenge the longstanding chamber of privilege. Considering this, deliberative civic engagement is the direction we need to go. It is not hard to think that in the hearts and minds of most Canadians, something more inclusive is truly desired and hoped for. It is notable that Canadian citizens have been known to feel themselves capable of arriving at political judgments and agreeable with national problems being solved at the grassroots level.[2]

Concerns about ‘merit’ and the ‘law of polarization’ of opinions need to be placed in nuanced context, as actual participatory institutions have gone well beyond small one-off mini-publics. The values held by people have been shown to change through deliberation, and moreover, citizens have proven capable of learning very complex political processes in short periods of time. This happens in delegate phases of participatory budgeting with residents working with city staff on municipal budgets and the costing of proposals, and this happened with the British Columbia and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform regarding the learning of alternative electoral models. No less of a concern should be placed on having people run for office and participate in governance with no previous experience. There are (public sector) resources at the disposal of elected representatives to overcome initial transitions and epistemic barriers. These also carry into deliberative institutions that are designed with an eye to learning, not simply inclusion.

Constitutional procedures must be met to reform the Senate, so a natural place to begin would be on amending formula requirements. Yet, there are also contextual and historical factors that have to be reflected on right beside formal procedures. A discussion about Senate reform needs to be mindful of the rounds of debates that took place in the lead up to the constitutional referendum in 1992. One lesson was that provincial Premiers and the federal Prime Minister can agree on reforming the Senate. With agreement on making the Senate ‘equal-elected-effective’ (triple-e) long standing arguments had finally come to be an agreed set of principles for implementation. The second lesson was that there must be public consultation; a special Commission was set up to lead cross-country meetings with individual Canadians, academics, representatives of advocacy groups, unions, business groups, and politicians.[3] These plebiscites were indeed refreshing from the norm of national politics. Despite them, there was a disparity between interest groups, such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, First Nations women groups, labour unions, as well as different regional governments, and the federal government. Eventually a constitutional package was put forth to a national-wide referendum in 1992 and ultimately did not pass. It became clear that no major constitutional change could be made from that point forward without popular ratification.[4] Bargains made among political elites with minimal political involvement do not stand well with Canadians.

Rounds of public consultation more inclusive of the public would be a clear stipulation then, as this body would be designed for public purposes. Here, the design of the constitutional institution would have to be reflected upon. How would people be selected in terms of a random sample from the registered voters list? What sort of stipend(s) would be available? Would participation be mandatory like jury duty? Would regions be represented based on representation by population or equality across the provinces? Could virtual forums be used at any point? How could gender parity be achieved? What sort of stratification could be used to ensure a solid presence of visible minorities? What extent of language translation services would need to be provided, and would proceedings be bilingual? Would Senate committees remain and if so, how would they be filled? Could there be a way of incorporating elected Senators to function alongside Civic Senators? What sort of veto power would the Senate have or not have? Would the Civic Senate become an institution only for public-law review proposed by Parliament rather than allowed to introduce its own legislation? Would term positions be sufficient at two to four years? Could the age requirement be dropped from thirty? How would property qualifications no longer be a requisite? How should public bureaucrats and academics be incorporated into proceedings to supply expert information for epistemic purposes? These concerns are not insurmountable to conceptualize. Democracy is meant to be an enduring institutional form of popular sovereignty, and the idea of utilizing the Senate for a space of sober reflection, not on behalf of citizens, but by them, offers up one idea for our Canada ‘in transition’.

[1] I deal with the establishment of a constitutional (legislative) body of civic deliberation via random lottery in Nick Vlahos, On Constitutional Democracy: The Relation between Political Deliberation, Mixed Constitutions, and the Division of Labour in Society (University of Manitoba Master’s Thesis, 2010). For a more explicit look at sortition see Terrill G. Bouricius, “Democracy through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day,” Journal of Public Deliberation 9, 1 (2013).

[2] Paul Howe and David Northup, “Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians,” Policy Matters 1, 5 (2000).

[3] Judy Rebick, Imagine Democracy (Canada: Stoddart, 2000).

[4] Richard Simeon and David Cameron, “Intergovernmental Relations and Democracy: An Oxymoron If There Ever Was One?” In Canadian Federalism: Performance, Effectiveness, and Legitimacy, ed. Herman Bakvis and Grace Skogstad (Canada: Oxford University Press, 2002).