Argument for elected senators representing Albertans in Ottawa

As Alberta’s three remaining senators-elect, we want to state publicly our belief that the Alberta government should hold a new Senate election with the province-wide municipal elections this fall. We say this solely in the interest of the province, and not for or against any provincial political party.

The government’s exercise of its legal option to extend our elected status by up to three years is not helpful to the cause of Senate reform in our view.

It is likely that one and perhaps two Alberta Senate vacancies will occur before there is a further province-wide opportunity for a Senate election.

However, in the event the government does not hold an election this fall, it would be wrong for us to leave Alberta in a position where a prime minister (be it Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff) has no option but to appoint personal or party favourites to represent our province. We will therefore accept the government’s extension of our elected status until Albertans have been given a new chance to choose Senate nominees.

To illustrate why Albertans must not be represented by unelected senators, consider the recent Senate activities of Claudette Tardif.

She was picked to represent Alberta until the year 2022 by then-prime minister Paul Martin in 2005, five months after Albertans had cast 2.2 million votes to fill three vacant Senate seats. Neither Tardif nor Martin’s other two appointees ran for election.

On April 13th, 2010, Tardif introduced in the Senate Bill C-232, which if passed will require all future members of the Supreme Court of Canada to be fluently bilingual, not just in conversation but in complex and subtle points of law. The purported aim is to render translation unnecessary for judges in Canada’s highest court.

The many reasons why this private member’s bill is bad for the Supreme Court, bad for Canadian law, bad for national unity, and bad for unilingual regions, have already been aired in Parliament and in the media. Suffice it to say here that very few lawyers in Canada – and close to none in Alberta – qualify to hear a superior court legal argument in French without the aid of translation. This bill effectively kills the chance of most legally-qualified western Canadian lawyers and judges to sit on our highest court.

Neither of our two western Supreme Court incumbents, Beverley McLachlin and Marshall Rothstein, would qualify for the court under this statute.

Unfortunately, because bilingualism is so sacrosanct in Ottawa, Bill C-232 cleared the House of Commons by three votes on March 30th, with the combined support of the Bloc Quebecois, Liberals and NDP.

To add symbolic insult to material injury, C-232 was then put before the Senate by Claudette Tardif, an Alberta senator.

Instead of boosting official languages, Alberta’s six-person Senate delegation should be asking some searching questions. Is bilingualism actually working? Apparently not. According to Statistics Canada, “knowledge of [both] English and French” is a declining phenomenon, not a growing one. How much do official languages actually cost – not just for governments, how high is the immense cost of translation and compliance in the private sector? Ottawa doesn’t ask because Ottawa doesn’t want to know. Instead we blindly persist in the wishful thinking of half a century ago.

This is why we need provincially-elected senators in Parliament: to address questions the national government can’t or won’t. This is the “sober second thought” the 21st century demands.

It is time for parliamentarians to ask uncomfortable questions about productivity in the transfer-dependent regions of Canada, about our lack of success with official languages, about EI, multiculturalism, national marketing boards, and the economic value of subsidized industries.

These questions can’t be answered in the House of Commons because they can’t even be asked in the House of Commons. No national party can afford to lose the seats such candour would cost.

Nor can they be resolved in provincial legislatures, because there is nothing provinces can do about them. These are national issues under the authority of Parliament, best handled by the Senate.

In fact there is only one place where it would be politically possible to raise them and constitutionally possible to resolve them, and that is in a provincially-elected Senate such as Prime Minister Harper’s government is proposing. Not a Senate that is merely appointed, and which therefore dares not exercise the immense power it possesses under the constitution – powers equal to those of the House of Commons. And not a Senate filled with national party cheerleaders beholden to the same leaders who run the Commons.

No, to exert power the Senate must be elected, and to represent the diversity of Canada the elections must be provincial – provincial parties, federal issues.

This is what Canada needs, this is what the Prime Minister has asked provinces to provide, and this is what all Albertans should support.

Alberta Senators-Elect:

Betty Unger

Cliff Breitkreuz

Link Byfield

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