B.C. residents care little, know little about the Senate


Three-quarters can’t name a B.C. senator, most wants chamber’s abolition

The last 13 months have provided plenty of opportunities for Canadians to express their dissatisfaction with the Senate. Yet, for all the discussions about entitlement and misappropriations, there has been little research to figure out if the public knows, and cares, about the upper chamber.

Insights West sought to fill that void this month in British Columbia, and the results show a population that has little connection with the Senate.

Only 17 per cent of B.C. residents can pinpoint how many seats (six) the province has in the Senate.

When asked to write the name of a senator, 71 per cent of respondents ticked the “Don’t know” box, and a further four per cent made incorrect guesses. Only 25 per cent of British Columbians could correctly name of at least one of the following five individuals: Larry Campbell, Nancy Greene Raine, Mobina Jaffer, Yonah Martin and Richard Neufeld.

At its core, the Senate problem is remarkably ordinary: Canadians have no say in its composition, and, therefore, little empathy with its members. While it would not be difficult for Canadians to name their member of Parliament — it was one of the questions I responded to in my 2007 citizenship test — most have trouble identifying their province’s senators, unless they are in the news for the wrong reasons (and that has not happened with B.C.’s senators).

Even in a country as politically polarized as the United States, the relationship between constituent and politician is better because of elections. Research I did in 2012 showed that while fewer than one-in-six Americans held a positive opinion of Congress, most approved of the way their own representative was handling his or her duties.

The message from Americans is clear: my representative, who holds a picnic each summer, who communicates with me on a regular basis and who seeks my vote every two years, is doing well. The legislature is not working because of the 434 other people he or she has to sit with in Washington.

Canadian senators do not get this “benefit of the doubt” because they have never knocked on our doors.

So, faced with an upper chamber that is both ignored and disrespected, what do British Columbians want?

In our survey, more than two-thirds support either its abolition or a real election. Just two per cent would leave the Senate as is, with the Prime Minister in charge of appointments.

Earlier this month, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to remove the partisan label from appointed senators spawned many comments. However, it is the way in which a Trudeau Senate would work that is being met with yawns in our province. Only 15 per cent of British Columbians think Trudeau’s plan — a committee to choose non-partisan senators — is the best option.

A “panel of notable Canadians” may sound attractive for those who have, understandably, grown tired of promises of Senate reform. Still, Senate appointments should not be turned into something akin to a list of top leaders or influential people — processes that, while adequate for media impact, are often riddled with nepotism and narcissism.

Abolition would certainly bring legal and procedural challenges, and the current federal government has taken a long time to develop a process that would allow Canadians to elect their senators.

But that does not stop British Columbians from demanding action. Even an Alberta-style non-binding Senate election is enticing to a population that would like to have a say in filling the one vacancy the province currently has in the upper chamber.

Political leaders are supposed to “dream big,” especially if they are auditioning for the top job in the country. Trudeau’s proposal to take the prime minister — whoever he is — out of the job of choosing senators and replace him with a committee whose configuration is a mystery seems unwise. An upper house that is deeply distrusted and whose members are little known will not be more democratic if a larger number of influencers, impressive as they may be, become the “electors” that many Canadians still aspire to be.



Photograph: Scazon