Can the Senate? Don’t hold your breath

Patrick Butler
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Tinkering with the Constitution is a process fraught with political obstacles. As a rule, the amending procedure is notoriously impossible. Even when trying to affect widely supported reform, a desired outcome is anything but certain.

Over time, Canadians have developed a reflexive antipathy for matters of constitutional change. One needn’t look too hard to notice the aversion from constitutional amendment in Canadian politics. For those still suppressing memories of the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, attempting to amend the Constitution seems nothing more than another futile exercise in sadism.

But with ever-ominous Senate anxieties dangling above the federal government’s head, and mounting political pressure for changes to the Senate’s long-overlooked institutional stagnancy, yet another Constitutional battle royal is looming on the horizon.

And with a reference question before the Supreme Court of Canada into the constitutional process of abolishing the Senate, the government looks increasingly poised to dive into the ever-toxic sludge that is constitutional reform.

“Here we go again,” the Canadian psyche groans.

The government’s reference question could be decided in three ways. First, the court could agree with the federal government’s contention that it can act unilaterally to abolish the Senate without permission from any of the premiers. This outcome is widely considered to be about as likely as it would be popular with provincial governments.

Second, it could side with Saskatchewan and Alberta, both of which support the 7/50 formula for Senate abolition — a threshold of seven consenting provinces containing 50 per cent of the country’s population.

Third, it could side with the remaining provinces, all of which agree that in order to abolish the Senate, unanimous consent by the premiers would be required. The territories, without voting powers under the amendment processes outlined in the Constitution, also support this more difficult requirement for Senate abolition.

For red chamber abolitionists, this may be the make-or-break moment in the enduring struggle for unicameralism at the federal level. That is to say, before Canadians start sharpening their pitchforks for a quick and painless purging of the Senate, it may be time for pause. Abolition might not be as simple as hoped, if even possible in the first place.

Taking into account the unlikelihood of the Supreme Court deciding in favour of unilateral constitutional amendment by the federal government, Senate abolition could hinge on either the unanimous consent of every premier or the consent of all but three provincial governments. Unfortunately for Senate abolitionists, neither formula bodes well for their cause.

In the case of the 7/50 formula, the chances of any of the four Atlantic provinces giving its consent seems unlikely considering their proportional over-representation in the Senate. At present, the unequal distribution of Senate seats is jarringly slanted in the East Coast’s favour.

Consider this: Prince Edward Island, a province of fewer than 150,000 people, is allocated four Senate seats, while British Columbia, a province of over 4.4 million, is only allocated six. The other Atlantic provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — are all in similar situations of favourable disproportion. Seen through a purely provincial lens, why would those provinces give up such a regionally advantageous system of federal representation?

Things look especially bad for Senate abolitionists should the Supreme Court deem unanimity between the provinces necessary to get rid of the Upper Chamber. On this front there is established precedent, after all. There has never been consensus between the provinces on any constitutional amendment. Nor will there probably ever be.

In effect, no matter what the Supreme Court comes to decide, and no matter how much consent is needed for Senate abolition, the point may already be moot.

Sorry, abolitionists. Don’t hold your breath on this one.

With the provinces looking out for their own interests, attempting to get rid of the Senate might just be a waste of time.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is enrolled in the journalism

program at Carleton University.

He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Supreme Court of Canada, Upper Chamber, Carleton University

Geographic location: Meech Lake, Charlottetown, Saskatchewan Alberta East Coast Prince Edward Island British Columbia Newfoundland and Labrador Nova Scotia New Brunswick

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Recent comments

  • Ken Collis
    November 18, 2013 - 06:21

    There is one method of abolishing or reforming the Senate that needs mention, and one that I'm sure the Supreme Court will consider, and that is a referendum. If a simple, straight forward question is added to the ballot of the next federal and most Canadians vote to abolish or reform, those would be the two choices, that would most definately re-write the constitution. Traditionally the Premiers speak on our behalf but there is nothing specifically in the constitution that we can't speak for ourselves. Personally, I think this would be the way to go. Mr. Harper, you're free to use this idea if you wish!!!