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Frequently Asked Questions

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General Questions

  • Women in the Senate: The “Persons” case
    Five Canadian women took on the Supreme Court of Canada and won a place for their own in Canada’s Senate. In 1928, the Court had ruled that women were not eligible to become senators because they were not "persons" within the meaning of the sections of the British North America Act governing Senate appointments. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby persuaded the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (U.K.), then Canada’s highest court, to overturn the decision, which it did in 1929. Canada’s first woman senator was Cairine Wilson (Ontario), appointed in 1930. In 1972, Muriel McQueen Fergusson (New Brunswick) was named Speaker of the Senate and became the Parliament of Canada’s first woman Speaker. Later, in 1993, Joyce Fairbairn (Alberta) was named the first woman Leader of the Government in the Senate.
  • How do you become a senator?
    The Governor General appoints senators on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. To become a senator, you must:
    • be a Canadian citizen;
    • be at least 30 years of age;
    • own $4,000 of equity in land in your province;
    • have a personal net worth of $4,000; and
    • live in the province that you will represent as a senator.
    Today $4,000 may not seem like much money, but in 1867 it represented a considerable sum. Best estimates are that its present-day value would exceed $60,000 in 1995 dollars. A net-worth requirement seems out of line with 20th century democratic values, which may explain why Parliament has never adjusted this amount. The net-worth requirements in the Constitution ceased long ago to be a practical block to a Senate call for ordinary Canadians. No doubt this is why Parliament has never repealed these provisions.
  • Why is the Senate called the Red Chamber?
    In the Senate Chamber, at the east end of the Centre Block, Senators review bills passed in the House of Commons and introduce their own legislation. Red carpeting and upholstery and a ceiling of gold leaf create an air of regal splendour in the Senate. Two bronze chandeliers weighing approximately two tonnes each are suspended from the ceiling. The Chamber’s upper walls are lined with murals depicting stirring scenes from the First World War and, below them, a frieze showing Canada’s flora and fauna is carved in the panelling of Canadian white oak.  
  • What is the Senate?
    Examining and revising legislation, investigating national issues and representing regional, provincial and minority interests – these are important functions in a modern democracy. They are also the duties of Canada’s Senate. Senators represent; investigate; deliberate; and legislate. At the Quebec Conference of 1864, the Canadian founders of Confederation worked out a blueprint for the Constitution of the new country. The founders were convinced that Canada’s Parliament would need two houses to make sure that legislation received careful consideration. They gave the Senatelegislative powers similar to those of the House of Commons, but anticipated a very different role for it. The Senate was to be, in the words of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, a place of "sober second thought". The founders spelled out the constitution and responsibilities of Parliament, and of the Senate within Parliament, in the law they called the British North America Act. We now call that law the Constitution Act, 1867. Today, Canada’s Senate consists of 105 senators from a wide variety of backgrounds and from every province and territory. Its membership is about one-third the size of that of the House of Commons, and it operates at about one-fifth of the cost. Senators consult in their home provinces and throughout Canada and then gather in Ottawa in order to make their contribution to Canada’s governance.
  • What is Question Period?
    Question Period in the Senate lasts for half an hour. During this time any Senator may rise and direct a question to either the Leader of the Government in the Senate or a Chair of a Standing Senate Committee. Senators may also rise and ask supplementary questions on a question asked. There is no limit to the number of supplementary questions on a particular topic – which means that if there is large interest in a particular issue many Senators may become involved in the debate. While there is no set start time for Question Period – it depends how many items need to be completed first – it usually begins about 30 minutes into a Senate sitting. While most questions are asked and answered directly on the floor of the Senate Chamber, sometimes Senators decide to put some complex or technical questions in writing rather than asking them orally in Question Period. Once the question is asked, the Leader of the Government in the Senate may: answer the question, undertake to provide an answer later, explain why he cannot furnish an answer at that time – or, in rare circumstances, choose to say nothing. The Senate sits at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you would like to listen live to the Chamber you can do so here: Senate ParlVu.

How the Senate works

  • What happens in Senate committees?
    Senate committees are study groups of about 12 to 15 senators. They have three basic tasks: to approve or amend legislation; to investigate policy matters and make recommendations, and to examine the Government’s spending proposals, called the Estimates. Committees are at the core of work in the Senate. They study specific bills and investigate issues referred by the Senate. Each permanent or standing committee has its own area of expertise, such as: foreign affairs; banking, trade and commerce; legal and constitutional affairs; aboriginal peoples; transport and communications; and social affairs, science and technology. It may be a commentary on our times that the Senate’s busiest committee handles legal and constitutional affairs. Committees hold hearings to gather all the facts relating to legislative change. They arrange for ministers, government officials, experts, organisations and individual citizens to appear and answer questions. They call for papers and records to be produced. The Senate may authorise committees to hold their hearings in any location in Canada. At the end of its study, a committee submits its amendments to the Senate for consideration, or recommends that a bill be passed without change. When doing investigative work, Senate committees are very much like royal commissions, except in two respects: Senate committees complete the work in less time, and they are less expensive.
  • What happens in the Senate Chamber?
    Senate rules allow it to sit from Monday to Friday, and meet as often as necessary to take care of business. The full Senate usually sits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Mondays and Fridays are office and travel days, except in the busier periods. Travel days allow senators to live in their home provinces among the people they represent. In the Senate chamber, time is devoted each day to matters such as presenting petitions, tabling documents, discussing committee reports and passing laws. There is also a Question Period when senators ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate about Government actions and policies. Debates in the Senate, where members need not run for their seats, differ from those in other legislatures in important ways. They are sometimes less partisan, and focus more closely on the issues. But when the matter at hand is contentious, debates in the Senate often match the heat of Commons’ debates. The Senate chamber is a place where national issues, regional concerns and protests can receive quick attention. With two days’ notice, senators can launch debates on subjects important to the public. If there is enough support, senators can establish a committee to explore the matter further in meetings that can enjoy high visibility.
  • What is Question Period?
    Question Period in the Senate lasts for half an hour. During this time any Senator may rise and direct a question to either the Leader of the Government in the Senate or a Chair of a Standing Senate Committee. Senators may also rise and ask supplementary questions on a question asked. There is no limit to the number of supplementary questions on a particular topic – which means that if there is large interest in a particular issue many Senators may become involved in the debate. While there is no set start time for Question Period – it depends how many items need to be completed first – it usually begins about 30 minutes into a Senate sitting. While most questions are asked and answered directly on the floor of the Senate Chamber, sometimes Senators decide to put some complex or technical questions in writing rather than asking them orally in Question Period. Once the question is asked, the Leader of the Government in the Senate may: answer the question, undertake to provide an answer later, explain why he cannot furnish an answer at that time – or, in rare circumstances, choose to say nothing. The Senate sits at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you would like to listen live to the Chamber you can do so here: Senate ParlVu.

The Senators

  • Women in the Senate: The “Persons” case
    Five Canadian women took on the Supreme Court of Canada and won a place for their own in Canada’s Senate. In 1928, the Court had ruled that women were not eligible to become senators because they were not "persons" within the meaning of the sections of the British North America Act governing Senate appointments. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby persuaded the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (U.K.), then Canada’s highest court, to overturn the decision, which it did in 1929. Canada’s first woman senator was Cairine Wilson (Ontario), appointed in 1930. In 1972, Muriel McQueen Fergusson (New Brunswick) was named Speaker of the Senate and became the Parliament of Canada’s first woman Speaker. Later, in 1993, Joyce Fairbairn (Alberta) was named the first woman Leader of the Government in the Senate.
  • How do you become a senator?
    The Governor General appoints senators on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. To become a senator, you must:
    • be a Canadian citizen;
    • be at least 30 years of age;
    • own $4,000 of equity in land in your province;
    • have a personal net worth of $4,000; and
    • live in the province that you will represent as a senator.
    Today $4,000 may not seem like much money, but in 1867 it represented a considerable sum. Best estimates are that its present-day value would exceed $60,000 in 1995 dollars. A net-worth requirement seems out of line with 20th century democratic values, which may explain why Parliament has never adjusted this amount. The net-worth requirements in the Constitution ceased long ago to be a practical block to a Senate call for ordinary Canadians. No doubt this is why Parliament has never repealed these provisions.
  • Who are Senators and what do they do?
    Canada’s Senate is made up of men and women with a wide range of career experience. Scan the ranks of the Senate and you will find business people, lawyers, teachers, surgeons, aboriginal leaders and journalists. Other senators have experience in fields such as agriculture, the environment, manufacturing, the oil and gas and fishing industries, unions, economics, police and military work, and, of course, federal, provincial and municipal politics. With this expertise, senators can get to the heart of complex bills and committee investigations. They understand the issues, focus on the key points and can respond to the needs of the people and organisations affected. Former cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, provincial premiers and party leaders bring an understanding of law-making and the business of government to the Senate. For example: in 1983 a special committee of the Senate examined a bill to create a Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The Chair’s previous experience as Clerk of the Privy Council had given him expertise in security matters. The committee recommended so many changes that the House of Commons withdrew the bill and rewrote it. The House of Commons and the Senate then passed the new bill which incorporated the improvements initiated by Senators. Increasingly, the Senate reflects our multicultural society. Senators come from many different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Canada’s aboriginal First Nations and Black communities are represented in the Senate, as are Canadians of Arab, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Ukrainian and other origins. The founders of Confederation wanted senators to have extensive experience before reaching the Senate and so restricted membership to persons 30 years of age or more. In order to let them gain parliamentary experience, senators were given lifetime appointments. In 1965, Parliament introduced retirement at age 75, based upon the model for judges. In 1997, the average age in the Senate was 64, compared to about 52 in the Commons. A complete changeover in Senate membership takes place about every 17 years. This continuity creates a kind of long-term institutional memory. Senators can track issues over time, form lasting working relationships and develop a thorough understanding of Parliament.