A Brief History of the Senate

Published on March 20, 2012

1867: The Dominion of Canada is created; the Senate and House of Commons come into existence. 

1874: Buyer’s remorse — MP David Mills says the Constitution should be reformed “to confer upon each province the power of selecting its own senators.”

1906: Shortening senators’ terms to the life of three Parliaments is debated in the House of Commons.

1915: The Western provinces are given a block of 24 senators, or six each. 

1920s: The Progressive Party of Canada (later the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and then the New Democratic Party) propose abolishing the Senate. It remains an official NDP position to this day.

1927: Various reform proposals are discussed at the Dominion-Provincial Conference, kicking off a long line of Senate reform proposals that lead nowhere.

1936: In a rare flexing of muscle, the Senate blocks constitutional reform that would have granted provinces more taxing power.

1949: Newfoundland joins Confederation and is given six senators.

1956: In the middle of a nearly five-decade span in which the Liberal party holds a Senate majority, the upper house becomes as unbalanced as it’s ever been. With only five Conservatives and 76 Liberals, Louis St. Laurent, the Liberal prime minister at the time, appoints a Conservative senator out of pity. 

1965: The senate undergoes its one major act of reform. Parliament votes to amend the Constitution and force senators to retire at age 75, instead of holding their positions for life. 

1972: The Special Joint Committee on the Constitution recommends boosting the number of Western senators and letting the provinces pick half of the upper house. 

1979: The Pepin-Robarts Task Force on Canadian Unity recommends a new Council of the Federation. Despite the bold naming choice, the proposal goes nowhere. 

1981: A Canada West Foundation report coins the term Triple E Senate — elected, equal and effective — and greatly kicks up public interest in Senate reform. A year later, the Alberta government officially gets onboard. 

1982: With the House of Commons perhaps still bitter about what happened in 1936, the Constitution Act of 1982 robs the Senate of its ability to block constitutional reform. The Senate does still get a 180-day “suspensive veto.”

1984-1985: Despite reports from one joint committee, one select special committee and one royal commission, a wily Senate remains unreformed.

1987: The Meech Lake Accord is negotiated. Senate reform at last!

1988: The Reform party drafts a constitutional amendment where each province gets 10 senators, who serve six-year terms. 

1990: The Meech Lake Accord collapses. Among the flaming wreckage lie plans to reform the Senate by 1995.

2006: Noted Senate reform aficionado Stephen Harper is elected prime minister and begins launching a series of doomed reform bills.

2011: Harper wins a majority government, introduces Bill C-7, the Senate reform legislation currently working its way through the legislature. 

Sources: The Encyclopedia Canadiana, 1978; Reform of the Senate: A Discussion Paper, Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan, 1983; The Canadian Senate in Focus 1867-2001, the Senate Committee and Private Legislation Directorate, 2001; Senate Reform In Canada, Jean-Rodrigue Pare, 2009.