The Contemporary Canadian Senate – A Primer

Changes to the Canadian Senate’s composition started in 2014, when Justin Trudeau, then-leader of the third-place Liberal Party in the House of Commons, announced that Liberal Senators would no longer be members of the National Liberal Caucus.
For several years after the expulsion from caucus, these Senators retained the title “Liberal Senate Caucus” and received funding as a recognized group. However, as their numbers dwindled, they Senate Liberal Caucus concluded, and the remaining senators moved to other groups.
The New Democratic Party has no Senators to begin with, leaving the Conservative Party as the only party with Senators in its caucus. The Conservatives form the Official Opposition in the Senate.

Current Standings in the Senate

Independent Senators Group - 40

Conservative Party of Canada - 16

Progressive Senate Group - 13

Canadian Senators Group - 12

Non-affiliated - 7

Vacant seats - 17

The Independent Senators Group

The Independent Senators Group (ISG) now forms the largest bloc of Senators. Similar to an ordinary political caucus, they have a leader, referred to as a faciliator, plus a deputy facilitator, and more. They meet and discuss strategy but their votes are not whipped; in other words, they are free to vote as they wish. 

The decline of so-called partisan senators in the Senate is viewed by some as a step toward a modernized chamber, devoid of political rancour.  Others view the Senate as a political institution in its own rite, and therefore its members are more accountable if they belong to a particular party caucus, since being in a caucus requires forms of discipline. 

The ISG Senators describe their legislative role as follows:

  • Creating a record for judicial use in interpretation of legislation
  • Suggest improvements by way of amendments
  • Scrutinize legislation
  • Conduct research and compile evidence
  • Interpret evidence
  • Apply experience & knowledge to the evidence
  • Debate bills
  • Make amendments

These goals are not inherently different than how a “political Senator” might operate.  Though it can be argued that in an ideal world, independent senators will be more objective, without being under the thumb of a party leader. 

All but three of these senators were appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau since 2015.  The other three are Senators are former Liberal senators, and are Jaffer, Massicotte and Ringuette.

The ISG facilitator is Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain; the deputy facilitator is Senator Tony Dean.  Senator Chantal Petitclerc holds the title of “Chair of Group Deliberations” while Senator Pat Duncan is the “Chamber Works Coordinator.”

The Conservative Senate Caucus

With no new Conservative Senate appointments since the days of Prime Minister Harper, and with retirements, the Conservative Senate Caucus is gradually dwindling in number.

These Senators sit in the National Conservative Caucus and form the Official Opposition in the Senate. There is coordination between Conservative MPs and Senators on key positions and approaches to legislation.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate is Senator Don Plett, and the Deputy Leader is Senator Yonah Martin. The Whip is Senator Judith Seidman, and the Caucus Chair is Senator Rose-May Poirier.

The Progressive Senate Group

This organization is comprised of 10 senators appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau, and also include three former Liberal Senators: Lovelace-Nicholas, Dawson, and Cordy. Diane Bellemare, an appointee of Prime Minister Harper, also serves in this group. 

Stated objectives include progressive values, free votes, independence and working together. They note in particular: “In assessing legislation and the Senate’s procedures, our senators will give primary consideration to Charter of Rights and Freedoms implications, the rights of Indigenous Peoples, equality of the two Official Languages, and the Senate’s central tenets of regional representation and minority rights.”

The Canadian Senators’ Group

Formed in 2019, the majority of its members were appointed by Harper and were previously Conservative Senators.  Two of its members, Senators Larry Campbell and Percy Downe, were former Liberals.  The remaining three members were appointed by Trudeau.

The CSG states: “The Canadian Senators Group (CSG) was founded in November 2019 by 11 senators who share an interest in furthering the modernization and independence of the Senate, while actively representing regional interests in the Senate Chamber and in committees.

CSG members act and vote independently. There is no requirement or expectation for members to agree on all issues or to vote en bloc. Each member will continue to work with all senators on legislation and important issues to Canadians.  CSG senators are committed to maintaining openness and transparency, engaging in solid research and robust debate, and preserving the highest level of decorum in the Senate Chamber.”

The leader is Senator Scott Tannas, and the deputy leader is Senator Dennis Patterson. Senator Percy Downe is the “Liaison” who works to coordinate chamber business with other groups in the Senate, and the chair is Senator Rob Black.

Non-Affiliated Senators

These Senators belong to no particular Senate caucus or group and are truly independent. It’s members include George Furey, the Speaker of the Senate, and Marc Gold, who is the Government Representative in the Senate.  Senator Gold’s job is to transact government business in the Senate, and this role used to be referred to as the Leader of the Government in the Senate. In the past, those who held that role were full members of the cabinet. The re-naming of the role, which was created done when Mr. Trudeau came to power, and the fact that Senator Gold is non-affiliated, is another example of the current government’s push to ensure a distance from the senate, and ostensibly, to enhance this chamber’s independence. 

Wes McLean is a senior consultant with the Capital Hill Group and served as an advisor to conservative governments in Ottawa, Manitoba and New Brunswick, most recently as deputy chief of staff to Premier Blaine Higgs. He was an MLA from 2010-2014.

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