Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan is calling on the Red Chamber to examine a rule that says senators must be a resident of the provinces they were appointed to represent, raising the possibility that some members could be declared ineligible for their seats.
The Constitution states that senators "shall be resident" in the province or Quebec electoral division they are expected to represent, but does not define what it means to be a resident. The issue is an underlying concern in the Senate expense scandal that saw three senators ordered to repay tens of thousands of dollars in housing expenses after independent audits determined they did not primarily live outside the Ottawa area as they claimed.
Mr. Cowan announced on Wednesday that he is asking the Senate to create a special committee to look at the definition of "residence" in the Constitution and report back to the Red Chamber by the end of October 2013. A notice of his motion was published on the Senate website on Wednesday, and his office expects that it will be debated later this week or at the beginning of next week.
Questions have been raised in recent months about whether Senator Mike Duffy meets the constitutional requirement of residency for Prince Edward Island, the province he was appointed to represent. Mr. Duffy has a cottage in Cavendish, PEI, but spends most of his time in the Ottawa area, where he lived and worked as a journalist for decades.
The Senate committee examining Senator Pamela Wallin's travel expenses has said that it is not considering her residency in Saskatchewan.
Adam Dodek, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said the Constitution is clear that Senators need to be resident in their home provinces.
"There's a big difference between 'shall' and 'may.' I think the general interpretation would be that when the Constitution uses the word 'shall,' that those are mandatory requirements," said Prof. Dodek, who recently published a book on the Canadian Constitution.
But he added that it is up to the Senate to define exactly what is meant by the term "resident" and what they must do to meet the requirement. And addressing the issue head-on could have significant repercussions for some members of the Red Chamber, he said.
"The impact could be significant," Prof. Dodek said. "There are a number of senators who are obviously in the news – Senator Wallin and Senator Duffy – for their tangential connections to the provinces from which they were appointed. But I would suspect that they are not the only two."
Mr. Cowan wants the committee to be made up of nine members, nominated by the Senate's selection committee, and for members to have the power to call witnesses and examine Senate and senators' records.
His motion will require support from the majority Conservatives in order to pass. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, said on Wednesday that she believes residency rules should be discussed but does not see the need to establish a new committee.