The Canadian Senate: Role, Powers & Operation
Canada’s Parliament consists of two legislative houses: the House of Commons and the Senate. While the House generally garners the majority of public and media attention, little is often known about the role and operation of its Senatorial counterpart. This article provides an introduction to the roles, powers, and operation of the Canadian Senate. Specific discussions include what the Senate is and what it does; the differences between the Senate and the House of Commons; the composition of the Senate; processes officers and committees of the Senate; as well as a comparison of the Canadian Senate to other Upper Houses in other countries.
What is the Senate? What does it do?
Differences between the Senate & the House
Rules Governing the Appointment of Senators
Senate Processes, Officers & Committees
How does Canada’s Senate Compare with other Countries?
List of Article Sources & Links for more on the Senate
Credits: This article was initially written by Rhonda Lauret Parkinson. It has since been altered and updated by Jay Makarenko.
Role of the Senate in ParliamentWhat is the Senate? What does it do?
Canada’s Bicameral Parliament
Canada has a bicameral parliamentary system, meaning that there are two legislative bodies or chambers. The first of these is the House of Commons, which is made up of elected officials called Members of Parliament (or MPs). The second legislative body is called the Senate, which is constituted by appointed members called Senators.
For more information on Canada’s Parliament:
Chamber of Sober Second Thought
The Senate, in concert with the House of Commons, plays an important role in the operation of Canada’s government. In theory, any piece of government legislation must be approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate (as well as the Canadian Monarch) for it to become official law. This, however, raises the question: why does Canada have two legislative bodies to review and approve government legislation?
The ideal of democracy was cautiously accepted in the 1860s when the Canadian colonies negotiated Confederation. The primary worry was that the democratic participation of "regular citizens" in government would be detrimental to good government and policy making. As such, the Fathers of Confederation decided to provide an appointed body, the Senate, which would exercise “sober second thought” in the legislative process. The Senate was to comprise economic and social elites that would act as a check on the interests and policies of the “commoners” or “lower classes,” who were believed to dominate the democratically elected House of Commons. It is important to note, however, that this idea of an “elitist check” on the House no longer carries weight in contemporary Canadian politics. That said, the Senate continues to act as second legislative review on government legislation and action.
Routine Revising Chamber
Another role of the Senate, not explicitly provided for in the Constitution, is to act as a non-ideological, routine revising chamber that picks up flaws in legislation that have avoided notice during a bill’s passage through the House of Commons. Accordingly, the Senate might highlight confusing ideas or language in legislation, or raise questions about potential loopholes that may reduce the effectiveness of a particular law.
The Senate was also envisioned as a vehicle for regional representation at the federal level of government. During the negotiations for Confederation, both Quebec and the Maritime colonies were concerned the interests of Ontario would dominate the elected House of Commons. (Ontario had the majority of Canada’s population and, thus, the largest share of seats in the House.) In order to provide balance, the three regions at the time (Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes) were subsequently allocated an equal number of seats in the Senate. This role of regional representation was maintained in 1915, when the West was designated as a senatorial region and given equal representation in the Senate.
The Senate often undertakes another type of work, but which again is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution; namely, the investigation of social and political issues facing the country. In this context, the Senate acts in a manner similar to a Royal Commission or Public Inquiry, and will engage in detailed studies of complex or controversial issues. Over the years, issues investigated by the Senate have included poverty, aging, unemployment, the mass media, science policy, land use, national defence, Canadian-American relations, constitutional affairs, the decriminalization of marijuana, and the health care system.
Senatorial Powers in Theory & Practice
Differences between the Senate & the House of Commons
Legislative Powers of the Senate in Theory
In terms of its legislative powers, the Senate is theoretically equal to the House of Commons. Under Canada’s written Constitution, any piece of government legislation must be approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate (as well as the Canadian Monarch) for it to become official law. This provides the Senate with veto power over Parliamentary legislation, and allows it to reject, offer amendments, or delay any bills with which a majority of its members disagree.
There are some small qualifications. The Senate is not permitted to introduce bills that impose taxes or appropriate public funds. This power is reserved solely for the House of Commons, although the Senate may reject or amend ‘money bills’ that are introduced in and passed by the House. The Senate is also not permitted to delay constitutional amendments passed by the House of Commons for more than 180 days. This restriction on the power of the Senate was introduced in 1982 with the patriation of the Constitution, and allows the House to pass the constitutional amendment again, bypassing Senate approval after the 180-day period has expired.
Legislative Powers of the Senate in Practice
While the Senate is theoretically equal to the House of Commons, in practice the House is the dominant legislative body in Canada’s Parliament. This is due, in large part, to the so-called ‘undemocratic’ nature of the Senate. Whereas the House of Commons is made up of elected Members of Parliament that are democratically responsible to their constituents, the Senate consists of appointed Senators that are effectively responsible to no one. Over the years, this has led to the development of an unwritten constitutional practice that the Senate veto or delay legislation passed by the House of Commons only in rare and exceptional cases.
For more information on unwritten constitutional practices or conventions:
While the Senate generally does not interfere in the work of the House of Commons, there are some notable exceptions. During the 1980s, for example, the Liberal-dominated Senate was consistently at odds with the Progressive Conservative-dominated House of Commons. Between 1984 and 1993, the Senate attempted to delay or amend several important pieces of House legislation. The Senate also tried to alter federal legislation pertaining to the constitutional amendments associated with the Meech Lake Accord, but was finally overridden by the House following the 180-day period (referenced earlier). One of the most famous conflicts between the two legislative houses occurred in mid-1988, when the Senate delayed passage of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (or “FTA”). Following the 1988 general election, however, and the return of the Progressive Conservatives to government (the PCs had campaigned in favour of the FTA), the Senate bowed to public sentiment and passed the trade agreement.
Senate & the Government
Under Canada’s system of responsible government, the federal government (or more precisely, the Prime Minister and Cabinet) is responsible to the elected House of Commons. If the government were to lose the support of the House, then the Prime Minister and Cabinet would resign and a general election would customarily be held. The Senate, however, does not enjoy the same power over the government. There is no written or unwritten requirement that the Prime Minister and Cabinet must resign if they lose the support of the Senate.
For more information on responsible government in Canada:
Moreover, government members, such as the Prime Minister and Cabinet, are usually drawn from the pool of members elected to the House of Commons. Only in rare cases will a Prime Minister ask a Senator to sit in his or her Cabinet, such as when a particular Senator has special qualifications desired by the government, or when the governing political party is seeking broad representation in the Cabinet and does not have enough members in the House from a particular region or ethnic group.
For more information on the composition of the federal Cabinet:
Composition of the Canadian SenateRules Governing the Appointment of Senators
Qualifications for Becoming a Senator
Canada’s written Constitution provides several requirements for becoming a Senator. Appointees must be 30 years of age or older, a resident of the province (or territory) for which they are appointed, and a natural born or naturalized subject of the Queen. Reflecting the tradition that the Senate consists of members of the economic elite, Senators must also own property in the province they represent. This requirement has, however, become irrelevant, as the property requirement is set at $4,000, meaning that most persons today are eligible for appointment to the Senate.
Initially, Senators were appointed for life. In 1965, however, Parliament passed legislation requiring Senators to retire at age 75. In addition to age, a Senator may be removed if s/he fails to attend two consecutive sessions of Parliament, declares bankruptcy, is convicted for treason or a felony, or ceases to reside or own property in the province s/he represents.
For a list of current Senators and their biographies:
Regional Representation in the Senate
The basic principle governing the allocation of Senate seats is equal regional representation. The Senate is divided into four main regional areas: Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the Western Provinces, each with 24 seats. In the case of the Maritimes and Western Provinces, Senate seats are further divided among the provinces comprising those regions. In the Maritimes, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have 10 Senate seats, while Prince Edward Island has four seats. In Western Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba each have six seats. In addition to the four main regions, Newfoundland & Labrador, and the Territories also enjoy Senate representation. Newfoundland & Labrador has six Senate seats, while the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut each hold one seat.
Senate as an Appointed Legislative Body
Under Canada’s written Constitution, the Senate is conceived as an unelected legislative body. This means that Senators are simply appointed to their offices instead of being elected by citizens. Moreover, it is the Governor General of Canada, on the advice of Cabinet, who holds the constitutional power to make Senate appointments. Over time, however, unwritten constitutional conventions have developed which effectively give the Prime Minister and Cabinet absolute control over the selection of Senators. While the Governor General today still officially approves appointees, in practice s/he simply accepts whomever the Prime Minister and Cabinet selects.
In making Senate appointments, the Prime Minister has complete discretion (beyond the limited qualifications provided for in the written Constitution outlined above). There is no requirement, for example, that the Prime Minister select a Senator that is acceptable to the governments or residents of the provinces they are meant to represent. Instead, Prime Ministers usually use Senate appointments as a form of political patronage, selecting persons who have been friends and allies of the Prime Minister and/or the governing political party.
It is important to note, however, that while the Senate operates as an appointed body chosen by Prime Ministers, there are no legal barriers to making Senate appointments more democratic or regionally responsive. The Prime Minister, for example, could use his/her discretionary powers to appoint Senators that have been recommended by provincial governments. The Prime Minister could also hold elections for Senate seats and simply recommend the winner of an election to the Governor General for appointment. This, however, has only occurred once in the history of the Senate, when in 1990 then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Stan Waters to the Senate for Alberta. Waters had won a Senate nominee election held by the Alberta provincial government in 1989.
Appointing Additional Senators
Normally, the Prime Minister appoints a Senator to fill an existing vacancy. Under certain conditions, however, s/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, may be appointed “If at any Time on the Recommendation of the Governor General the Queen thinks fit…”
Prior to 1982, the reference to the Queen forced the Canadian Prime Minister to obtain official permission from Britain to appoint additional Senators. Following patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, however, consent from Britain was no longer required.
Operation of the Canadian Senate
Senate Processes, Officers & Committees
The Legislative Process
Senate voting operates on the principle of majority rule. For a bill or motion to be approved by the Senate it must receive majority support, with each Senator having only one vote. In the case of a tie, the bill or motion is considered defeated. Votes in the Senate occur when Senators themselves introduce bills or motions, when legislation passed by the House of Commons arrives at the Senate, or when the government (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) introduces a bill directly to the Senate for a vote.
As with the House of Commons, a bill must follow several steps before the Senate officially passes or rejects it. These include:
- Introduction: The process begins when a bill is introduced in the Senate.
- First Reading: The bill is “read” for the first time, without debate, and printed.
- Second Reading: The principle of the bill is debated. It is then voted on and the bill is sent to a Senate committee.
- Committee Stage: A committee hears witnesses, examines the bill clause by clause, and submits a report recommending the bill be accepted as is, or with amendments, or that it not proceed any further.
- Report Stage: Additional amendments to the bill may be moved, debated and voted on.
- Third Reading: The bill is debated a final time and voted on.
- Message: Once passed, the bill is either sent to the House of Commons for approval (in the cases of bills introduced first in the Senate), or sent to the Governor General for Royal Assent (in the case of bills that were previously approved by the House).
- Royal Assent: The Governor General, or a deputy, gives the bill Royal Assent, meaning that the legislation officially becomes law.
(Source for stages of the legislative process: “Parliament of Canada – Democracy in Action.” Parliament of Canada. 2005, 31 July 2006 <http://parl11.parl.gc.ca/Publications/Democracy-e.asp>)
Senior Officers in the Senate
The Senate has two senior officers: the Government House Leader and the Speaker of the Senate. The House Leader is appointed by the Prime Minister and sits in the Cabinet. His/her role is to speak, in the Cabinet, on behalf of members of the Senate, and to be the voice of the Cabinet in the Senate. His/her responsibilities also include steering government legislation through the Senate, and representing the Cabinet during the Senate Question Period, when Senators are given an opportunity to raise questions and concerns regarding the actions of Cabinet Ministers (the Prime Minister and Cabinet Minister themselves answer criticisms during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons).
The Speaker of the Senate enjoys a role that is similar to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and is vested with the responsibility of overseeing the day-to-day administration of the Senate, as well as business in the Chamber. This includes managing Senate debates and votes, enforcing Senate etiquette, and administering Senate employees and budgets. Like the Government House Leader in the Senate, the Prime Minister also appoints the Speaker of the Senate. In contrast, the Speaker of the House of Commons is elected by Members of Parliament.
As in the House of Commons, the Senate has many different committees to review government legislation, scrutinize government departments and agencies, and study broad societal issues. The largest Senate committee is the Committee of the Whole, which includes all Senators. This committee operates under slightly different rules than a regular sitting of the Senate, and is convened for special debates on government legislation, to hear testimony, or to review nominees to be Officers of Parliament.
The Senate also has several Standing Committees, which are responsible for specialized areas of public policy, such as government finances, Aboriginal Issues, fisheries and oceans, and foreign affairs. These standing committees will review government legislation, departments, and agencies that are within these specialized policy areas. In so doing, they may hold hearings, collect evidence, and question members of the government or the public service, and then report their findings to the Senate body.
The Senate will also form special committees to review particular issues or events of interest. These are known as Ad Hoc Committees and typically exist for limited periods of time. Finally, the Senate may also form Joint Committees with the House of Commons, some of which are standing committees (such as the Standing Joint Committee on the Scrutiny of Regulations), while others are special joint ad hoc committees to review a particular issue or event of interest to both legislative chambers.
For more information on Senate rules and procedures:
A Look at Senate Chambers Around the World
How does Canada’s Senate Compare with other Countries?
The United States of America Senate
The Legislative Branch in the US government consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate’s main features are as follows:
- Representation based on constituent units;
- Equal representation (each state has two Senators);
- Selection based on popular election (originally, US Senators were appointed);
- Fixed terms lasting six years, with one-third of the Senate elected every two years; and
- Virtually equal powers to the House of Representatives.
The switch from appointment by state legislature to direct election is a primary reason the US Senate remains powerful. Another interesting feature is that, in the United States, the Vice-President is also President of the Senate. The Senate President’s most important role is casting the deciding vote in the event of a tie.
For more information on the United States Senate:
The Australian Senate
In 1901, the Australian Commonwealth merged six former British colonies to form a federation. Australia took Canada’s experience into account when considering how to merge Parliamentary institutions with a federal system of government. The Australian Senate’s main features are as follows:
- Equal representation, whereby each state has 12 Senators, and the two mainland territories have two Senators each;
- Selection based on election by proportional representation;
- Fixed terms of six years, with one-half of the Senators re-elected every three years; and
- Powers nearly equal to the lower House of Representatives. The Senate can review, amend, or reject government legislation, including money bills. The Senate can also introduce legislation other than a money bill, but most bills are introduced in the Lower House.
On paper, the Canadian Senate’s powers are virtually equal to those found in the Australian model. The main differences, however, lie in the form of representation, the method of selecting Senators, and their length of tenure. These key differences give Australian Senators legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
The Australian Senate’s strong role relative to the House of Representatives is illustrated by a constitutional provision for breaking deadlock between the two chambers, a provision that involves the dissolution of Parliament and, subsequently, the conduct of a joint sitting involving both chambers. In contrast, in Canada the only mechanism for breaking deadlock between the House of Commons and the Senate is a rarely used constitutional provision allowing the Prime Minister to appoint extra Senators.
For more information on the Australian Senate:
The United Kingdom: House of Lords
Like Canada, Britain has two legislative bodies, a Lower Chamber (the House of Commons) and an Upper Chamber (the House of Lords), with the majority of power residing in the House of Commons.
Among the main features of the House of Lords:
- Representation based primarily on a combination of hereditary ties (“Hereditary Peers”) and government appointments (government appointees are known as “Life Peers”).
- It functions in both a legislative and judiciary capacity. The House of Lords consider legislation passed by the House of Commons, in addition to serving as final arbiters for certain civil and criminal cases.
- Legislative powers are limited to a 12-month ‘suspensive’ veto. After this time the House of Commons can resubmit the bill for Royal Assent. The suspensive veto does not extend to money bills.
- Other roles, including making inquiries into public issues.
For more information on the British House of Lords:
Sources & Links to Further InformationList of Article Sources & Links for more on the Senate
Sources Used for this Article
Book & Periodical Sources:
- Dyck, Rand. “Parliament.” Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches, Third Edition. Scarborough: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000. Pages 569-578.
- Jackson, Robert, and Jackson, Doreen. “Legislative Politics.” Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions, Behaviour and Public Policy, Sixth Edition. Toronto: Pearson Publication Canada Inc, 2006. Pages 334-341.
- “Parliament of Canada – Democracy in Action.” Parliament of Canada. 2005, 31 July 2006 <http://parl11.parl.gc.ca/Publications/Democracy-e.asp>
Links to Further Information
- Canada’s Parliamentary Government
- The Prime Minister & Cabinet
- The Monarchy in Canada
- The Governor General of Canada
Canadian Government Links:
- The Senate of Canada
- Parliament of Canada: Senators and Members
- Parliament of Canada
- Department of Justice: Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982
International Government/Senate Links:
- The United States Senate
- The Senate of Australia
- The United Kingdom House of Lords
- The Italian Senate of the Republic (in English)