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Trudeau urges Senate to adapt to independence

Retired judge Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada’s Indian residential schools, is one of seven new Senate appointees.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

After filling seven vacancies in the Senate, the Trudeau government is urging the unelected body to adapt to changing realities, such as having a growing number of independent senators and a new government representative who doesn't lead a caucus.

Peter Harder, the Liberal government's new representative in the Senate, said he will consult with the leaders of the Conservative and the independent Senate Liberal caucuses to find better ways to study and pass legislation in the Red Chamber.

"We have to find mechanisms that reflect the reality of a Senate with many more independent senators," Mr. Harder said.

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The former deputy minister acknowledged he does not have "a whip" to dictate votes in the Senate, but said he will work with his colleagues to understand their concerns and interests to get bills through the chamber.

Still, he made it clear he expects the Senate to improve legislation, but not block its passage.

"We have to respect the institution [of the Senate], and the institution does and needs to respect the House of Commons for its elected, representative nature," he said.

Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc reiterated his call for the Senate to amend its internal rules to deal with the government's attempts to bring additional independence to the chamber. Current issues include the inability of some independent senators to sit on committees, and a lack of funding for the office to be held by Mr. Harder.

"The Senate internal economy committee has an obligation to help the independent senators acquire adequate resources and support for their work as compared to others who may choose to sit with a caucus," Mr. LeBlanc said.

The Conservative Leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan, said he endorses the need for reform – while insisting the modernization of the Senate started under the previous Conservative government. He agrees more changes are needed given the new role taken up by Mr. Harder, and the influx of new senators who will want to sit on committees.

"We will sit down to see how we can reconvene the selection committee to ensure that the unaffiliated senators can exercise their functions," he said.

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In addition to Mr. Harder, the new appointees to the Senate are athlete Chantal Petitclerc, journalist André Pratte, former Ontario minister Frances Lankin, university leader Raymonde Gagné, migration expert Ratna Omidvar and retired judge Murray Sinclair.

Mr. Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into the treatment of children at Canada's Indian residential schools, said he accepted the Senate appointment to continue the job of educating the public about indigenous issues.

"The priority for me is going to be doing what I can, from that position, to influence the direction of change when it comes to the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people – and aboriginal people and the government and institutions of society – because that's a source of great harm at this point in time," Mr. Sinclair said.

He said he expects he will face some pressure to align with one of the political caucuses in the Senate after he arrives in Ottawa. He pointed out, however, that as head of the TRC, he was required to ensure that the commission remained strictly non-partisan in order to build consensus among all of the political players.

"I think I have the ability to resist," he said with a laugh.

Mr. Sinclair praised the fact that the new senators were nominated by an independent advisory board of prominent Canadians, and not chosen solely by the Prime Minister.

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"When you look at the impact that the Senate's had in the past through its committee structures and committee hearings, it's had some tremendous influence over Canadian policy in the past, and I think that's been the major driving force in my decision to accept the appointment," he said.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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